In any normal world, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s political career should be dead and buried.
After prolonged speculation, Ford this month admitted to smoking crack, but only because he was “very, very inebriated.” The Toronto City Council moved Monday to strip him of most of his powers. During the contentious debate, he bowled over a grandmother and gave her a fat lip. Almost all of his staff has quit. In a Today Show interview on Tuesday he blamed his erratic behavior on “a weight issue,” and promised to lose weight. The Today Show hosts said the interview left them “speechless.” After one episode, his Canadian television show was canceled. And it emerged Wednesday that the trainer he’d been working with on a health “game plan” had been convicted in the U.S. for steroid trafficking and is banned from coaching in Canada.
And yet, despite calls from virtually every Canadian politician to resign, Ford is refusing to step down and insists he will run for reelection next October. Even crazier? Canadian political science experts say Ford could be a front-runner in that election, if he played his cards right. “He could conceivably win an election next October,” says Nelson Wiseman, associate professor of Canadian politics at the University of Toronto. “His best chances for re-election, barring his being charged by police, is to take a leave of absence, lie low for three to four months, and then come back claiming he is a rehabilitated former drug addict and drunk. People like come-back stories.”
Ford is, after all, one of the most successful retail politicians in North America. By most estimates he’s answered more than 300,000 calls personally in his decade on the City Council. “He’s got a personal relationship with thousands and thousands of people,” says Mark Towhey, who was Ford’s chief of staff until June when the crack allegations first surfaced. “People find it too easy to underestimate that. You can’t go around the city without bumping into someone he’s spoken with on the phone every 150 yards. He’s the only one who’s ever cared, or tried, or made the effort.” Which is partly way Ford’s approval rating isn’t as bad as you might think. An Ipsos poll last week found 40% of Torontonians approved of Ford.
Ford, whom his brother called “Canada’s Sarah Palin” during the last mayoral campaign, also has achieved much of his conservative agenda. He semi-privatized the garbage collectors and barred transit workers from striking. He used the city’s surpluses to pay down debt. He slashed benefits to city employees and says he’s saved Toronto $1 billion since taking office, a claim many councilors dispute.
Ford also benefits from Toronto’s arcane and complex municipal election system. Parties aren’t allowed and there is often a plethora of candidates who splinter the left and right voting blocks. Name recognition alone could help Ford to reelection.
To be sure, Ford would need to enter rehab and make some effort at self-awareness, neither of which are looking particularly likely at the moment. Ford swears he doesn’t have a drinking or drug problem and doesn’t need rehab. He’d also have to avoid further drunkenness, crazy outbursts and drama. Even if he were to get elected, he’d have to mend fences with the rest of the City Council. Unlike U.S. cities, the mayor is really just a super councilor and needs the council’s support to do much of anything. “I can’t contemplate any scenario in which Rob Ford can pass anything meaningful through council ever again,” says former Ford staffer Fraser McDonald. “He has to decide what is more important: Rob Ford being the Mayor, or the ideas he and his supporters care about being moved forward.”
Which means, if reelected, Ford would have the spotlight but not the power, and by his own admission the spotlight hasn’t been the part of the job at which he’s excelled.