Toronto Mayor Rob Ford answers questions about staff changes at at city… (Michelle Siu / Associated…)
NEW YORK -- When he walked into a recent meeting of property developers and angry residents of Canada’s largest city, Toronto City Council member Josh Matlow said, the two sides quickly put aside their quarrel over a disputed building project.
“All they wanted to talk about was what is happening with the mayor today,” Matlow said.
That would be Mayor Rob Ford, 44, who is fighting allegations that a cellphone video shows him smoking crack cocaine and muttering epithets against minorities and gays. Since the first reports of the video surfaced May 16, residents and officials say the city has talked about little else.
Ford rode to power in 2010 on his image as a rotund everyman, Canada’s answer to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Now he finds himself in political trouble because of the alleged video, which was first revealed by the website Gawker. Gawker and two Toronto Star reporters say they have seen the video, and that it shows an intoxicated Ford smoking a crack pipe. It has not been aired publicly.
Gawker says it is raising money to buy the video, allegedly made by people who said they had sold drugs to Ford, in a campaign it is calling “Crackstarter.”
Ford, who waited until Sunday to address the scandal, insists that the video doesn’t exist. He called the media “a bunch of maggots.” His brother, City Councilman Doug Ford, suggested that some Canadian reporters have “not just experimented, but indulged in cocaine.”
The mayor’s office is straining under the controversy. Rob Ford has fired his long-serving chief of staff. His press secretary, his policy advisor and his executive assistant have quit. City business has been overshadowed by speculation about hizzoner.
“It has overtaken every issue before the City Council, whether the flooding of a main road, which happened Wednesday, or funding for a new subway system or any other host of issues. All have been sidelined by this,” said Jonathan Rose, an expert on Canadian politics and a professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. “It has now gone into the realm of the surreal.”
Rose and others from Canada were interviewed by telephone.
Ford even was dismissed as a volunteer high school football coach. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters that the provincial government could get involved if the situation deteriorates further.
But the mayor has repeatedly said that he plans to run for a second term in 2014. Polls indicate that he maintains support of about 36% of voters.
His career has epitomized the rise of populist conservatives in Canada, inspired in part by the U.S. Republican Party. He campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes and to “end the gravy train” at City Hall.
Toronto City Councilman Adam Vaughan, a fierce critic, said Ford took advantage of a divided vote among centrist and left-leaning voters to win election. “He rode to power on a wave of suburban isolation and anger,” Vaughan said.
Clayton Ruby, an attorney who led an effort last year to remove Ford from office, acknowledges that if Ford faced a divided opposition again in 2014, he could be reelected.
Despite their image as rumpled ordinary guys, Ford and his brother are sons of a former Ontario provincial council member who ran a multimillion-dollar labeling company, which the family inherited upon his death.
“Even the way Ford talks, he reminds you of the guy you are going to meet at the coffee shop or bar,” said Matlow, the City Council member who described the Thursday meeting with developers. “They have both created folksy common man characters who fight the elite. In fact they are the elite.”
The image is wearing – even among some fellow conservatives.
John Parker, another member of the 45-person City Council, said that under Ford’s administration the city has balanced its budget and privatized garbage collection, but that credit for those accomplishments should go more to the whole council.
“Democracy can be hijacked by someone with a good slogan, who resonates with the population but isn’t really up to the job,” Parker said. “In this case, I think we are witnessing the self-destruction of that actor.”
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