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Rob Ford could win again

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

It is absurd.

Nearly four years ago, a suburban councillor by the name of Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto. City politics had never seen a candidate quite like him. He presented himself as a right-wing populist, the leader of something he called "Ford Nation." He preached less government and lower taxes. He pledged to stop the "gravy train" at City Hall and to build subways to the suburbs. That was about it. Facing a weak field, he won the chain of office.

The intervening four years have been a disaster. Far from being a charismatic defender of the downtrodden, Ford proved to be a loathsome individual. There were drugs, booze, outrageous public behaviour, self-serving lies, criminal associates, obscene comments about women, including female colleagues on City Council, plus various conflicts of interest -- the list goes on. He was a disgrace. He made Toronto a joke on the comedy circuit at home and in the United States.

Yet by some strange alchemy this unspeakable person stands a very good chance of being reelected mayor in October. Who would have thought it possible?

Last week a Forum Research poll put Ford in second place, closing in on the current leader, John Tory, and pulling away from the third candidate (and early favourite), Olivia Chow. In a sample of 1,945 Torontonians, Tory had 34 per cent, Ford 31 and Chow 23.

True, it was an automated phone survey -- in other words, a "robopoll" -- but it may not be a rogue poll. Its results are roughly consistent with the unpublished findings of the candidates' internal surveys. The Chow campaign is stalled. Tory is flagging. Only Ford has momentum.

How did this happen? It has been an impossibly long campaign -- eight months so far with almost two to go before Oct. 27. Chow was the early leader, the most outspoken critic of the mayor and, as a left-wing populist, she tapped into some of the same anti-establishment sentiment as Ford, while offering a very different set of progressive policies.

Ford is a Conservative, Chow a New Democrat (and former MP). The choice between left and right, between downtown (Chow) and suburbs (Ford) seemed clear.

Enter John Tory. He's a conventional Conservative, a former provincial leader who led his party to defeat in the 2007 Ontario election. For municipal voters who wanted someone conservative without getting Rob Ford, Tory was their man. Where Ford is a populist, Tory is pure establishment. Where Ford is outrageous, Tory is bland to the point of boring. He seems to be running because he wants to be elected to something, not because he has a grand design for Toronto.

At the end of the spring, Chow had the lead by five or six percentage points. She seemed to represent the face of the new Toronto -- young, ethnic and open to change and challenge. As Tory slipped into second place, he became the face of the old Toronto -- greying, WASP and risk-adverse. And it looked as though Ford was out of the running.

At the start of May, Ford entered rehab for his alcohol and drug issues. When he emerged two months later, the race changed. Former Ford supporters, who, weary of the City Hall soap opera, had moved to Chow and Tory, now moved back. Chow's lead became a deficit. Tory could not get any traction.

Polling indicates that women voters, in particular, were disposed to give Rob Ford a second chance. He had admitted his sins and rehabilitated himself (or so he claimed). Who would refuse to forgive a repentant sinner?

I think this forgiveness accounts for some of his campaign revival. Sheer name recognition contributes the rest. In municipal politics where there are no parties or leaders to guide voters' decision-making, name recognition can be everything. Rob Ford may be a dreadful mayor, but he is a genuine celebrity, mobbed wherever he goes. When you are a big enough star, a little notoriety simply adds spice.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens[at]sympatico.ca.

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