Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: a political odyssey turns stranger

The embattled mayor of Canada's largest city admitted that he had in fact smoked crack cocaine. It's the latest twist in Mayor Ford's dizzying political career, which is captivating much of Canada.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is pictured during his weekly radio show at News Talk 1010 in Toronto November 3, 2013. Ford admitted on Tuesday that he has smoked crack cocaine, said he has made mistakes, is not an addict.

The strange political odyssey of Rob Ford turned stranger today, after the embattled mayor of Canada’s largest city admitted to smoking crack cocaine following weeks of evasive and belligerent denials.

Mr. Ford’s travails have riveted not only residents of Toronto, but Canadians nationwide, who have either applauded or winced at his colorful personality, abrasive speeches, and conservative policies since before he rose to the Toronto mayoralty in 2010.

The issue of Ford’s alleged drug use, and his denials, have prompted all four of Toronto’s major daily newspapers to call for his resignation.

On Tuesday, Ford told reporters at City Hall that he had smoked crack “in one of my drunken stupors.”

“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” Ford said in broadcast comments. “But, no — do I? Am I an addict, no? Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”

“No, I’m not an addict and no, I do not do drugs. I made mistakes in the past and all I can do is apologize, but it is what it is and I can’t change the past,” he said

Even before being elected mayor, Ford attracted criticism and controversy. As a city councilor from a relatively poor, mixed-demographic district of the city, Ford had railed against high taxes and government spending, including the city council’s own budget. He said AIDS prevention shouldn’t be a concern of the government, bike lanes were a waste of money, and Asian migrants were “taking over” because they were “hard workers.” Those comments prompted a sit-in protest of City Hall from migrant advocates.

Wielding campaign slogans like “stop the gravy train” and “respect the taxpayer,” Ford stunned many in Toronto’s political class in 2010, winning what Maclean’s magazine called a “most improbable mayoral victory.”

“Torontonians were simply fed up with the notion that politicians were playing fast and loose with their money, their wages, their labour. Make no mistake; this was the voice of the proletariat, the working class exercising their franchise with vigour and passion,” wrote one columnist in the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper.

In May of this year, the Star and another media outlet reported a video had surfaced that purported to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. In October, a close friend and sometimes driver of Ford’s, Alexander Lisi, went on trial for charges of extortion, allegedly related to his efforts to suppress the video. Last week, the city’s police chief said police had obtained a copy of the video, but refused to release it publicly.

On a radio show Sunday, Ford apologized for what he said were mistakes he had made in the past, but rebuffed calls to resign. He also vowed to run for reelection in October 2014.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor and expert on Canadian politics at the University of Toronto, says Ford’s image echoed that of other politicians – like Bill Clinton or Marion Barry – who hold appeal despite having committed what are perceived as moral or legal transgressions.

“He’s an outsized figure because of his behavior, but people elected him, warts and all,” Mr. Wiseman says. “A lot of people who voted for him don’t give a damn who he’s sleeping with and whether he’s doing drugs or who he’s cavorting with, what they care about is ‘keep my property taxes low’.”

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