How is it that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is able to remain popular while stories swirl about unsavoury characters in his inner circle?
It’s a question that Jaime Watt, the chairman of Navigator public relations, was asked Thursday on Metro Morning.
You can listen to the entire interview here.
Watt and his colleagues are often called in to help politicians who face a public relations crisis.
Last week Ford’s friend and occasional driver Alessandro "Sandro" Lisi was charged with marijuana trafficking. This week, it came to light that a Ford associate with a violent past coached Ford’s high-school football team.
These are just the latest stories about Ford to come in a year where two Toronto Star reporters claim to have viewed a video they say appears to show the mayor smoking crack cocaine.
Ford has said the video doesn’t exist and the police won’t confirm whether or not the mayor is under investigation.
All this would be a serious problem for most politicians but despite these stories, Ford’s popularity remains strong, particularly among his core supporters.
It’s a phenomenon Navigator's Watt admits he can’t fully explain.
“Normally you would see a politician paying a price for that but in the mayor’s case, he doesn’t,” said Watt. “The company he keeps doesn’t seem to be affecting him or mattering in terms of his public popularity and public support. It’s a really interesting phenomenon.
“You can imagine if Stephen Harper did the same thing, there would be all kinds of noise. People seem to treat Mayor Ford differently.”
Ford an 'authentic character' to his supporters
So what makes Ford different?
Watt said Ford was elected as an anti-establishment outsider, and remains an “authentic character” in the eyes of many voters despite stories about his questionable personal associations.
“A lot of people in Toronto are fed up with the elites and self-serving people at city hall,” Watt told Metro Morning host Matt Galloway. “Mayor Ford is the antidote to that. He’s the anti-insider, he’s the anti-elite. A lot of citizens say ‘I don’t approve of everything that he does but I’m glad he’s in there, shaking things up and getting rid of some of the coziness that we’ve seen before. If I have to pay a price of him hanging out with people that I may not choose, that’s OK.’”
Ford has complained that the news media is unfairly targeting him by digging into his personal life. But Watt insists this is fair game in politics.
“When you choose to go into public life, your private life becomes public,” said Watt. “That’s a choice you make. If you want to keep those two lives separate, then you stay the hell out of politics.”
Galloway also spoke to Coun. John Parker, a fiscal conservative but not a councillor within Ford’s inner circle of supporters.
Parker said Ford’s recent victory on the Scarborough subway extension shows that he remains a political force despite the negative stories.
“Rob Ford set that agenda and everybody else seems to be responding to it at the municipal level and Queen’s Park,” said Parker.
Parker did note there’s an “inconsistency” with Ford as both a law-and-order politician and as a mayor with a reputation for stocking his inner circle with questionable people.
“His gift is that he survives all of that and maintains a strong level of support from the people who have been with him from the start,” said Parker.