Rob Ford returns: But can he still win the mayoral race?

When the mayor of Toronto emerges today from his self-imposed time-out of more than two months, the world will see a slimmer, healthier, post-rehab Rob Ford. But is any of that enough to give him a realistic chance of winning a second term?

'People are willing to give second chances,' says the mayor's brother. Others say not this time

Rob Ford to get back to work

7 years ago
Toronto mayor's family says he's looking good and feeling fine after 2 months in rehab 3:19

When the mayor of Toronto emerges today from his self-imposed time-out of more than two months, the world will see a slimmer, healthier and rehabilitated Rob Ford.

At least, that is, according to his campaign manager Doug Ford, who suggests that his brother has become “a new man" since his leave of absence.

“He’s had a real eye-opener on life and self and things that may have triggered his addiction before,” Doug Ford told CBC News in a phone interview. “It’s going to be a new Rob Ford.”

The old Rob Ford left in April under a cloud of controversy, dogged by more headlines of bad behaviour. The Toronto Sun had obtained an audio tape of the mayor reportedly swearing and making lewd, racist and sexist comments. Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail said it had viewed a second video of Ford smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine.

“It was unacceptable. It was totally unacceptable,” Doug Ford said about his brother’s past behaviour. “He realizes it.”

Ford is set to address the media this afternoon from city hall, his first official public statement since he said he was vacating his mayoral duties to “seek professional help." (He had occasionally spoken to the Toronto Sun.)

His whereabouts were initially unknown and subject to a flurry of media speculation, until it was revealed he had checked into the GreeneStone rehabilitation centre in Bala, Ont.

Since his arrival at rehab, Ford has received over 400 hours of “hard counselling, group sessions, one on ones and other meetings,” Doug Ford said.

'Looking like a champion'

He's also lost weight and is "looking like a champion," having gone from a 52 pant size to a 44, his brother said.

But is any of that enough to give him a realistic chance of winning a second term? Whether voters will forgive and forget his past scandals, “only time will tell,” Doug Ford said. With more than four months until the mayoral election, “people have a good opportunity to see if Rob has changed or not."

Doug Ford, right, says his brother still has a 'great chance' of becoming mayor for the second time. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

His brother, naturally, said Ford still has a “great chance” of becoming mayor for the second time, and at least one recent poll seems to back that up. A Forum Research Inc. telephone survey of 890 randomly selected Torontonians of voting age conducted on June 23 suggests that Ford is running second (27 per cent) against Olivia Chow (34 per cent). The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

All of this suggesting Ford remains strongly competitive in the mayoral race.

Or maybe not.

“Baloney,” said Robin Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former NDP strategist, dismissing the results of the poll.

“[His chances are] poor to non-existent. I think it’s just fantasy," Sears said. "He cannot find a way of escaping the efforts of every single one of the candidates, and therefore the media, continuing to return to the discussion he does not want to have and which is obviously inimical to any kind of approval of him as a man deserving re-election.”

Canadians may be highly forgiving of the transgressions of their political elite, Sears said, but it must start with two things: a sincere apology and a credible change in behaviour.

"And I don’t think he’s offered either," he said, adding a "let's see" as to whether rehab will make a difference.

'Behaviour has crossed the line'

While Ford can always look to his base, the so-called Ford Nation, for support, most voters have likely abandoned him over his past actions, observers say.

“I think his behaviour has crossed the line, even for his own base, that just say ‘crack smoking and lying and misbehaving in public, that’s just not what I voted for,'" said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of political science at York University.

And the mayor wasn't just elected by Ford Nation, but by a larger coalition of voters, Pilon added.

"The question is can he remake that coalition, and I don't think he can," he said. "I think he has seriously burned the bridges of more centrist non-populist conservatives."

As for what his supporters did vote for — the "stop the gravy train" message of fiscal restraint — is that even still palatable in Toronto, given the results of the Ontario election, in which the conservatives were soundly defeated on a campaign based in part on austerity?

Voters, particularly in urban and suburban Ontario, also tend to be non-ideological, said communications consultant Gerry Nicholls, and look for the candidate who will best protect their standard of living.

"And that means they're open to right wing and left wing arguments."

'Gravy train' message co-opted

In the recent Ontario election, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and his message of 100,000 job cuts  frightened voters, whereas Premier Kathleen Wynne, despite her government's past scandals, was still seen as the safer choice who could balance the budget and cause no harm," Nicholls said.

Similarly, in 2010, "Rob Ford came along and said I'm going to stop the gravy train. But he wasn't specific. He didn't say I'm going to slash here or cut there. He said I'm going to .... bring common sense and fiscal values back to the municipal government."
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and his plan to cut 100,000 jobs frightened voters, unlike Rob Ford's 'stop the gravy train' message, which resonated with the public, communication consultant Gerry Nicholls says. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"Can he win? Yes, I suppose he can, depending on what happens," Nicholls said. "There's all kinds of variables you can't predict. But I will say he will have a real hard time of it, just because he’s done so many things that have gotten him into trouble, it's going to be hard for a lot of voters to look beyond that."

Sears agreed that one shouldn't apply the results of an election of one level of government to another. He said Ford's anti-establishment, anti-extravagance, fiscal conservative message appealed and continues to appeal to a range of voters, even those voters considered progressive. 

But those messages have been co-opted in part, by Chow (anti-establishment) and Tory (fiscal conservative), he said.

Yet Doug Ford remains optimistic, citing the results of the provincial election.

"That sent a clear message. People are willing to give second chances."


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