Rob Ford scandal: Can the mayor play the rehab redemption card?
Some voters would lap that up, at least one PR expert says
In the 24 hours since Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced his decision to enter rehab, following fresh allegations of drug use and crude behaviour, the news has been tweeted from Canada to South Africa to Siberia.
The question many are asking: Is this the end of his political career?
Ford's lawyer, Dennis Morris, says the mayor's re-election campaign will continue, but political strategists and public relations experts are divided over whether this temporary leave will benefit or bury his campaign.
"I think he has an opportunity to not only retain that core support, but perhaps — as ridiculous as it sounds — win support," says Mark Sherwin, president of the Toronto PR firm CorpWorld Group.
Voters love a redemption story, Sherwin says. "What he can do is admit, 'I'm at a crossroads, I need to change … I'm going to change who I am and how I behave.' Some people would lap that up."
That view is not shared by Ken Evans, senior vice-president at Toronto's APEX Public Relations.
"I think it's a lost cause," says Evans, adding that Ford's political career is "well beyond reputation and image management at this point."
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The latest development in the Ford narrative came as a result of a trifecta of media stories that broke Wednesday night.
Two journalists at the Globe and Mail reported that they had seen a new Ford drug video, captured last Saturday morning, which they said showed the mayor smoking what appeared to be a crack pipe in his sister's basement.
According to the Globe, the person who shot the video is a self-described drug dealer who is looking to sell the video for "at least six figures."
The Toronto Sun posted audio of Ford at a neighbourhood bar on Monday night, in which he uttered homophobic remarks and ethnic slurs, as well as lewd comments about fellow mayoral candidate Karen Stintz.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Star published a report about Ford partying recently at a Toronto nightclub, where an eyewitness saw him doing lines of cocaine.
Ford's lawyer, Dennis Morris, told CBC reporter Jamie Strashin that "the mayor is taking a break from the race" to seek professional help for substance abuse, but emphasized "he's not dropping out."
Ford himself released a statement Wednesday night in which he said, "I love the people of Toronto, I love being your mayor and I hope you will continue to stand by me."
But will they?
The question of just how many Torontonians continue to support the mayor in light of his well-publicized struggle with drugs and alcohol will be one of the key factors in the outcome of the municipal election on Oct. 27.
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According to a poll conducted by Forum Research in March, 28 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Ford, compared to the 36 per cent who said they would vote for competitor Olivia Chow, the former Toronto councillor and NDP MP.
Allegations about Ford's drug use first came to light last May, when the Toronto Star and U.S. website Gawker reported on a video that appeared to show Ford smoking crack. After months of denials, Ford admitted in November that he had smoked the drug, asking for the city's forgiveness, but stating clearly that he would stay on as mayor.
The latest allegations make it clear that he has not fully dealt with his personal troubles. But Sherwin believes Ford could use a month-long leave to resuscitate his chances for re-election in October.
"He said he's taking leave to deal with substance-abuse issues — most people would say that's good," says Sherwin. "What's important here is walking the talk. It's one thing to say you're going to do something; it's different to actually do it and stick to it."
While Ford's leave should benefit his health, taking a month off in the thick of an election campaign is a risky gambit for any candidate, political strategist Jaime Watt told CBC's Metro Morning radio show.
"This is one of the sad parts of the story. If he'd gone away and sorted this out before the election started, that would be one thing. But to be absent from part of the campaign is going to be much more challenging for him," Watt said.
Whither 'Ford Nation'
Throughout the last year, there has been much discussion about whether the mayor can retain the backing of the so-called Ford Nation.
There is a segment of the electorate that backs Ford, but it's easy to overestimate their influence, says Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at University of Toronto.
"You're always going to have a hard core that like him — whether they show up to vote is another issue," says Wiseman. "He'll show up at a sporting event, and people yell, 'Four more years!' But are these people actually out there voting?"
Up until a few months ago, Wiseman says he thought Ford's base was enough to return him to office, but now he believes the accumulation of scandals has just been too much.
An election campaigning is about amassing more followers, building from your base, he says, and Ford's foibles can only have the opposite effect.
"He's got no growth potential in his vote," says Wiseman. "Do you see anybody saying, 'Gee, now I am going to vote for Rob Ford, I'm going to go out and canvass for him'?"