TORONTO (Reuters) - Liberal Toronto looks set to deny its recent history with vengeful voters drawn to a penny-pinching, politically incorrect right-winger in a scrappy campaign leading to October’s mayoral election.
Rob Ford, a brash, wealthy suburban city councilor who runs his family’s label business, has become the solid front-runner in the race to the October 25 election, well ahead of second-place George Smitherman, formerly a heavy-hitting health and energy minister in the Ontario provincial government.
Before the campaign began, political analysts gave Ford no chance of winning, but driving his popularity is a platform that includes slashing the size of government and reining in what he says are councilors’ lavish spending habits.
“It’s gone completely out of control. People are sick and tired of it and they know that Rob Ford, if I‘m fortunate to become mayor, will put an end to the party and the gravy train,” Ford told Reuters in a brief interview.
Toronto is Canada’s biggest city and its financial capital, home to the country’s biggest banks and many of its major companies. In federal elections the city tends to vote Liberal or for the left-leaning New Democrats, while many of the suburbs that ring it often back Conservatives.
Ford is capitalizing on resentment at high taxes, a union-friendly end to an ugly municipal workers’ strike last summer and support for his own tight-fistedness. He boasts he has not used his C$53,000 ($51,000) yearly expense budget in a decade of politics.
“People have noticed that Ford doesn’t spend a dime personally,” said Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.
“Ford represents less spending by council and that’s symbolic to people. The budget of the city is C$9 billion, the total expenses of the council are minuscule out of that, but it’s the symbolism, that’s how it works.”
Ford’s promises to eliminate some taxes and stand up to unions have sucked other campaigners to the right, including Smitherman, who now says he will freeze taxes and hiring for a year.
Ford stands out in a left-leaning city council by saying Toronto -- one of the world’s most diverse cities -- can’t handle more immigrants. He has spoken out in support of the death penalty, which Canada abolished in 1976, and backs traditional marriage between men and women.
Gay marriage has been legal in Ontario since 2003, and rival Smitherman married his gay partner in 2007.
Ford is also prone to public gaffes like those of former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman, who once said he was afraid of being boiled alive by natives on an official trip to Africa.
Ford has been convicted in the United States for failing to provide a breath sample and was also charged there with possessing marijuana, though that charge was dismissed. In Canada, he has been charged with assault but the charges were either dismissed or withdrawn.
“Lastman was a buffoon. Ford is going to top that. Lastman looks like Abraham Lincoln compared to Ford ... This guy is going to be wonderful to cover,” Wiseman said.
He added that Toronto remains liberal when it comes to issues such as healthcare, immigration and same-sex marriage, all of which fall under federal or provincial jurisdiction.
And even if Ford wins, which is still not a certainty with five weeks to go in the campaign, he will need the support of an ideologically distant city council to push through promises that include cutting taxes, cleaning up garbage and improving transportation.
Despite his Conservative ties, Ford says he doesn’t believe in party politics at the municipal level. Asked if he aligns himself with the anti-government, anti-tax stance of the U.S. grassroots Tea Party, he said: “No, not at all.”
On where he would fit in other countries’ political systems, he said: “I haven’t done much traveling, so I can’t really comment on that.”
Reporting by Claire Sibonney; editing by Janet Guttsman and Peter Galloway