TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, battling for votes in the crucial suburbs of Toronto just two days before a tight election, rallied supporters on Saturday at a raucous event promoted by controversial former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
Despite awkward optics for the law-and-order Conservative leader, it was the second time in a week that Harper rubbed elbows with Ford, who gained global notoriety in 2013 after admitting he used crack cocaine while in office.
Surrounded by an estimated 1,750 cheering supporters, Harper took the stage after a rousing introduction by Ford’s brother, Doug Ford, who ran for the mayor’s office after Rob Ford pulled out of the campaign to fight cancer.
“Make no mistake, God help this county, it will be an absolute disaster if Justin Trudeau and (Ontario Liberal Premier) Kathleen Wynne were running this country,” Doug Ford said, drawing boos with his reference to Harper’s chief rival and campaign frontrunner, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Harper thanked the Ford brothers and other organizers but was not seen shaking hands with either, and has not directly answered questions about why his campaign is associated with the Fords.
Harper’s appearance with Rob Ford at two events in the final week of a close federal campaign came as new details of Ford’s alcohol and drug abuse in office were revealed in excerpts from a book by a former aide, “Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable.”
The former mayor and his brother remain Conservative Party stalwarts who wield considerable influence in Toronto’s suburbs, where their populist, low-tax message has many supporters.
Rob Ford made global headlines by refusing to resign as mayor even after he admitted he had smoked crack while in a “drunken stupor.”
The Fords “appeal to lots of people in the Toronto suburbs who feel the elites don’t speak for them,” said Robert Drummond, political science professor at York University. “I think it is not a smart move, but I suspect the PM would prefer not to have the Fords opposing him because he wouldn’t come to their rally.”
Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Thursday that Harper should be embarrassed to count on Rob Ford’s support.
But Ford’s backers are more forgiving.
“Whether I agree with their past behavior, I can’t say I do,” said Arnold Birnie. “You don’t have to be a Liberal to smoke dope and get addicted and make mistakes.”
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Montreal; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson