The mighty engine behind the Rob Ford campaign

Rob Ford poses after a day of door-to-door canvassing in Scarborough.

Rob Ford poses after a day of door-to-door canvassing in Scarborough. For The Globe and Mail

Against all odds, he stands a chance at winning this fall’s mayoral election

Kelly Grant City Hall Bureau Chief

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Jul. 30, 2010 5:11PM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Jul. 31, 2010 12:30PM EDT

A candidate who does not mince words, but can mangle them, Rob Ford has become the man to beat. Or, as he himself has said more than once, “the people are resonating with my message.”

Language is the least of the Etobicoke councillor’s shortcomings, eye-popping moments of poor judgment and ethnic slurs among them. Yet his anger-stoked campaign – fuelled by disgust for government spending and high taxation – have made him an electoral tour de force. His everyman image of a sweating crusader in ill-fitting suits has undermined favourite George Smitherman and stoked enough fear among Conservative stalwarts that they have thrust former politician John Tory onto centre stage as a counterweight.

But as Mr. Tory goes through his familiar, Hamlet-like deliberations about jumping in the race, he should know it will take more than conservatism and warmed-over wrath to displace Mr. Ford’s crusade against waste. It might take an army.

“I think we are in a similar position with the public that Toronto and probably generally Ontario was just before the Mike Harris election of 1995,” says Scarborough Councillor Brian Ashton. “People are lashing out against the establishment. Ford, in a strange way, has become a counterculture.”

In interviews with more than a dozen suburban councillors and candidates who are canvassing voters on a regular basis, The Globe and Mail found that Mr. Ford is often the only registered candidate whose name comes up at the door. (Mr. Tory and “none of the above” are popular too, but they’re not on the ballot).

“I was frankly surprised that Ford would resonate as much as he has in my ward,” says Josh Matlow, the public-school trustee running in Ward 22 St. Paul’s, better known as Forest Hill.

“However, another issue that my residents bring up, time and time again, is how much their property taxes have gone up over the past few years. Mr. Ford may have done a successful job at branding himself as the antidote.”

Red-hot anger might explain part of this unexpected success, but the campaign has also deployed white-hot political tactics.

Mr. Ford and his volunteers are blitzing a ward or two per weekend, and reaching tens of thousands more voters as the first Canadian general election campaign to employ “tele-townhalls” – a clever technique that President Barack Obama used to sell seniors on his health-care reforms. The technology places robo-calls to every land line in a defined area and asks residents to press a button to participate in a call-in radio show starring Mr. Ford.

Screeners vet callers’ questions, which Mr. Ford answers in his folksy manner, often addressing callers as “buddy.” At one point, he invites callers to indicate their voting intentions – and with the press of a button, the Ford team’s voter database grows by 7,000 names.

Mr. Ford’s strong showing is also the result of political kismet. Through internal polling and focus groups, the Ford camp – led by his older brother Doug – concluded early that the ballot issue was anger at a tax-and-spend city hall, not transportation.

Not one to grind away at the numbing details of transportation logistics, Mr. Ford had instead long identified himself as a waste-avenger.

His handlers simply taught him to stick relentlessly to his well-rehearsed message, backed by a new website that ridicules waste at city hall and depicts Mr. Ford in a cape and tights “stopping the party” and “halting the gravy train.”

They hired Campaign Research, a Windsor-based political consultancy run by Richard Ciano, a former national vice-president of the Conservative party. In what has been one of the campaign’s few setbacks, Mr. Ciano stepped back from on-the-ground operations in the spring, in part because he had trouble convincing the tight-knit Ford clan to accept professional advice, according to a source close to the campaign. (Mr. Ciano says he’s still advising the campaign, but from afar while he works for other clients. “I love Rob, I love Doug,” he says.)

Mr. Ciano’s business partner, Nick Kouvalis, stepped up to run the day-to-day campaign.

He’s a Conservative operative probably best known for leading the dump-John-Tory drive that nearly forced the PC leader out at a 2008 convention. His skills of evisceration might come in handy if Mr. Tory returns to the fray.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Ford has been ridiculed for a perceived lack of vision. Rather than coming up with new ideas, he just wants to blow up David Miller’s legacy. He has vowed to axe the land-transfer and vehicle-registration taxes, and stressed subways over light-rail vehicles. As the coup de grace, Mr. Ford would like to hack the numbers of city councillors in half, a challenging scenario that would require them to vote themselves out of their jobs.

Still, the campaign has overcome obstacles that would send most political operatives running for window ledges.

As a councillor, Mr. Ford opposed AIDS funding because, “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably,” a comment for which he later apologized. He drunkenly berated his seatmates at a Leafs game, lied about it, then admitted it and apologized. He warned that “Orientals” were “taking over” because they “worked like dogs.”

An almost preternatural knack for trouble continued after he joined the mayor’s race. In June, Mr. Ford was caught on tape offering to help an ill man score painkillers on the street, but his campaign spun it as the only way he could get a scary stalker off the phone.

All this baggage might have persuaded Toronto’s Conservative brain trust to distance themselves. Most top Tory operatives have signed up with Mr. Smitherman or Rocco Rossi.

This has left Mr. Ford with regular folks for foot soldiers, but the grassroots support only bolsters his authenticity. Political operators say that his pungent populism is especially winning over suburban males who identify with him personally. The thinking among Mr. Tory’s supporters is that if he jumped in, he could pick up votes from the Ford and Smitherman camps and run through the middle. He could marginalize the former by stealing his centre-right votes, leaving the councillor with his angry flock. Mr. Tory could also take away centre-left supporters from Smitherman, who depicts himself as a rational alternative to Ford.

Last Saturday, more than 40 of Mr. Ford’s volunteers braved the muggy weather to knock on doors in Scarborough Southwest, part of a ward-blitzing effort Mr. Ford’s competitors haven’t been able to match.

“I’ve been watching what’s been going on at city hall with the waste for years,” said Sharon Lott, 60, an East York resident who came to the campaign’s Scarborough office for the blitz. “I’m very unhappy with the way David Miller has led this city.”

Mr. Ford, dressed in shirtsleeves and a red tie, led a handful of canvassers through the Fallingbrook area, an enclave of million-dollar homes near Lake Ontario and the Toronto Hunt Club.

He literally ran through the neighbourhood, pumping his arms and sprinting up driveways whenever his advance team caught a live body at the door. He sweat through his shirt in 10 minutes.

“I do like his policies,” said Marilyn Steen, who, along with her husband Gilbert, told Mr. Ford she had his vote before the candidate could begin his front-porch spiel. “I like the way he’s economical and sensible and he seems to have the people’s interest at heart.”

“We’re going to be going full out, morning, noon and night,” Mr. Ford told his volunteers at a Scarborough pub after the blitz. “New polls are going to be coming out soon showing we’re in the lead and we have to hold that lead.”

By day’s end, 11 canvassing teams had identified 278 individual supporters, signed up four new volunteers and secured 73 promises to host a lawn sign starting Sept. 30.

Tory or no Tory, his message is sticking. Or, as councillor and supporter Mike Del Grande says, “Rob resonates.”

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