TORONTO—Rob Ford was both cheered and jeered as he took part Tuesday night in his first mayoral debate since returning to office after a two-month stint in rehab.
The controversial mayor of Toronto, who recently got help for substance abuse issues, arrived to duelling groups of demonstrators—one calling for his resignation, the other calling for him to have a second term in office.
Those competing voices were heard every time the mayor spoke through the night, as the crowd taking in the debate voiced both support and antipathy for Ford.
“I have proven in the last 14 years in government that I’ve watched every single one of your tax dollars,” said the mayor to a chorus of cheers and boos.
“I have created jobs, I have worked with youth, nobody’s worked with youth closer than I have…folks, my record speaks for itself. It’s a record of success, success, success.”
Ever since returning from rehab, the mayor of Canada’s largest city has said he can’t guarantee he won’t relapse, but has asked supporters to trust him as he runs for another term.
Ford has also insisted that campaigning for the Oct. 27 municipal election won’t compromise his recovery.
Despite Ford’s backtracking on his assurances in the past, a significant portion of the crowd gathered for the debate in east-end Toronto appeared prepared to put their faith in him once more.
Sporting “Ford Nation” T-shirts, pins and flags, they heckled Ford’s political opponents and yelled out their support whenever the mayor spoke on stage.
“He’s the only one that makes sense,” said Bill Parkin, who called for “Ford more years.” “He’s the only mayor that’s done anything good for us.”
There were many, however, who didn’t feel that way.
Anti-Ford demonstrator John Furr, who got into a verbal confrontation with Parkin prior to the debate, said it was time for Ford to leave public office.
“Remaining in office is an insult to average Torontonians. If he really wants to show us that he wants to earn our trust, he should be resigning,” said Furr.
“The mayor’s problems, by and large, are not related to addiction. They’re related to his contempt, they’re related to his racism, to his homophobia, they’re related to his toxic environment that he’s created.”
Ford recently raised eyebrows when he remained seated while city council gave a standing ovation to organizers of Toronto’s World Pride festival.
He did not answer questions from reporters outside his office about why he didn’t stand along with fellow councillors, but said he’s not homophobic.
Ford’s role as mayor has been largely symbolic since November, when city council stripped him of most of his power following his admissions of alcohol abuse and drug use during “drunken stupors.”
Those admissions came after months of denials and were followed by the surfacing of videos which appeared to show the mayor making offensive and profane comments.
The mayor has apologized to those hurt by his words and actions, saying he regretted some of his past choices but said he blamed no one but himself for his misconduct.
On Tuesday night, he returned time and again to what he portrayed as his stellar record.
“Who do you trust?” he asked the rowdy crowd in which one person yelled she loved the mayor while another woman told him to “go back home.”
“I’ve got a proven record, I’ve listed it numerous times. I said I was going to save money…I’ve saved the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars”
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory attacked Ford on his record, saying the mayor wasn’t being up front about all he has achieved.
“We know what you were doing and it wasn’t managing the taxpayers money,” he told Ford.
“He’s a laughing stock. People all over the world know who Rob Ford is, but they know it in a bad way,” Tory went on to tell reporters after the debate.
“This reflects badly on our city…He should have been spending time talking to companies around the world saying we need you to come invest in our city and instead he’s done nothing of that.”
Former NDP MP Olivia Chow also took the opportunity to chastise Ford in public, but she was nearly drowned out by his vocal supporters in the audience.
“Since Rob Ford came back, we’ve seen the best and the worst of our city,” she said to a mix of applause and jeers. “Rob Ford isn’t going to resign, so join me in firing him.”
While Ford’s opponents didn’t delve deeply into his personal issues during the debate, Chow made it clear she felt the mayor’s time is up.
“Even when Mr. Ford is clean and sober, his policy has failed the people of Toronto. And he is still not telling the truth,” she said after the debate.
“He needs to pack up his circus and leave town…He’s a terrible role model for our children and I’ve said that he has failed as our mayor. I’ve said that very clearly.”
City councillor Karen Stintz and David Soknacki, a former city budget chief, are also among those vying to replace Ford.