The man Rob Ford defeated: 'I'm not surprised'

By Charmaine Noronha

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 23 2013 11:10 a.m. MST

Mayor Rob Ford arrives at city hall on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, in Toronto. The city council voted overwhelmingly Monday in favor of slashing Ford's office budget by 60 percent and allowing mayoral staff to join the deputy mayor, Norm Kelly.

The Canadian Press, Chris Young, Associated Press

TORONTO — This is the mayor Toronto could have had: George Smitherman, an openly gay liberal who overcame an admitted history of drug use to become Ontario's deputy premier.

Instead, Canada's largest city got Mayor Rob Ford, whose erratic behavior and confessed crack cocaine and alcohol use while in office have embarrassed many fellow citizens and delighted America's late-night TV comedians, leading the city council to strip him of most of his powers this week.

If Toronto is a tale of two cities, the 49-year-old Smitherman represents the one better known to the world, the mainly liberal downtown of Canada's financial capital. Ford hails from the city's vast conservative suburbs, where he won over voters with promises to stop "the gravy train" of government spending and end a so-called "war on cars."

Smitherman, a polished politician, openly told voters during their 2010 campaign that he had beaten a five-year addiction to unspecified "party drugs" back in the 1990s. Ford attacked his opponent on those and other grounds, and won.

Now Ford's own drug history is emerging for the world to see. It turns out Toronto elected a mayor who recently admitted to smoking crack in the past year during one of his "drunken stupors," insists he is not an addict and refuses to resign or take a leave of absence.

Many in the city are shocked. Ford's former opponent is not.

"For anyone who cared to look, all of the mayor's limitations and issues were there from the beginning, before he started campaigning, so I'm not surprised by what's happening at City Hall and with him, just deeply saddened by it all," Smitherman said in an interview from his downtown home that he shares with his husband and two young, adopted children. "He took some dirty shots at me, attacking my sexuality and track record, throwing his weight around to be heard above anyone else. Not much has changed."

How did this happen?

A collective cry of disbelief rang out from Toronto's urbanites on October 25, 2010, at the news that the right-wing, larger-than-life, unscripted Ford had defeated the more moderate, green energy-loving Smitherman for mayor of the traditionally centrist city.

The suburbs had spoken. The nature of Toronto's politics had begun a dramatic shift in the late 1990s, when the city annexed the suburbs and suddenly gained massive numbers of conservative voters who grew resentful of rising taxes and liberal downtown initiatives like expanded arts and culture projects and bike lanes.

The 2010 election for mayor wasn't pretty. The Ford campaign questioned whether Smitherman's past drug use made him unfit for office, though Ford had been charged with marijuana possession and drinking and driving in 1999.

Smitherman didn't heavily attack Ford's past on those grounds.

"I campaigned honorably," Smitherman said. "I'm not a person prone to regret, but I'm reminded of that old adage, 'Don't bring a knife to a gun fight.' I think we were not aggressive enough in exposing his weaknesses that are even more apparent now."

Ford also cast himself as a traditional family man, contrasting his wife with Smitherman's husband — though Ford had been charged with domestic assault in 2008.

Voters saw Smitherman's sexuality as a negative, said University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman.

"People knew they were electing a mayor with warts ... but Smitherman being gay didn't help him in that election," Wiseman said.

Ford also appealed to the city's conservatives by painting Smitherman as a tool of Toronto's liberal elite and himself as an authentic everyman.

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