TORONTO - When Toronto voters head to the polls next week, they will be choosing a successor to the county's most infamous mayor — a man known to the world for his outrageous behaviour, his profanities, his mule-like obstinacy, and his shocking admissions of cocaine use during drunken stupors.
In doing so, the one question that will not be answered Oct. 27 is whether Rob Ford, despite his highly publicized woes, would have been re-elected as mayor had cancer not forced him from the race.
Right up until he called it quits, Ford remained a viable mayoral candidate, polls suggested, a reflection of enduring if somewhat diminished support that has been for many a profound head-scratcher.
By all accounts, he will be easily elected as councillor in his west-end ward despite a chemotherapy regimen that has severely curtailed his campaigning.
Even his rivals concede that Ford has an undeniable ability to connect with people that goes beyond the typical glad-handing.
"He evokes a sympathy that is unique," said Karen Stintz, until recently a Ford challenger for mayor.
"People continue to forgive his indiscretions because they identify with him or feel sympathy with him."
Ford, she says, made a point of calling to thank her for a get-well card she sent him when he was ill a few years ago.
"It's heart-felt. When he calls, he means it. That appeals to people."
That appeal was often seen in the rock-star reception he received. He would be mobbed by well-wishers and those wanting to be photographed with a man whose antics earned him appearances on American television and made him a staple of late-night comics.
Former city councillor and Ford critic, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, said the mayor enjoys political support from radical conservatives that is not widespread.
"He's notorious but I don't think it's the same as popular," Vaughan said from Ottawa. "He's a celebrity."
Ford would often say he is just a regular Joe who loves helping people.
"I'm not a celebrity,'' he said at one point last year. "I'm just an average person."
The everyman persona was something Ford cultivated religiously. He made a point of showing no fear of being ridiculed — such as when he very publicly failed his self-imposed "Cut the Waist Challenge."
Ryerson politics professor, Myer Siemiatycki, said Ford has a "warm, fuzzy kind of dimension" that appeals to people.
"This really is an authentic populist who generated among large numbers of people a feeling that this politician is on their side," Siemiatycki said.
When fans lined up around city hall last December to buy a Rob Ford bobble-head doll, many said they simply wanted a piece of history, a souvenir of a crazy time in the life of the city.
Others, however, said what they most appreciated was that Ford didn't act like a typical politician.
"He's awesome. He parties," said Corrie Balogh, who spent hours with hundreds of others on a drizzly afternoon waiting to buy a bobble head.
"He's a lot more real than anyone else."
As a retail politician, Ford has been hard to beat.
He has made a point of returning calls, often late in the evening. He visited social housing to see resident problems first-hand.
"Never underestimate what helping, or appearing to help, somebody does for a local politician," Vaughan said.
"If people feel you've gone to bat for them, they tend to look past whatever other challenges you may face."
Coun. Mike Layton, whose stepmother Olivia Chow is running to succeed Ford, agreed the mayor deserves marks for responding to constituents but is less charitable in assessing the appeal.
"He says stuff that people want to hear, regardless of what he's going to do," the councillor said. "He seems like something, but doesn't actually deliver."
He and Ford did have conversations after Layton's father, NDP leader and former city councillor Jack Layton, died of cancer.
"He'd often reminisce about sitting next to my dad in city council and often says that my dad taught him a lot about what it took in council," Layton said.
"It's unfortunate that he didn't pick up a little bit more of it."
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