TORONTO — When people in this cosmopolitan city on the shores of Lake Ontario watched their mayor confess to smoking crack in a drunken stupor, it was a shock but not a big surprise.
A tax-fighting conservative with plain-spoken opinions and occasionally explosive temper, Mayor Rob Ford's three years in power have turned City Hall into the stage for a personal and political drama the likes of which the city has never seen.
Critics thought that this time he'd have to resign but he has not. Impeachment is near impossible the way the law is written, and Ford still has legions of fans who love him for not just who he is but who he is not: an elitist who shuns the beer and pretzel crowd of the fourth-largest city in North America.
"People who feel alienated by the city's government and business class identify with him, because he is so obviously fallible, and not slick," says Edward Keenan, the author of Some Great Idea, a book that tracks Ford's rise.
"He has spent so much time — a really remarkable amount of time — personally returning phone calls to commiserate with people about their problems."
After months of dodging reporters' questions, Ford, 44, took to the podium Tuesday to say that he had indeed smoked crack cocaine as a long-rumored video is said to show. Two days later, another video surfaced showing him in a rambling rage, threatening to "murder" someone.
Ford admitted he had a drinking problem, saying on his radio show he was "hammered" in public at a street festival in August and "out of control" drunk, carrying a half empty bottle of brandy around City Hall after St. Patrick's Day last year.
A married father of two children, Ford apologized profusely in public for the incidents he called "embarrassing" and "disappointing." But he said he would not leave the job he loves unless the people of Toronto vote him out for re-election in October.
On Friday, Ford's lawyer Dennis Morris told the Associated Press that the mayor is "considering" going into substance abuse rehabilitation. Morris said Ford needs to say what he plans to do himself because "when you go left, he goes right."
But as television comedians pile on and his embarrassed colleagues on city council abandon him, his hard-core supporters are hanging fast. Even after the first reports of his crack use surfaced, thousands of his followers swarmed to public "Ford Fest" parties he threw in the city's suburbs this summer.
And a Forum Research poll put taken when the scandal broke put Ford's approval rating at 44%, up 5 points from a previous poll. The source of Ford's popularity lies in his roots as a local city councilor in Toronto's sprawling suburbs who gained a reputation as caring about the regular folks.
Ford was born into a well-off family. His father started a printing business that specialized in pressure-sensitive labels for plastic-wrapped grocery products and makes an estimated $100 million a year in sales. Douglas Ford Sr. became a politician himself.
His youngest son, Rob, wanted to be a professional football player and once attended a camp run by the Washington Redskins. But he wound up attending university for political science, leaving before graduating.
He married a woman he met in high school and then went into the family business, then ran and won a local ward councilor's position in an area where more than half of the residents were immigrants, mostly South Asians, on a platform of getting government off people's backs.
He was known for emotional speeches at meetings, railing against bureaucratic red tape and tax hikes. And he won fans as a representative who would go to great lengths to help solve problems of constituents.
Ford could often be seen driving around his district of Etobicoke in a beat-up minivan to visit constituents and he was said to return every phone call personally. Ford became a talk-radio favorite too. He directed his wrath at government spending, and most especially taxpayer-funded perks for politicians.
But there were signs of personal trouble well before his elevation to mayor.
In 2006, an intoxicated Ford shouted obscenities at a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game and was ejected. He denied he was at the game until fans produced a business card he had given them. In 2008 police charged him with assault and threats to his wife. Ford maintained his innocence and the charges were withdrawn. The couple later reconciled.
Newspaper reports said Ford had previously been arrested in Florida for impaired driving and marijuana possession — reports that Ford denied until reporters confronted him with the evidence.
When he ran and won for mayor in 2010, it was a shock to many in this relatively left-leaning country. His small-government, anti-elitist message had a lot in common with the Tea Party movement in the United States.
Once in office Ford kept his common touch but polarized the city with a conservative agenda that included tearing up bike lanes, scrapping plans for light-rail transit, cutting taxes and slashing budgets. Longtime Canada hockey commentator Don Cherry was a fan who called Ford's detractors "left-wing kooks" at the mayor's inauguration.
After a string of early victories, his support fell away when opponents pushed back — and soon, Ford was sidelined by a series of personal foibles and by Toronto's "weak mayor" system in which most decisions require approval from the council and the mayor has no power to veto.
His actions became somewhat erratic. He once chased a reporter around public park near his house. He was caught reading a sheaf of papers while driving on the expressway (he long refused to get a driver, to save money), and gave an obscene gesture to a mother and child who asked that he stop using his cellphone while driving (which is illegal in Ontario).
A judge ordered him removed from office in 2012 for breaching conflict-of-interest laws — only to have the ruling reversed on appeal.
Yet his supporters remain split between concern for him over his drinking and drug use, and defending his image as a staunch defender of taxpayers' dollars.
At the Eaton Center, the city's giant downtown mall, newly decorated with two-story reindeer sculptures for Christmas, Torontonians from both sides of the divide sounded off.
"I like him," said Mike Shafie, an importer-exporter, with a smile and a shrug. "Everyone has made their mistakes."
Opinion polls show that as many as 45% of the Torontonians approve of the job Ford has done as mayor, even as 60% think he should resign. Shafie isn't one of them: Like many, he's remained skeptical of the media reports about the mayor, even now that the mayor himself has confessed to using drugs.
"They're just making up stuff to kick him out. Some of the things he's done are good for the city."
Just down the way, Martha Morrison, a grandmother and longtime American resident of Toronto, gives voices an opinion that many have held about Ford.
"Absolute bozo," she says. "Absolute embarrassment. We joke around about all the international press we're getting. But it's really heartbreaking for a city like Toronto with all its strengths to be known for crack."