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Reporter's notebook: In the heart of Ford Nation with Toronto's embattled mayor

By Bill Weir, CNN
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)

Toronto, Ontario (CNN) -- When Rob Ford gets mad, his face turns radish red.

"I am not an addict!" he barks. "I'm not an alcoholic!"

And as he gets redder, his supporters get louder.

"How much do you want him to do?" a woman's cries out across the crowded recreation room of this suburban Toronto housing project. "How much is enough?"

Embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said Wednesday, April 30, that he is taking a break from his re-election campaign and his mayoral duties to seek help for alcohol abuse. The announcement came hours after a local newspaper reported on a new video that allegedly shows Ford smoking crack cocaine on Saturday, April 27. Ford's fall from grace started in May 2013, when a cell phone video taken months earlier appeared to show him smoking crack. Embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said Wednesday, April 30, that he is taking a break from his re-election campaign and his mayoral duties to seek help for alcohol abuse. The announcement came hours after a local newspaper reported on a new video that allegedly shows Ford smoking crack cocaine on Saturday, April 27. Ford's fall from grace started in May 2013, when a cell phone video taken months earlier appeared to show him smoking crack.
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We are in the heart of Ford Nation, out near the airport, the malls and the horse track, under balconies filled with rusty bikes and drying laundry.

Out here in the Queen's Plate projects, there is none of the Rob Ford scorn or snickers you hear downtown.

Out here, they say Rob Ford is the greatest public servant they've ever known.

He's the person they call at home when the landlord won't fix the heat. He's the guy who coached their kids in football. And when Ford tells me that his political foes on the Toronto City Council are liars and hypocrites, they roar with approval.

"They all smoke crack!" shouts a voice full of passion. "All those people."

This is my second trip into Ford Nation.

The scandals

The first came after Ford's crack-smoking admission and before he dropped the P-bomb on live television and brought his wife to the apology.

Measured in scandal-time, it seems like an eternity since I found a few mall walkers in his home ward willing to insist that yes, Rob Ford is a great mayor.

But I also visited the Dixon City towers where police say they found the notorious video of Ford hitting the glass pipe.

There, I met a Somali community organizer who scrounges donated computers to have some way to distract the local kids from gangs and drugs. He described his anger about the Ford affair with resigned bitterness.

Then came a raft of new allegations that included cocaine and pain killer abuse, drunk driving and slurred come-ons to his female staff; all of which brought angry denials, threats of libel suits and that astonishing news conference from Ford.

More than 100,000 Torontonians signed a petition urging Ford's exit, while the City Council voted 41-2 to strip his emergency management power.

Surely, Ford Nation was crumbling.

Ford says he didn't lie about crack use

Waiting for the mayor

"How could anyone in their right mind ever vote for your brother again?" I asked Councilor Doug Ford via satellite during Friday's "AC360."

In the banter after the interview, he offered to show me. And 18 hours later, I'm helping him unload toys from his SUV beneath the high-rise, low-income apartments.

"I wish you could have seen the reaction at Wal-Mart," he says, grinning. "I could barely get out of the parking lot."

He explains that the dolls and little cars are for a young woman named Simone Patrong, who's holding a toy drive in honor of her late son, Zion.

She runs over, a picture of her boy embossed on her T-shirt, and greets the councilor with a smile and a hug.

A piece of paper taped to a glass door promises the appearance of Mayor Ford from 4:30 to 5 p.m. A crowd assembles, and all comparisons to American politics begin to crumble.

You see, while this ward is home to some of the richest people in Canada, almost everyone here is a person of color, living on government assistance.

They are first- and second-generation Canadians with bloodlines that trace from Jamaica to Somalia. And unlike the angry guy in Dixon City, these folks line up to tell me how much they love the Ford boys. For slash-and-burn fiscal conservatives who came to power vowing to "end the gravy train," it's a curious base.

"Everyone keeps saying Rob's a conservative," Doug explains. "He's a huge, massive social liberal. He loves Obama. The headlines of the papers when he won? 'The White Obama.' "

Drug dealing allegations

As we wait for his brother, Doug shows me improvements they've made to the basketball court and how they cleaned up a rec room once infested with roaches.

But his improvisational public relations style takes a bizarre turn when a longtime resident of Queen's Plate wanders over, eyes wide under the brim of a Red Sox cap.

His name is Ken, and he begins to complain -- about building management, the rough tactics of police and the Fords who are "all in on it."

Doug's smile tightens, and in a friendly way, he urges the man to step outside. Ken doesn't want to.

As Ford's police detail starts to intervene, Ken shouts, "I remember when you used to sell hash to all my friends."

It's not the first time I'd heard such allegations.

When reports of a crack-smoking video for sale began to spread last summer, the Toronto Globe and Mail went digging into the Ford family history.

In May, the paper reported that Doug had spent much of the '80s as a mid-level hashish dealer. Since Ken brought it up, I ask Doug about the allegations.

"No, I wasn't slinging any hash." he says. "Thirty-one years ago. I smoked marijuana. I didn't deal marijuana. If you want to go calling, you know, going to your buddy and saying, 'Here is a joint for 10 bucks.' If that's what you want to call (dealing), so be it."

He describes how the newspaper called hundreds of his former classmates, searching for dirt, but never found anything of substance.

"They wasted three years trying to kill me. For why, I don't even know," he shrugs. "I give everything I have. I've given up millions of dollars by not running the (family label) business. For what? To support the people. I have no agenda. I'm out after this. I'm done."

"You're not going to run for a higher office?" I ask.

"Well, we'll see," he says. "We'll see."

'I stick up for the poor people'

The mayor is more than an hour late, and we begin to worry that he may not show.

But then comes a commotion out front, and through the dark glass I see the unmistakable shape of Rob Ford. There are shouts and hugs and posed pictures.

A large man in a sharp suit hands out the mayor's business card and little refrigerator magnets embossed with the mayor's home number. Ford reaches out to a child in a stroller. The kid recoils.

"How you doin'?" he says to me with a cautious grin, and puts out his hand. He looks both giddy and exhausted.

After a few tough CNN pieces during this disastrous run, I was shocked when he (or his people) began following me on Twitter. But there's no recognition in his eyes, and it is soon obvious that this was all Doug's idea. Everyone seems unsure what to do next, but the awkward spaces are filled with shouts of encouragement from residents.

"Don't step down!" a woman says.

"Don't worry," he replies. "I'm not stepping down."

"I am praying for you every day. You've got to stay," she insists.

"What I always say is, there are more poor people than rich people and I stick up for the poor people."

They cheer.

'I made mistakes'

After a few words from a local pastor and tears from Zion's mother, the mayor agrees to a few questions. And as we work our way to a back meeting room, everyone follows.

I ask him about his week, and he shrugs like a man answering the same question for the thousandth time.

"It's all self-inflicted, you know? It's my fault and I made mistakes. You own up to it, you move on," he says -- and in the next breath, moves on.

"It comes down to saving taxpayers money. People know what I've done. I got rid of the gravy train. I'm a man of my word. I've saved a billion dollars. These councilors want me out, the media wants me out. I told the chief of police I want efficiencies, you know, and obviously he wants me out."

"Who cares about that, y'all!" a woman chimes in.

"It's up to the people on October 27th, they're the ones who are gonna say if they want me in or they want me out," the mayor says.

"You're in!" she yells.

I ask him why he finally decided to admit to his crack use, and he rocks back on his heels.

"Why? It's just I'm not gonna -- I'm not gonna run around and be phony and, you know, lie. And I'm not gonna have someone try and blackmail me and say they have videos of this."

"But you did deny it for months," I say.

Blasting the media

He shrugs, and goes on an angry tear against the Toronto Star, the paper with the most tenacious coverage of the Fords.

"I just had enough. I was sick and tired of all these allegations and all this bulls**t -- excuse my word -- and that's all that is. Sorry kids, I shouldn't have sworn in front of the kids."

The gaffes and apologies are now flowing in real time, and as he gets more agitated by my questions, his brother tries to intervene.

"These guys aren't too bad, Rob," Doug says, but the mayor waves him off. "It's typical media. You guys are the same, you're all cut from the same cloth."

There is so much to ask, about the investigations and allegations, but Rob Ford has obviously had enough.

"I'm sure you're insulating your children from what's going on now," I say, trying to find a soft spot.

"Absolutely, I'm the best father around!" he snaps

"But there will come a day when they Google their dad ..."

"Absolutely, and I'm gonna explain why they -- what they're hearing," he says, before veering into a stream-of-consciousness rant.

"I'm straightforward with my kids, I take my kids out and I bring my daughter to dance lessons. I'm teaching my son how to ski, and my wife supports them and my wife has some issues. What, you just dismiss them? You just walk away? I don't walk away from anyone, Bill, in life! I'm sitting here and support people that are down and out! All these rich and elitist people, I'm sick of them! I'm sick of them! No, they're perfect. They don't do nothing! Get outta here! 'They don't do nothing!' They're the biggest crooks around!"

That's why they wanna get rid of you!" comes one more call from Ford Nation, and the mayor turns to leave.

"Just don't take it personal, Bill," Doug Ford laughs as his brother wanders back into the loving scrum.

In the vestibule, Doug makes one more attempt to lower Rob's guard, and the mayor obliges long enough to talk football with Cassius, my 49ers-loving producer.

"I've never been to California," the mayor says, smiling warmly. "Now Charlie Sheen wants to have me out there, but I don't know."

He seems unsure about poolside visits with Hollywood's party warlock, but the Ford brothers seem certain about a plan that goes well beyond crisis survival. They are pledging total political annihilation of their Toronto City Council foes.

"I'll tell you one thing, I'll work day in and day out to knock these councilors off," Doug says with an excited look. "I'm gonna target their areas, I'm gonna work day in and day out to knock them off. Oh yeah, and I'm gonna bring Ford Nation live all across the city."

"We make Chicago politics look like a tea party," he finishes. "We do. It's vicious."

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