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Ford Nation was faltering well before the crack scandal

It’s going to be hard to talk about Mayor Rob Ford’s legacy without talking about crack cocaine.

And while we did spend a surprising amount of time talking about crack, it's quite possible that pundits have overstated how heavily the mayor's substance abuse factored into a swell of anti-Ford sentiment.

Of course, it was absolutely a big deal when we first heard there was a video of Ford smoking what appeared to be crack while uttering racial and homophobic slurs. It was still a big deal the unfathomable second time. The crack story then led to other bizarre sideshows that came to define the Ford era -- the lying, elaborate apologies, international celebrity, surveillance planes and Steak Queen.

But for all the hoopla, there’s not a lot of evidence that any of it mattered much politically. The decline of “Ford Nation” had less to do with crack and more to do with something as benign as a plan to cut library hours.

For proof, let’s look at Ford’s approval ratings. This chart spans Ford’s entirely mayoralty, and includes only his approval ratings as determined by Forum Research to provide a consistent view across the past four years.

The upshot? Ford’s approval rating was mostly steady at about 42 per cent, aside from the occasional outlier. Some people kept describing his numbers as high despite them being generally lower than most other municipal leaders. But, whatever. His numbers were steady.

Only two things were able to shake his level of popularity. Most recently, his trip to rehab in the spring of 2014 cost him a ton of support. But he rebounded after returning. Maybe people just didn’t approve of how much they missed him.

The other dip is more notable. It happened early on in the term, in September of 2011. Up until that point, Ford was sitting at a much higher approval rating — nearly 60 per cent.

But the September 2011 poll was a massacre. He dropped 15 points from where he was in June, with declines in every part of the city.

He never get that support back, and it had nothing to do with crack.

The poll came in the halcyon days when no one covering the mayor had ever had to pull up the Wikipedia page for crack. Hell, this drop in popularity — the most significant of the Ford reign — came before the mayor had experienced any real scandal.

So what caused it? That's simple.

Through the city’s core service review process, Ford in 2011 broached the topic of service cuts. This proved to be massively unpopular.

The same Forum poll that saw Ford’s huge approval rating decline also saw 70 per cent of Torontonians oppose cuts to library hours, 76 per cent oppose the reduction of childcare spaces, 61 per cent oppose any sell-off of city theatres, 77 per cent oppose eliminating or reducing free dental care for the poor and 84 per cent oppose ending late-night TTC service.

In addition to being unpopular, these cuts, along with Coun. Doug Ford’s late-summer attempt to wrangle control of the port lands from Waterfront Toronto, mobilized a significant number of Toronto residents. They flooded the inboxes of city councillors, convincing many of them to begin voting against motions favoured by the mayor. The house of cards began to fall soon after.

There are a couple of important conclusions here.

First, any fair analysis of the Ford administration needs to look at the events of summer 2011. They weren’t as car-crash dramatic as the crack scandal, but they’re far more relevant to the political side of the Ford saga. Of course, there certainly were some dramatic moments, if you must have them.

That summer was where things truly started to unravel. It showed that a lot of the support for the so-called “Ford agenda” was only skin deep. People liked the idea of eliminating the gravy train. They liked it a whole lot less when it started to become clear that the “gravy train” might actually be their local bus route.

Second, for Tory and anyone else who might one day want to occupy the mayor’s office, this should be a cautionary tale. Despite Toronto voters demonstrating an enduring (and frustrating) zeal for right-leaning politicians who promise without explanation that they can save money without reducing services, there’s never been much of a popular appetite for real austerity at city hall.

Torontonians value their services. They value their libraries, their transit, their arts programs and even their social supports for vulnerable people.

In fact, they value them so much that cuts could do way more political damage than any personal scandal — even smoking crack.

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