Toronto Mayor Rob Ford kicked off his re-election bid with a long-promised party in his suburban heartland, decking out a convention hall with red and blue balloons, Ford Nation swag and a decommissioned fire truck that proclaimed the city's controversial leader was "saving the taxpayers from getting burned."
The gathering, which brought out about 2,000 on the start of the Easter long weekend, was a show of strength, an opportunity to gather money and volunteers, and it was a chance to lay the groundwork for what Mr. Ford called "the spirit of second chances."
Mr. Ford – who last November admitted after months of denial that he smoked crack cocaine "in a drunken stupor" – stood before his supporters to proclaim that he had learned from his mistakes.
"There have been some rocky moments over the past year," he said in a speech delivered at top volume.
"When they occur, you learn a lot about yourself – humility, the kindness of people and the spirit of second chances."
Mr. Ford, who was raised in the leafy streets of central Etobicoke, told supporters he was "just like" them, an average guy who would always have their back – and return their calls.
"Now I am asking you to stand with me," he said. "Together we will continue to challenge the elitists, the special interests and those who want to spend our hard-earned money without any consequence."
The crowd included bedrock supporters, the curious and those who came to pay $100 for a "football tie" bobblehead. They shelled out for Ford Mayor foam fingers, coffee mugs and buttons with proceeds going to the campaign, downed beer and pocketed the free bumper stickers and flags.
As the price of admission, they also filled out cards with names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails, ticking off whether they would volunteer, take a sign or make a donation.
The scene was a far cry from the sunny church hall where former NDP MP Olivia Chow chose to begin her challenge for the mayor's job and even the Polish hall where the other front-runner, John Tory, kicked off his campaign.
Not everyone appreciated the mayor's choice of props. Even before Mr. Ford entered the room, the union that represents Toronto's firefighters said his use of the fire truck was a "slap in the face" to residents who have seen four trucks taken out of service to save money.
"He's human," said Ivorine Ford – no relation. Ms. Ford, who lives in Brampton and can't vote for Toronto's mayor, said she made her husband bring her so she could "see what's going on."
Vince Farzari, a baker who was picking up Ford Mayor swag, typifies the base Mr. Ford is counting on to stick with him to election day.
"He's the greatest mayor that we ever had. He's helping taxpayers, saving their money. I support him 100 per cent."