Even in the tightly controlled Progressive Conservative provincial campaign, there are still moments that go off script.
On one recent afternoon, party handlers are imploring supporters at an Oshawa candidate’s campaign headquarters to move inside for speeches. But Doug Ford, just off his campaign bus, isn’t listening and is stopping when people want to talk to him. George Lysyk, wearing a grey sweatshirt pinned with a small Ukrainian flag, confidently approaches Mr. Ford with a list of questions, including why Mr. Ford allowed police sweeping powers to stop pedestrians and drivers in April, 2021.
That decision during the third wave of the pandemic – and the accompanying unpopular measure of closing children’s playgrounds – is considered one of the worst moments of Mr. Ford’s time in office. The two policies were dropped within days. Mr. Ford’s tearful apology in his late mother’s Etobicoke backyard while isolating because of an exposure to COVID-19 was a political mea culpa that Ontarians wouldn’t soon forget.
Back on the campaign trail, the Ontario PC Party Leader looks pensively into the distance, and tells the Oshawa homebuilder, “you know what I always believe, if you make a mistake in life, you admit to your mistake – which I did – and correct it immediately.” The two men part with a photo together.
The glad-handing amid a frank admission of a policy blunder – it’s a glimpse of Doug Ford in his element.
No surprise that the retail politicking is still there. But what was less expected is the changes to Mr. Ford during his time as Premier. He has moderated his anti-establishment tendencies and unflinchingly embraced the political battle for working-class voters. Mr. Ford is in a position to win the election on June 2, in part because his brand of conservatism appeals to some Ontario voters who don’t traditionally vote for his party.
Mr. Ford and his aides have tweaked his everyman persona to retain voters who like him, but don’t necessarily like the type of politics he or his party were associated with in 2018.
“I’m not a big partisan guy,” Mr. Ford emphasized during the Ontario leaders’ debate, adding that he gets support from traditional NDP, Liberal and PC voters. “I can work all levels of government, all different political stripes.”
The PCs are leading in every poll to a large extent because exhausted voters have some optimism that at this point in the pandemic some semblance of normality is returning. The party has also taken up much of the oxygen when it comes to addressing the destructive spikes in the cost of living. There is also strength in campaigning as a well-funded incumbent party.
But the Progressive Conservatives are also ahead because of Mr. Ford. “In 2018, they won despite Doug Ford. In 2022, they are winning because of Doug Ford,” said Greg Lyle, president of polling firm Innovative Research Group Inc.
Mr. Ford was a man who on New Year’s Day 2018 had his sights set on another run at the Toronto mayor’s office. But in the turmoil of Patrick Brown’s departure as PC leader, he saw an opportunity to use his family’s famous folksy appeal to campaign against the deeply unpopular Kathleen Wynne, then-Liberal leader.
The PC Leader, however, is a polarizing political figure himself. If you don’t like him, you will see something completely different than a likeable everyman. Many Ontarians see a combative, impulsive city councillor born into wealth who had no business being Premier of the country’s most-populous province. Or the face of a government that despite its populist Buck-a-Beer airs is actually the natural home of the rich and powerful friends of Ford. He’s seen by his detractors as a leader whose “hell-of-a-guy” persona often gives him a pass on political gaffes.
At the same time, a Conservative win can only happen next month because of Mr. Ford’s personal appeal, of the type on display in Oshawa. He’s easily the most recognizable politician in Ontario, and is perceived as the most caring among the leaders by voters. He outperformed the expectations that came with his low approval numbers in early 2020 at the outset of the pandemic. And that favourable impression helped him withstand disastrous government decisions mid-course, such as the ones on playgrounds and police in April last year.
It certainly wasn’t always the case. Mr. Ford’s first 20 months as Premier was a period marked by controversial policy decisions, a lack of focus and the departure and replacement of top aides.
Days after winning the leadership race in March, 2018, Mr. Ford still seemed to be on the defensive. He gave an interview to Global News Radio 640 saying elites “‘drinking champagne with their pinkies in the air” exist in all three parties, including the PCs. “The grassroots people haven’t had a voice in God knows how long – 30 years in the province – no matter what party it is.”
His anti-establishment zeal meant he wasn’t fully a part of the party he was leading. “He inherited a team of candidates that was largely recruited by his predecessor,” said David Tarrant, Mr. Ford’s former executive director of strategic communications who has long done work for the party. “So there was a crash course. Even behind the scenes it took some time to actually build relationships. So the team actually would work as a team.”
Early in his time in office, his government faced strong pushback against cuts to Ontario’s autism program, a slew of what appeared to be patronage appointments and battles with teachers over class size and the sex-ed curriculum. His decision to cut the number of Toronto city-council positions from 47 to 25 seemed like a move designed to settle old rivalries from Ford family days in municipal politics.
“There was a belief that things could be easily fixed,” said one high-profile conservative. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly on party matters.
The source added that neither the Premier nor the people around him understood the mechanics of provincial politics. “It was an issues-management government rather than a visionary one.”
It was June, 2019, when Mr. Ford was booed by thousands of people at the Raptors’ victory parade. Four days later, chief of staff Dean French resigned amid the pressure over the patronage-appointment scandal. Steadier hands took over: Jamie Wallace was made chief of staff. Amin Massoudi, who had been serving as deputy chief of staff, was named principal secretary.
But that didn’t mean Mr. Ford became more circumspect in all aspects. Just before the pandemic hit, he travelled to Washington on a trade mission where he appeared to criticize Nancy Pelosi, the most senior Democrat in the the U.S. Congress, for ripping up Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech. Mr. Ford also made remarks that appeared to support the then-U.S. president for re-election.
“We hope the election is going to turn out the right way. Literally, the right way,” Mr. Ford said in February, 2020.
As COVID-19 descended on the world, one thing that was already set in motion was Mr. Ford’s decision to put Christine Elliott in charge of the $70-billion Health Ministry. His 2018 rival for the leadership of the party became a key ally.
There’s a long-standing personal bond between the two. It’s never been forgotten by the Fords that Ms. Elliott’s late husband, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – who was seat mates with MPP Doug Ford Sr. during the Harris years – publicly stood by them at the height of the 2013 scandal over Rob Ford’s use of alcohol and drugs.
She and Mr. Ford followed the advice of Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams until his retirement in June, 2021, and then Kieran Moore, said Ms. Elliott, who isn’t running again in this election. But she added that she and Mr. Ford had enough trust that “we could speak to each other about all aspects of the pandemic, both economically and from a health perspective.”
“We also had to consider, what would the people of Ontario agree to do? And you could only take things to that degree because if they won’t do it, it’s going to be a failure.”
Every politician in the pandemic has had to balance what public-health officials are calling for versus a political calculation of what people will accept. In Mr. Ford’s case, even his fiercest critics acknowledge that he’s among the cadre of provincial politicians, a list that also includes British Columbia’s John Horgan and Quebec’s François Legault, whose work during the pandemic made them more liked or accepted as leaders.
Criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein wrote an April, 2020, editorial for The Globe praising Mr. Ford’s handling of the pandemic to that point.
“He stood up to the bully to the south, Donald Trump, when he proclaimed that stopping the shipment of much-needed medical supplies to Canada is not how a neighbour is expected to act. Understanding the pervasive anxiety, he reassured the youngest Ontarians that the Easter Bunny was an essential service. One cannot escape the feeling that there is an adult in the legislative house,” she wrote.
“I’m not alone in the bewilderment I’m feeling at saying this out loud,” Ms. Henein added.
Ms. Wynne said recently that “COVID, in a lot of ways, gave him a focus.”
“It focused his team,” Ms. Wynne added. “He just had to show up and read the teleprompter.”
Amanda Galbraith, a principal at public-relations firm Navigator and former communications director for Toronto Mayor John Tory, called him “Premier Dad” in a Canadian Press article, a description that defined Mr. Ford’s early days in the pandemic. Now, she says, Mr. Ford’s brand of politics was naturally very skeptical of the role of government. “But in a pandemic, you have no choice but to use those levers.”
Although ordering the province’s health restrictions and vaccine mandates did not come naturally to him, aides say, Mr. Ford was more often swayed by the cautious voices who wanted stronger clampdowns than by those against them. Students in Ontario spent more time learning online than their peers in other parts of the country. Ontarians were mandated to wear masks and stay at home longer compared with other provinces governed by conservatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Michael Balagus, the long-time chief of staff to NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who is now the party’s senior campaign director, has a much different view of Mr. Ford’s pandemic performance. He believes that being on TV on a regular basis with need-to-know information gave Mr. Ford, and other Canadians premiers, a huge boost.
“I have never seen a two-year stint where the premiers sucked up as much oxygen as they did across Canada,” said Mr. Balagus. The only Premier who didn’t really benefit from this politically, he added, is Alberta’s Jason Kenney.
Mr. Ford “is very much the same politician he was before the pandemic,” Mr. Balagus added. “Prepandemic, he was just lashing out everywhere. I think the pandemic removed the opportunity to do some of those things.”
There were awful moments during the pandemic, still. For example, Mr. Ford’s bombast that he would somehow put an “iron ring” of protection around seniors in long-term care facilities during the pandemic.
Mr. Balagus notes that early in the pandemic, Mr. Ford had been at COVID-19 briefings on a near daily basis. But after the apology in April, 2021, there was a period of months where the Premier was absent from those briefings, and other public events where reporters could ask questions.
“And not seeing Doug Ford was probably helpful for Doug Ford,” Mr. Balagus said.
It’s also true that Ontarians who judged the province’s health restrictions as too harsh haven’t created the same political divisiveness that occurred in Alberta’s United Conservative Party. Mr. Ford has shown a willingness to quickly jettison staff and MPPs such as Randy Hillier and Rick Nicholls when they veer outside mainstream norms.
On the first day of the election campaign, a man stood outside the Toronto Congress Centre trying to get the attention of Progressive Conservatives exiting a Ford rally. He argued that Mr. Ford shut down the province and became friends with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “How is that conservative?” he yelled through a megaphone.
Mr. Ford has likely lost some support on the right over his strict implementation of health restrictions. However, he has likely been able to make it up elsewhere.
Mr. Ford, his aides say, has been swayed by people who are drawn not to conservatism but who are drawn to him.
According to Mr. Lyle, the pollster, about a quarter of Ontario voters identify as PC Party supporters. But another large group of voters, who don’t identify with the party, have a positive impression of Mr. Ford because of his leadership during the pandemic. Mr. Lyle calls this Mr. Ford’s “personal vote.”
“He has a personal brand that is non-ideological,” said Mr. Lyle. “And his personal vote is a lot more moderate than the conservative base.”
Mr. Ford’s backers also say he has changed the Ontario PC Party. He hasn’t won any love from teachers and other public-sector unions, and the NDP and the Liberals argue that Ontarians need to remember his early moves to cancel an increase in the minimum wage and delay granting workers paid sick days. On the campaign trail, Ms. Horwath has reminded voters that the Ford government passed legislation in 2019 that caps pay raises in the public sector at 1 per cent.
But even Mr. Balagus says his left-of-centre party is increasingly competing with the PCs for blue-collar voters. And a few private-sector labour leaders have come to praise Mr. Ford and some of his policy changes, including on rights for gig workers and a pre-election promise to raise the minimum wage to $15.50. Mr. Ford has made an appeal to blue-collar workers a key part of his platform, and has won the endorsement of a number of trade and construction unions.
“He is kind of responsible for dragging the PC Party towards having at least a better relationship with unions,” said Mr. Tarrant.
Mr. Ford is also trying to become more acceptable to a broader range of voters, demonstrated in a June, 2021, cabinet shuffle that injected more diversity into his government, promoting younger members, women and people of colour.
In 2018, when his government was first sworn in, there were plans to slash the budget by 4 per cent. But despite some high-profile cuts, the PCs in government haven’t made dramatic changes to overall fiscal policy. And the spending-heavy budget introduced days before this campaign is far from the fiscally restrained plan Mr. Ford laid out at the beginning of his term.
There was also a gift to voters, cutting annual vehicle licence renewal fees – a move that will cost the province $1.1-billion a year in lost revenue.
One indication of how Mr. Ford has evolved as a provincial leader is the way he has stayed away from difficult ideological debates within the federal party. Earlier this year, he barred his MPPs from wading into the cantankerous federal leadership race. “Now I think when this government picks a fight … they do so because it’s politically advantageous to them,” said Ms. Galbraith. “There’s a strategy and a process for that.”
Mr. Ford’s government has reached a kind of detente with federal Liberals, even though that party campaigned against the Ontario Premier in the 2019 election. And he once campaigned against “Trudeau’s carbon tax.”
One day before the election campaign began this month, the Prime Minister and Mr. Ford stood together to announce billions of dollars in electric-vehicle production at Stellantis plants in Windsor and Brampton. The Toronto Star reported how Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she and Mr. Ford had talked so much during the pandemic that they had come to describe one another as each other’s therapist.
“He’s not super-ideological. He judges people on how they interact with him,” Mr. Tarrant said. “And so it is not artifice for him when he says he’s a huge fan of Chrystia Freeland.”
But there’s a political calculation there, as well. Mr. Ford’s closest advisers know that there’s some overlap between those who vote for the Liberals federally, but will also consider casting their vote for Mr. Ford and his PCs provincially.
It’s certainly not as if there still aren’t differences, especially on the issues of the environment and climate change. Still, Mr. Ford is now keen on the industrial transformation to position Ontario as an international supplier of low-carbon goods, a position he did not take four years ago.
Melanie Paradis, a writer and conservative campaigner, says a key trademark of Mr. Ford that has made his government stronger is that he wants to hear the dissenting viewpoints. He believes that when everyone’s arguing openly with one another in the boardroom, “they aren’t stabbing each other in the back behind the scenes.”
Mr. Massoudi, who began his close relationship with the Ford family a dozen years ago, said the thing he respects most about Mr. Ford is “he’s willing to take the advice of the people that he trusts around him. He will listen to everyone. He will make you work to change his mind. But he’s willing to change his mind.”
Others in the party say Mr. Ford’s desire to have everyone agree sees cabinet meetings go on much longer than they should, and that it has taken time for him to realize that “consensus” in cabinet is what he decides it is.
Mr. Ford’s pandemic performance brought him a new constituency that he must now work to keep in his big tent. He appears to have learned how to be more of a leader and, unlike his early days in office, has a better grasp of provincial policy and complexity. But he has retained the part of his political persona that appeals to voters.
The campaign itself has been a button-down affair, with little to galvanize voters or to turn them against the governing party. This is a huge advantage for the Progressive Conservatives – with their carefully managed daily announcements, and limits on reporters’ access to Mr. Ford.
Whether it’s a muddy field near the route for the planned 413 highway, or outside of an auto dealership, or at a debate in North Bay, there are topics you’ll hear time and again on Mr. Ford’s campaign: Road building, homes and workers. New go-train stations. Cutting the gas tax on Canada Day. The ever-present slogan “Get it done.”
There is little in the way of looking back to his inexperience in 2018, the worst moments of COVID-19, or how he’s changed as a conservative during the past four years.
But at a campaign stop in Bowmanville, I ask Mr. Ford to assess his political evolution from 2018. He responds mostly with campaign talking points regarding his party’s push on jobs and plans to build new hospitals, and how the Liberals and NDP only talk about getting things done.
But there is a moment of self-reflection. “I think any job you get involved in, you learn as you move forward. All of us, throughout this pandemic, have learned a lot.”
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