One day in the fall of 2010, Doug Ford walked into the press gallery at Toronto City Hall. His brother Rob had just won a convincing victory in the municipal election and was preparing to take office as the city’s 64th mayor. A cranky city councillor who drove his colleagues around the bend with his rants about red tape and frivolous spending, Rob was promising to “stop the gravy train.”
Doug himself had just won Rob’s old seat in the suburb of Etobicoke and was about to become a member of city council, his first stint in elected office. He had come to the press gallery to tell reporters that everything would be all right. Like the first-rate salesman that he is, he went from office to office flashing his 200-watt grin and pressing the flesh. Yeah, Rob had said some wild stuff over the years, but he was mayor now, and things would be fine under a Ford mayoralty – just fine.
We all know how that went. Describing Rob’s record, Wikipedia says dryly that “his political career, particularly his mayoralty, saw a number of personal and work-related controversies and legal proceedings.” Long before the scandal that briefly made him the most famous mayor in the world, he was in hot water.
Doug was right in there with him. Despite his reputation as “the smart one,” he often tripped up himself, wrangling with the chief of police over the investigation of his brother and with his fellow councillors over the future of the waterfront, where he proposed to build a massive Ferris wheel. When rumours circulated that he would jump into provincial politics, sensible people suggested that the Progressive Conservatives would be wise to steer well clear of him.
And yet, here we are. The big, beaming bulldozer who walked into the gallery all those years ago has just won the right to form a second majority government in Canada’s most populous province – and a solid majority at that.
The last time around, you could call his win a bit of a fluke. He squeaked into the party leadership after the sudden resignation of PC leader Patrick Brown. The general election that followed was a gimme. Voters were eager to toss out the overstaying, overspending Liberals. They would probably have voted for the PCs no matter who was leader.
That is quite remarkable when you think about it. Though he comes from a political family and his father was an MPP, he was off running the family business during his brother’s early years at city hall. He struggled in his own early years down there, frustrated over a system he found hard to navigate. When he jumped into the race for mayor after Rob fell ill with cancer, he lost to John Tory.
His debut in the premier’s office was rocky, too. He provoked a fight with Mr. Tory and a tussle in the courts by halving the size of Toronto City Council in the midst of a municipal election campaign, an arbitrary and undemocratic move. He defended an indefensible decision to appoint a friend of his as head of the provincial police.
But he steadied himself during the long and trying pandemic emergency. He managed to convey the gravity of the crisis, but also to sound positive and optimistic about the eventual comeback. His down-to-earth style served him well.
His approach to government changed, too. The outsider became an insider. The critic of big government became a champion of it. Though he still claims to be the friend of the ordinary taxpayer, he has ambitious spending plans and is in no special hurry to balance the budget. Though he still tends to bluster and exaggerate, he is more temperate than he was in the city-hall years.
He is less likely to pick fights. He is better at listening to advice, better at forming alliances. The man who used to rail at the Trudeau government in Ottawa now makes friendly appearances with the Prime Minister.
There is a camp that says all of this is calculated; that Mr. Ford is simply wearing sheep’s clothing so that he can tear into the fold. Once the election is over, he will revert to his old combative, populist, slash-and-burn ways. We will see. Anything can happen in the next four years.
But give him some credit: Mr. Ford learned from experience and evolved. Ontario voters rewarded him handsomely for it.
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