When Ontario Progressive Conservatives gathered for a “unity rally” last March, the plan was for Doug Ford to be introduced by the candidates he had defeated for his party’s leadership days earlier.
It was to be an important gesture of conciliation, after a hurried and heated race that he barely won. But when Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney arrived at the Toronto Congress Centre, speaking notes already prepared, they were told that their services weren’t needed after all.
Instead, the person to precede Mr. Ford was someone most Tories in attendance had never seen or heard of before − but whose name they would soon know well, and whose presence many of them would soon come to fear.
Dean French, an Etobicoke businessman not prominent in Conservative circles since working on Stockwell Day’s national campaign nearly two decades earlier, was Mr. Ford’s campaign chair. The day after the PCs won power in June, Mr. Ford named him his chief of staff.
Since then, he has emerged as something even that job title can’t fully capture: an omnipresent force seen by some of the new government’s members as more powerful than the Premier who employs him.
The manner in which Mr. French wields his power entered public view this week, when The Globe and Mail reported that he forced the firing of Alykhan Velshi, who was chief of staff to former PC leader Patrick Brown, from a job at the energy utility Ontario Power Generation. His intervention left some Tories privately shaking their heads, because they see it as an impulsive move that will lead to a large, politically unhelpful severance payment.
While offering limited defence of that incident, Mr. French’s allies present it as isolated. In an interview this week, Chris Froggatt − a lobbyist and long-time friend of Mr. French who headed Mr. Ford’s transition team as the PCs formed government − credited Mr. French for bringing together Tories from all camps after the leadership race. He also credited him for adopting an aggressive management approach consistent with Mr. Ford’s desire to run government like a business. John Capobianco, another PC lobbyist who has long known Mr. French, suggested he mostly acts out of loyalty to Mr. Ford. (Mr. French did not reply to interview requests.)
But most of nearly 20 PC insiders interviewed − a range of caucus members and staffers and campaign veterans, almost all of whom were willing to speak only on a not-for-attribution basis − suggested that what happened with Mr. Velshi only scratched the surface of how Mr. French is asserting his will.
The way they describe him casts surprising light on the personality of this new government. Mr. Ford is described by provincial caucus members and staff as pleasant, respectful and, by some accounts, almost passive behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Mr. French is portrayed by insiders almost precisely as Mr. Ford’s critics perceive the new Premier to be: mercurial, bent on settling scores and indifferent to boundaries that his job usually involves.
Most chiefs of staff keep relatively low profiles and make some show of deferring to elected representatives. Mr. French is an extreme exception, for reasons more consequential than his occasional reprisals of his gig as Mr. Ford’s warm-up act.
There is the way he conducts himself in dealings away from Queen’s Park, including with other levels of government. Most staffers in their bosses' presence at such meetings defer to them; Mr. French has been at least as outspoken and aggressive as Mr. Ford when accompanying him to meetings with federal officials, with whom they are sparring.
There is the unusual control that Mr. French appears to exert over his government’s appointments processes. He is said to have a tendency to conduct negotiations for high-profile public positions − in some cases, lucrative arrangements off brand for a populist conservative government − without others being looped in, presenting them to Mr. Ford as done deals. The reported $350,000 salary for Conservative insider Ian Todd to serve as Ontario’s trade representative in Washington was cited by multiple sources as an example.
But the most polarizing aspect of Mr. French’s approach to his job is the way he throws his weight around with other Tories at Queen’s Park − encouraging fealty and discouraging independent thought in ways that are unusual even by the hyper-disciplined standards of Canadian parliamentary democracy.
In proceedings where political staff usually aren’t welcome to participate, he has taken a lead role. That includes actively engaging in cabinet meetings, as well as the smaller committee of senior ministers who are supposed to set the government’s agenda. He also sits at the front of caucus meetings, rather than along the side where staff usually sit quietly, if they attend at all. And he uses those positions to clamp down on any semblance of dissent.
Earlier this fall, former federal MP Paul Calandra − now a provincial backbencher − stood up in caucus to complain that MPPs had not been looped in before the government rolled out its cannabis policy (which Mr. French spearheaded internally). That level of criticism is not unusual at caucus meetings of most governments, including the Stephen Harper-led one that Mr. Calandra served in, and can be an important component of representing constituents. But according to multiple people who were in the room, after Mr. Ford responded politely, Mr. French furiously tore into Mr. Calandra for not being a team player. The result was a lengthy screaming match between the chief of staff and the MPP that served as a message to others in the room that they’re best to keep their heads down.
Mr. French’s behaviour with PC aides has been similar. At a meeting with ministers’ chiefs of staff, he asked whether they thought their directors of communications were performing well; when they answered yes, he berated them for being wrong. He then attended a meeting of communications directors where he assailed their collective competence, and singled out individual ones to the extent that in at least one case they were reduced to tears. The main cause of his anger, according to multiple sources, was that they were not doing enough to amplify Mr. Ford’s messaging on social media, through mechanisms like retweets and hashtags.
Accounts abound of similar one-on-one confrontations about perceived disloyalty, with threats of firings or demotions. MPPs are under the impression that Mr. French − a physically imposing man who speaks in sports metaphors, many about the importance of being a team − is closely monitoring their public behaviour for signs of insufficient enthusiasm. That may help explain caucus recently delivering so many standing ovations in Question Period that the Speaker of the legislature asked it to stop.
To date, push-back against such treatment has been minimal. Most members of Mr. Ford’s cabinet are happy to be there after years as opposition MPPs; most backbenchers are new to elected office. Few are inclined to risk going to Mr. Ford, particularly when Mr. French is perceived to closely guard access to him, and many consider sidling up to Mr. French as their best chance at longevity or promotion.
But the controversy with Mr. Velshi and various surprising personnel moves attributed to Mr. French (such as the unexplained firing of John Sinclair, the popular head of PC caucus services), has recently raised the level of chatter about whether the current situation is sustainable.
How Mr. Ford will react, if and when other Tories come to him with their concerns, is very unclear.
A view common among many of Mr. French’s detractors is that Mr. Ford would be upset to know how Mr. French is treating people, ostensibly on his behalf. But some of the interactions have happened right in front of him.
What they may be underestimating is the extent to which Mr. Ford sees in Mr. French a kindred spirit, and someone who has his back.
Although not much involved in broader party politics after his stint as a campaign official for Mr. Day’s Canadian Alliance, Mr. French remained a fixture in local politics in Etobicoke − where he moved as a young man after growing up in the Peterborough area – launched his insurance business and raised his family. That put him in the Ford family’s backyard, and he has been a reliable ally since as far back as 1995, when he helped Doug Ford Sr. successfully run for a provincial seat. Later, he worked on Rob Ford’s mayoral victory and helped organize the subsequent Harmony Dinner to erase the debt of some municipal candidates.
Mr. French was among the first people to hop aboard Doug Ford Jr.’s leadership campaign last winter. And over the course of that campaign and especially the general election, he was almost always by Mr. Ford’s side. That allowed the two men, who are both in their early 50s and share a love of sports and other interests, to strengthen their friendship.
In a government filled with political professionals who did not support Mr. Ford in the leadership contest, Mr. French stands out as someone whose established loyalty is first and foremost to the Premier, not the party or any other institution. Mr. Ford, known for his skepticism toward political and bureaucratic “elites,” may also see Mr. French’s disregard for institutional norms as a virtue. And as Mr. Froggatt suggested, Mr. Ford may look at his government’s early record – including pushing through an end to the province’s carbon pricing system, a shrinking of Toronto’s city council and an overhaul of cannabis legalization – and see Mr. French’s heavy-handedness paying off.
Even an odd one of Mr. French’s internal critics concedes some appreciation for the pace at which this government can move, when consensus is essentially forced on it rather than slowly ironed out at the cabinet table.
But from all those critics − senior staff around government, MPPs, people who worked on Mr. Ford’s campaign and express affection for him and belief in his government’s overall agenda − there are warnings about the path they are on, if Mr. French’s management style continues.
Morale, they say, is already dangerously low. The Tories are at risk of losing good staffers much earlier than most governments do. Aides and caucus members who bite their tongues while their party is still relatively strong in the polls could turn on their leader when the going gets tougher.
And that tough going could come sooner than it should, if there are more stories like the one with Mr. Velshi. A Premier and chief of staff both new to government and unfamiliar with usual boundaries could stumble onto all sorts of ethical landmines, if others with more legislative or governmental experience are afraid to speak up.
Such talk will not be audible as PCs gather this weekend for their first convention since winning government.
As Mr. French maintains his usual high profile, Queen’s Park denizens will be careful to publicly show requisite enthusiasm, lest they be called onto the carpet. But the whispers of confusion, when he took the microphone at the same venue last March for the unity rally, will likely be replaced by ones that are more knowing.