TORONTO — The Ontario election would be Doug Ford’s to lose.
At least that’s what polls and pundits suggested when the newly minted Progressive Conservative leader kicked off his campaign at a rally in Etobicoke, a suburb east of Toronto and the epicentre of so-called Ford Nation.
The former Toronto city councillor— mostly known to the rest of Canada as the handler of his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford — was lauded by his staunch supporters as a political outsider sure to shake things up at Queen’s Park.
Quickly positioning himself as a defender of the “little guy,” Doug Ford’s campaign message consisted of a simple, light-on-detail promise of putting money back in people’s pockets by lowering taxes, cutting hydro rates and eliminating the province’s cap-and-trade system.
But over the course of the campaign, the wealthy businessman has been slammed for not releasing a fully costed platform, prompting his political rivals to warn of massive cuts to public services under a Tory government.
Ford has dismissed those warnings.
“Don’t listen to the scare tactics,” he told a cheering crowd at a recent rally in Ottawa, calling criticisms against him “dishonest.” “Change is coming to Ontario.”
The lack of a Tory plan, however, combined with controversies involving several candidates appears to have taken a toll, with recent polls showing Ford in a close race with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath for the keys to the premier’s office.
“(Ford) is not particularly likable. He’s not seen as particularly efficient. He’s not a communicator,” said Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, noting Ford started the race with a significant lead.
“They’ve blown it in the space of a month.”
But for all the criticism Ford has received, and the slide in support suggested by polls, he could still take his party to victory, said Kay. The question now, he said, is whether the Tories can still mobilize their core support and harness people’s desire for change.
Ford has railed against so-called “elites,” although he comes from a wealthy political family.
He’s the second son of Diane and Doug Ford Sr., a provincial politician for one term in the late 1990s. He has spoken about his family on the campaign trail and launched his bid for the Tory leadership from his mother’s basement in west Toronto.
He was thrust into the national spotlight because of his championing of his scandal-plagued brother, whose admission of using crack cocaine made international headlines. He stepped in as a Toronto mayoral candidate when cancer forced his brother to give up on running for a second term.
The Ford family was back in the headlines this week, after Rob Ford’s widow launched a lawsuit alleging Doug Ford mishandled the estate of his late brother, causing financial harm to her and her children. Ford has denied the claims.
The Tory leader’s relationship with the media has been tense over the course of the campaign. He has generally made himself available to reporters just once a day, limiting the number of questions journalists could ask, and opted not to have a media bus.
Ford, who declined requests for an interview, has insisted that he has been open.
“Every single day I see the media, I talk to the media,” he said on Tuesday. “I’ve had probably more media access than both the candidates combined.”
Observers say the reduced media access limits scrutiny of Ford’s pledges. Questions about his promises to cut government waste by finding “efficiencies” of some $6 billion dollars often go unanswered.
“Doug’s a pretty casual guy. He throws numbers around,” said Paula Fletcher, a left-leaning Toronto city councillor who often squared off with Ford when he was in municipal government. “That deep, thorough knowledge of a subject — he didn’t have to engage in that in the city. I think maybe he thinks that’s what politics is like.”
Fletcher is skeptical about Ford’s oft-repeated claim that he and his brother saved Toronto taxpayers $1.16 billion over the course of their term.
“Everyone has found efficiencies,” she said. “(The Fords) developed a deficit when they were there.”
Fletcher also said the tightly regimented role of the premier, with a party system at the legislature, may not easily mesh with Ford’s shoot-from the-hip style.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had a great relationship with Doug,” she said of their four years serving together on council. “But the fact is, (being a city councillor) is a vigorous job, which I think he took kind of lightly.”
Ford’s longtime friend and former Toronto deputy mayor Doug Holyday, however, paints a different picture.
Holyday said he thinks Ford will have no trouble acclimatizing to Queen’s Park and downplays criticisms that his friend is a “one-man-band” who doesn’t work well with others.
“I’ve never, ever seen any evidence of him being a bully,” said Holyday. “He’s not opinionated or rude or anything like that at all. He may have a point to make and he’ll make it as forcefully as he can, as the rest of us did (at City Hall).”
Holyday also said Ford and his brother did find efficiencies at city hall through the elimination of 1,500 redundant positions. Those savings were achieved through attrition, transfers, voluntary buyouts and early retirements, not layoffs, he said.
“Doug is a hard-worker,” he said. “I think he has the best of intentions to make Ontario a better place for all.”
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press