Can Doug Ford win the Ontario PC race? Damn right he can

The former Toronto city councillor has shed his bombastic ways, is reaching out and stepping carefully. It could all add up to an Ontario PC leadership win

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Warren KInsellaWhen I quit the Olivia Chow Toronto mayoral campaign in 2014 – because she’d not told the truth to the media, among other things – guess who was the first person to call me?

Doug Ford.

“Warren, old buddy,” said Doug Ford, brother of former Toronto mayor, the late Rob Ford. “We’ve had our differences but I want you to chin up. Rob and I like you and respect you. Let’s get together when you get home.”

When you’re a political chew toy, you tend to remember calls like that one: you remember who called and who didn’t. So we stayed in touch after that. We did TV political panels together and we talked pretty regularly. I told him he shouldn’t run for mayor again, because John Tory was doing a great job and would cream him. He should run instead to be Ontario premier, I told him.

There’s clearly a market these days for populist conservatives who defy the conventional wisdom and say what they think, I told him. And there were lots of reasons why he’d be a formidable Progressive Conservative leadership candidate.

Here are 10:

Ford’s working hard: Every plugged-in PC is telling me the same thing: “Doug’s working the phones. Doug’s reaching out. Doug’s doing all the right things.” He’s doing what a party leadership candidate has to do in a race as short as this one (the winner will be declared on March 10): he’s working his tail off.

Ford’s disciplined: I think his musings about scrapping a carbon tax are a mistake – we need it (as a province) and his party needs it (because it finances their entire platform). But apart from that, he hasn’t blown any feet off and he’s saying the kind of stuff card-carrying Conservatives love.

• Ford has early support: Planning a rally this early in a campaign is a big risk: it takes a lot of time and hard work to get hundreds of people to come out to an event. Well, Ford got thousands out for a Toronto rally and in a very short time frame, too. It gave him momentum and the visuals were pretty stunning – not everyone there was an old white guy. At all.

• Ford’s evolved: A few weeks ago, I watched TVO’s fun Political Blind Date show, because Doug and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh were on, and because I like both of them. Singh was engaging, warm and likable, as you’d expect. But so was Ford – big time. I was shocked at how he had evolved as a politician. Gone is the shouty city councillor, always being forced to defend his brother’s bad behaviour. In its place was a HOAG – a hell of a guy.

• Ford’s better at retail: The TVO show also revealed something else. You could tell that the participants in the broadcast – the NDP members who agreed to the matchup and perhaps the TVO producers who came up with the idea – expected Ford to be what he had always been: a bit of circus act, a trained bear riding a tiny bike in the centre ring. Someone to be laughed at. Well, guess what? He was way better in the mano-a-mano segments than Singh was. Way.

• Ford has a USP: A unique selling proposition, that is. It’s easy to see how some disengaged voters – that is, 99 per cent of voters – would see Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, and fellow PC leadership candidates Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott as all kind of the same thing. You know: female, centrist, careful, establishment. Ford is none of those. He offers the only clear alternative for the voters who are after one (voters are always after one).

• Ford gives quotes: The guy is a quote machine. The microphone loves him. He never uses a $20 word when a $2 word would suffice. He never uses jargon and acronyms and Newspeak. He talks about values. He knows facts tell but stories sell. Ford is a one-man media machine.

• Ford dominates the vote-rich Greater Toronto Area: An important Mainstreet Research poll – little-noticed in last week’s madness – apparently showed that only one PC leadership candidate was very strong in the part of the province that decides who gets to be government: Toronto. In that area, he dominates. That matters. Remember: his brother crushed George Smitherman and Doug Ford came within 60,000 votes in his mayoral run against Tory in 2014. Ford Nation knows how to win in GTA.

• Ford ain’t dumb: I worked for a populist-type politician who everyone – from the Martimes to the media – always dismissed. They always put him down. They always said Jean Chretien was dumb when he was way (way) smarter than all of them. Ford, so far, is running a very smart campaign. If he can keep his mouth under control, he’s got a real shot at winning.

• Ford is reaching out: He did with me. And I know he’s reaching out to many others who have criticized him in the past: “The door is open,” he’s telling them. “Just walk through it.” In a leadership race – and in an election – it’s all about connection. Ford is connecting. He’s reaching out.

Can Doug Ford win? Damn right he can. Underestimate him at your peril.

Troy Media columnist Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator. His latest book, Recipe For Hate, has just been published across North America and Europe by Dundurn Press.


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