When 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?
“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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