TORONTO – Eight years after a populist wave handed Rob Ford the reins of Canada’s largest city, his brother is testing the same brand of everyman appeal on the provincial stage.
With calls to trim government fat and put money back into voters’ pockets, Doug Ford is painting himself as a fiscally responsible outsider in an effort to propel Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives back to power for the first time in 15 years.
“We will form a government that is for the people. Not for the insiders, not for the elites, a government that will have your back,” Ford told cheering supporters as he launched the Tory campaign Tuesday night. “I intend on keeping the promises that I make.”
Ford, who seized the Tory crown in a heated leadership race two months ago, is hoping to woo voters with promises of relief that harken back to his late brother’s mantra to “stop the gravy train,” but offer little in terms of concrete policies.
His brash demeanour and controversial remarks have made him a polarizing figure, but they’ve also endeared him to so-called Ford Nation, a demographic that first mobilized around his scandal-plagued younger sibling and remains fiercely loyal to the family name.
Ford’s opponents, meanwhile, say his reliance on slogans, suggestions that some Liberals should be behind bars, and rocky relationship with the media bring to mind another controversial politician – U.S. President Donald Trump.
VIDEO: Doug Ford, Kathleen Wynne spar over tax cuts
Yet with both Ford and his party leading in the polls, some say the election is his to lose.
“The Liberals are watching us right now and they are worried,” Ford told his supporters at a rally late Tuesday. “They see a movement taking hold, a movement like we’ve never seen in the last few decades.”
Though he has yet to present a platform, the Tory leader has laid out some of his priorities while criss-crossing the province ahead of the campaign, pledging to order both an audit and an inquiry into government spending and to fire the board and CEO of partially privatized utility Hydro One over executive salaries.
He has vowed to scrap carbon pricing and cut four per cent from the budget without eliminating jobs, a plan denounced as impossible by his opponents.
VIDEO: Doug Ford takes direct approach to communicating with voters
And in a move appealing to the party’s social conservative elements, he has promised to revoke the controversial sex-ed curriculum brought in by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and to tie post-secondary funding decisions to “the willingness of university administrators to protect free speech.”
Ford has also promised to reunite the party after months of unprecedented upheaval and infighting brought to the fore by the departure of his predecessor, Patrick Brown, amid sexual misconduct allegations that he denies.
“I will get our party back on track, we will put a platform forward that speaks to every Ontarian,” he said in his leadership victory speech in March. “Together we will return our province to where it belongs.”
Ford is the second son of Diane and Doug Ford Sr., a provincial politician for one term in the late 1990s. Ford has also played a leadership role in Deco Labels and Tags – the family’s multimillion-dollar company with operations in Canada and the U.S.
The Tory leader has promised to put the company in a blind trust if elected premier, though experts say that would not stop him from benefiting from the corporate tax cut he has promised.
VIDEO: Doug Ford responds to greenbelt video, pledges to ‘replace’ any protected land developed
A self-described family man, the father of four speaks regularly of his father and brother and launched his bid for the Tory leadership from his mother’s basement in west Toronto.
It was through his brother that Ford first came into the spotlight, as champion and sometimes enforcer for the then-mayor whose admission of using crack cocaine made international headlines.
Ford served one term on city council while his brother was mayor, and though the pair had a few successes early in their tenure they were otherwise largely hamstrung as they lost the support of council.
He stepped in as a mayoral candidate after cancer forced Rob Ford to give up on running for a second term, casting himself as a natural successor while also distancing himself from his brother’s struggle with substance abuse and other issues.
Doug Ford, nonetheless, sparked controversies with his contentious remarks, which once saw him threatened with a defamation lawsuit by the city’s then-police chief until he issued a public apology.
VIDEO: Doug Ford blames ‘mess’ he inherited from predecessor for having to appoint 11 candidates
Since taking the Tory helm, Ford has shown more poise – a far cry from the confrontational politician who heckled his peers during council sessions – but has drawn criticism for some off-the-cuff remarks.
So far, Ontario residents have gotten a “mixed bag” from Ford at a time where he needs to establish a clear image of how he would govern, said Anna Esselment, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo.
Ford has called for fiscal restraint without clearly articulating how he would achieve it, and his recent reversal of a pledge to allow development in a large protected green space shows he isn’t used to the level of scrutiny given to provincial leaders, she said.
Competence, particularly on the fiscal front, is prized by voters when weighing Conservative leaders, Esselment said.
Presenting a fully costed platform is a key part of that, she said, and not having one would dog him during the campaign and allow his opponents to “make up how he’s going to pay for it.”
In order to maintain his lead, Ford “just has to show some basic level of competence,” she said.
“He almost has to make it a no-mistake campaign…the advantages for him are all there.”
© 2018 The Canadian Press