Toronto’s Trump: Doug Ford, brother of crack-smoking ex-mayor Rob Ford, eyes a familiar path to power in Ontario
‘It’s about all the angry, alienated, disenfranchised people out there, which makes up one-third of the population wherever you are’
Doug Ford is campaigning to become leader of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province – and perhaps to bring glory to the Ford name.
The family name was marred by his brother Rob Ford, the late mayor of Toronto whose political career was dogged by drunken escapades and a video of him smoking crack cocaine.
But Doug Ford’s rhetoric on the campaign trail has compelled observers to link him to another political name: US President Donald Trump.
Ford has positioned himself as the antithesis of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and as a right-of-centre businessman who derides elites, whom he has described as “people who look down on the average, common folk, thinking they’re smarter and that they know better to tell us how to live our lives.”
“They have their glasses of champagne with their pinkies up in the air, looking down like they’re better than you are,” Ford, the surprise winner in a March leadership race for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, recently told a Toronto radio talk show.
With less than two months remaining until the June 7 provincial election, his party is well ahead in opinion polls and widely expected to win.
“Doug is smart in the way Trump is smart,” said John Filion, who served on Toronto city council with both brothers and is the author of a biography of Rob. “Doug is very calculating and, like Trump, doesn’t have any political ideology … It’s this intellectual agility to come up with positions that appeal to a broad group of people even if they make no sense.”
Ford, who shares his brother’s populist appeal and combative style but keeps away from alcohol, has promised reduced taxes, lower electric power rates and an end to the 14-year rule of the Liberal Party, led by an unpopular premier, Kathleen Wynne.
Wynne lashed out at Ford earlier this month, calling him a “bully” and likening him to Trump. “Doug Ford sounds like Donald Trump, and that’s because he is like Donald Trump,” she said. “He believes in an ugly, vicious brand of politics that traffics in smears and lies. He’ll say anything about anyone at any time because he’s just like Trump. It’s all about him.”
Some analysts dismiss the comparisons between Ford and Trump. Pollster Darrel Bricker of Ipsos Public Affairs says both politicians may reject elites but Ford doesn’t embrace Trump’s strident anti-immigration stance. In fact, Ford and his brother have always attracted substantial support from Ontario’s big immigrant communities, particularly in the Toronto suburbs.
These ethnic Canadians are “middle-class strivers buying houses with two-car garages,” Bricker said, who feel the same frustration and anger with what they see as high taxes, too much congestion and an out-of-touch government as other Ford backers. Bricker sees the election as “a referendum on Wynne and she’s losing.”
Ipsos’s latest poll, published on April 10, shows Ford’s Conservatives with 40 per cent of decided voters over the left-leaning New Democratic Party with 28 per cent and the ruling centre-left Liberals in third place with 27 per cent.
“(Voters) are taking the biggest hand grenade they can throw and they’re pulling the pin,” Bricker said. “The day after they don’t care what happens.”
Over the past few weeks, Ford’s campaign has criss-crossed Ontario, hitting on several hot-button issues. At a rally earlier this month, he took the microphone before 400 people in a suburban sports complex and told supporters, “The days of gouging taxpayers are done.”
Ford got some of the biggest rounds of applause when he attacked plans for a carbon tax, which Ontario has agreed to implement in conjunction with Trudeau’s government. Just the mention of Trudeau led to jeering.
The Fords grew up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, where their father built a thriving printing and label manufacturing business and was a one-time provincial legislator. But despite their privileged background, family members struggled with substance abuse and had several run-ins with the law.
Rob, considered shyer and less self-assured than the supremely confident Doug, was the first of the Ford brothers to enter municipal politics. He developed a loyal following, dubbed Ford Nation, among lower- and middle-class voters in Toronto’s inner suburbs. These voters felt left out of the real estate boom concentrated in the city centre and squeezed by higher taxes and growing congestion, according to Myer Siemiatycki, who teaches politics at Ryerson University.
The Fords argued that elites were running everything and ignoring their concerns, he said. “They have a very retro old-school conservative approach. ‘We’re going to slash spending by tackling waste without any evidence of where there’s waste.’ ”
As mayor, Rob was frequently inebriated and got into altercations at home and with members of the public. But Doug, who eventually entered municipal politics, was always around to defend him.
As mayor, Rob dealt with allegations he smoked crack cocaine, an incident he originally denied but later acknowledged took place “during one of my drunken stupors.” The Globe and Mail reported in 2013 that Doug dealt hashish as a high school student, a charge he denied, calling it “sleazy journalism” and an “outright lie.”
Doug has always loved to goad elites and intellectuals. In 2011, as a municipal councillor, he argued for the closure of a public library in his ward. “Why do we need another little library in the middle of nowhere that no one uses?” When Margaret Atwood, the celebrated Canadian novelist, hit back at the proposed library cuts, Doug responded, “I don’t even know her. If (Atwood) walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.”
Filion said the Fords appeal to the same segment of the electorate as Trump and other populists: “It’s about all the angry, alienated, disenfranchised people out there, which makes up one-third of the population wherever you are.”
But Ford needs to attract enough swing voters to get about 40 per cent of the vote if the Conservatives are to win a majority in the provincial legislature, said pollster Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research.
Despite Ford’s commanding lead, he still attracts high disapproval ratings. “He’s a polarising figure,” Bozinoff said. “I think this election is going to have a lot of twists and turns before it’s over.”