Lisa MacLeod, MPP for Nepean-Carleton, stands in the middle of a ballroom in a suburban recreation complex whose ugliness is its own special achievement. “They wanted a room for about 300 people when they were coming to Ottawa,” she hollers into a microphone. “And I told them, ‘You better get me a room for 500, because Ford Nation is comin’ through!’ ” And indeed, a standing-room-only crowd of 500 or so packs in around her, awaiting the headlining act: Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.
Abruptly, MacLeod’s tone shifts from pep rally to crime re-enactment voiceover as she warns that Ford’s surging popularity means they will be subjected to “unprecedented attacks” from the Liberals and their cronies. There may even be protesters among them tonight. She leads the crowd through a few practice rounds of “FORD! FORD! FORD!” chants, designed to drown out any dissent, before concluding brightly, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
Finally, the reason people braved a mid-April ice storm to be here appears. Ford, wearing a grey plaid suit and tie, enters to the opening thrums of Eye of the Tiger and glad-hands his way to the front, where he ignores the podium and strolls about with the microphone. “Fifty-three more days, friends, until relief is on its way,” he intones, to raucous cheers. “Relief is coming!”
Here are the things this crowd likes: more money in their pockets; less money in the government’s pocket; scrutinizing the budget line by line to sniff out waste; doing that without a single job getting axed. Here are the things this crowd does not like: current hydro rates; Ontario’s debt; a carbon tax. And here are the things this crowd hates with the fire of one thousand suns: the Ontario Green Energy Act; Premier Kathleen Wynne; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“Mr. Dressup!” yells someone in the crowd, causing Ford to lose track of his speech and chortle, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had at a place”). Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt, whom Ford has dubbed “the six-million-dollar man” because of his salary, exists on his own plane of resentment. When Ford first references him, it’s a bizarro version of the opening notes of a band’s biggest hit; the crowd hoots and jeers on command.
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Ford praises the blue-and-white signs bobbing around him, emblazoned with “FORD FOR THE PEOPLE,” the campaign slogan he had unveiled the day before. That’s why we’re all in politics, Ford tells them: to make a positive difference. “Except for Kathleen Wynne,” a man in the crowd crows, looking both mortified and enormously pleased with himself. “Wynne’s gotta lose!” Ford chuckles indulgently, then forges ahead in his remarks. But the man in the crowd has tasted show business: “It would be nice to see Wynne become a loser,” he yelps. Ford pauses for an awkward moment, then valiantly attempts to complete what was supposed to be a crescendo moment in his speech.
It goes on like this. It’s not that they’re not listening to the man with the microphone—this is a rapt audience—it’s that they can’t stop themselves from screaming, “Yeah! And another thing!” in response.
Ford’s own delivery, though, is strangely at odds with his words. As he rails about waste and disrespect for taxpayers and heartbreaking stories of people who can’t pay their bills, his voice is nonchalant, almost singsong. The words are a righteous call to arms, but the tone is a memorized grocery list. Doug Ford is the mascot of the anger and frustration driving this room full of soggy, fed-up Ontario voters, but he doesn’t embody it.
At Toronto City Hall, Ford, 53, and his late brother, Rob, functioned as a virtual two-headed mayor, presiding over one of the most insane periods in Canadian politics. Now, after PC Leader Patrick Brown resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations, followed by a slapdash leadership race, Ford leads a party that faces an extremely long-in-the-tooth Liberal government and a premier with historically low approval ratings. Ford Nation is suddenly setting up expansion franchises across Ontario, and the June 7 election and Queen’s Park look to be theirs for the taking.
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Those who worked with Ford in municipal politics describe a businessman with an unhealthy confidence in his own judgment and a disdain for painstaking policy construction; someone who is entertaining and charming, but also quick to anger and unwilling to compromise—a “one-man band” on the cusp of running Canada’s largest province. “I think Doug Ford is so underestimated in every way possible that a lot of people think, ‘Oh, this can’t happen, he can’t be elected premier.’ Or if he does get elected premier, he’ll tone it down, he’ll become more mainstream,” says John Filion, a Toronto city councillor who wrote a book on the Ford era. “And all of that is wrong.”
Doug Holyday met his first Ford in 1994. Holyday was a councillor in Etobicoke, running for mayor of the suburb that would soon be swallowed up by Toronto amalgamation. He had 1,000 election signs with “councillor” on them, and since those things aren’t cheap, he walked into Deco Labels & Tags to see if they could cover the old signs. Doug Ford Jr., then working at the company his father, Doug Sr., founded, not only made the labels, but joined Holyday’s steering committee. “Doug was just a guy that if he liked you and wanted to be your friend, he was going to get involved and do what he could to help you,” Holyday says. “He just bit hook, line and sinker for politics.”
Holyday won that mayoral race, and soon after, Doug Sr. sought his support in securing the provincial PC nomination for Etobicoke-Humber, after which he served one term as a backbencher in Mike Harris’s government. As origin stories go, that the Ford political dynasty was born out of the desire to save a buck is a tad too on the nose, but still pretty good.
Holyday’s theory has always been that Doug Jr. was happy to have his father and younger brother launch themselves into politics so he could run Deco. “With the other two in other things, I guess that gave him a freer hand to do what he thought was right,” he says. (There are two older Ford siblings—Randy and Kathy—but neither were in the running to handle the family business.) When Rob ran for mayor after three terms as a councillor, Holyday interprets Doug’s decision to run for his younger brother’s vacated seat as akin to leaping over the boards when a teammate is taking a beating at centre ice. “Doug thought the more voices that were on council supporting Rob, the better chance Rob would have of making his changes,” Holyday says. (He was by then a Toronto city councillor himself, and became Rob Ford’s deputy mayor.)
The brothers Ford are nearly always—even now, though Rob died of a rare abdominal cancer in March 2016—talked about as a set. And as politicians, they cultivated the perception that they were a walking, talking buy-one-get-one-free offer. “Put it this way,” Doug told Filion in an interview for Filion’s 2015 book, The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford. “You get in a fight with one Ford, you get the whole clan coming after you.”
But their true dynamic was much more fraught. “He and Doug had this kind of weird rivalry,” says Adam Vaughan, a former Toronto city councillor and now a Liberal MP. “You got the sense that Doug was the older brother who picked on him a bit, and when Rob suddenly became more successful, it kind of destabilized the two of them: ‘You can’t pick on me, I’m the mayor,’ and ‘How did you get to be the mayor? I’m the smart kid in the family.’ ”
Where that jostling for dominance evaporated instantly, though, was when someone else took a run at either of them. “The only time I really saw them come together was when there was an external threat, and then they were like the Mexican brothers from Breaking Bad,” says Filion. Doug is often described as the “un-Rob”—Rob Ford without the substance abuse and personal problems, but also without the shambling underdog charm that made the late mayor a believable defender of the trodden-upon. “What you’re getting here is you are getting Rob Ford without the demons,” says Holyday.
Doug Ford loved the clash of the campaign trail, but at City Hall, he had no stomach for the incremental, deliberative work of actually governing. “It’s extremely frustrating,” he says in an interview. “I come from the private sector: you make a decision, you move forward. I think many people have that frustration with the government. It moves at a snail’s pace, and when we have big problems that need to be solved, they need to be solved today.” But asked about the differences between the two worlds—the ways in which you can’t simply run a government like a business—he doesn’t really have an answer.
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Giorgio Mammoliti, a Toronto city councillor and Ford ally, says there was a clear learning curve for Ford at City Hall, and he expects it will be similar if he lands in the premier’s office. “At the time, there were many of us trying to let him know that government works in a particular way, and he might not get his outcome right away,” Mammoliti says. “It took a while for him to understand that process, but when he got it, he was really good at it.”
Vaughan’s experience was, shall we say, different. “You don’t really work with Doug Ford,” he snorts. “He’s kind of a one-man band.” On what it was like to negotiate with him over a vote, Vaughan literally says “Pffft,” like a comic strip come to life: “It was just bullying.”
In Filion’s book, Nick Kouvalis, who managed Rob Ford’s victorious 2010 mayoral campaign, laid out the Doug Ford flow chart of political negotiation. First, turn on the charm. If that doesn’t work, switch to bullying. And if that doesn’t get the job done, threaten. At the time Kouvalis spoke to Filion, he had just signed on to run John Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign, which would eventually defeat Doug. Kouvalis said Ford had called him at home late one night to ream him out; the former backroom operative seemed most offended by his artlessness. “When people are civilized, it’s implied: you cross me, I’m going to get you back,” Kouvalis said. “You don’t say it!” (Kouvalis did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
Ford, for his part, disputes that he is difficult to work with. “I don’t think that’s true whatsoever, and anyone who knows me disagrees with that,” he says. “I’m a team player. I wouldn’t be able to run a business—I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today—if I wasn’t a team player.” To Ford, loyalty is everything. “But I’ve gotta emphasize—not blind loyalty,” he says. “I want people around me who will tell me the truth, I want people who will disagree with me and give me another point of view. I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t surround myself with yes-men and yes-women.”
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If Ford and his party sweep into Queen’s Park with a majority, of course, he will have both the leadership position to impose his will and the votes to push things through the legislature—provided there is no mutiny from within. But Ford’s type of intransigent tribalism would make any workplace a little fraught, let alone one with the egos, competing interests and shifting allegiances of politics.
“I get why he’s popular. But on a day-to-day level at council, we had to struggle with what do you do with him? What do you do with a guy who’s just ranting on outrageously, getting ready to mow people down?” says Joe Mihevc, a Toronto city councillor. Some of his colleagues got angry; Mihevc and Vaughan went a different way. “He was an affront to democracy and democratic processes at City Hall,” Mihevc says. “Laughter and humour—and frankly, mocking humour—became a coping strategy.”
They invented a sort of parlour game. Ford would rise in the council chamber to decry some idiotic idea that was sure to gobble up a bunch of public money. As he worked himself into a righteous froth about how governments can’t do anything right, Mihevc, who sat right behind him, would whisper, “Is it like the disaster on St. Clair?” Ford would hear those words and veer away from whatever he had been complaining about to curse the dedicated streetcar lanes on the midtown thoroughfare in Mihevc’s ward. “You could get him! He was an easy mark,” Mihevc says, wheezing with mirth. “That’s our Doug.” After, Mihevc would sometimes lean over and say, “Hey, I got 10 bucks when you said ‘disaster on St. Clair.’ ” And, to Ford’s credit, he wasn’t offended, but would offer a curt “Good for you.”
Vaughan—who also sat directly behind Ford—liked to wind up the brothers by snickering one-liners about Rob that Doug could hear. Doug would laugh, Rob would get red and furious and hiss demands to know whether his brother was laughing at him, and sometimes they would get distracted enough to vote against each other. “But they never moved him,” Vaughan marvels. “They should have moved him, because we were having way too much fun.”
To be clear, they understand this was not mature behaviour. “It’s very puerile,” Mihevc says. “But sometimes you couldn’t help yourself, because you were clearly in a show and he was clearly playing to the television.”
Ford seemed to enjoy all of this on some level, as though it was a delicious nibble of campaign-trail brawling in the midst of the drudgery of governing. When Vaughan won a federal by-election, Ford got choked up when he bade farewell to city council. Filion recounts in his book how Ford explained it to him: “I like Adam. You know why? He can take a political punch like I’ve never seen. You can go up to him and say, ‘You little f–kin’ prick, I’m going to tear you apart.’ If I said that to anyone else, they’d be running to the integrity commissioner, and they’d be filing a complaint. Adam, he looks at you, laughs, and then he’ll give you one back.”
But while Vaughan readily admits Ford was “loads of fun” to sit near, he was maddening to work with. “If you had to have a serious conversation about something, he never read the reports and I don’t think he understood what he did read,” he says. “He was always the smartest guy in the room. Even when he didn’t read the report, he knew what was wrong with it.” And over his four-year stint on council, Ford missed 30 per cent of council votes; during the final year of his term, in 2014, he skipped out on 53 per cent of the votes, the Toronto Star reported.
Ford, however, describes himself as “very flexible and open-minded,” someone who very much believes in seeking out new information to shape his decisions. “I intentionally surround myself . . . with people of all backgrounds so I get a different point of view,” he says. “And I’m always open to hearing other opinions and sometimes changing my own, as a result of listening to other people.”
In January, he appeared before his former colleagues to address a committee about a plan to add bike lanes to Yonge Street between Finch and Sheppard. He hated the idea. “See how well-behaved I am today?” he purred to the committee chair when his allotted speaking time was up. “Very well-behaved,” she agreed. “Hopefully that’s not about to change.” Filion was the first to question Ford, asking if he’d read the staff report. “I ran through a few pages of it,” he said breezily, dangling it from his fingertips. “I don’t need to read a staff report to see they’re gonna destroy Yonge Street. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out if you’re taking two lanes of traffic out, you’re reducing it down to 50 per cent, what’s gonna happen.” Filion pressed him: but had he read how much it would actually delay drivers? “Councillor Filion, it’s a no-brainer,” Ford said, his previously measured voice rising. “I go down Yonge Street three, four times a week by Yonge and 401. It’s a nightmare getting from Finch down to the 401.” Filion’s time ran out before he could supply the answer from the staff report: the delay would be one minute.
You can see Ford’s impatience with details—and his frustration with people who hassle him about them—in the current campaign, too. In a splashy policy announcement on April 12, Ford declared that when he becomes premier, he will fire the CEO of Hydro One and the board, who are “laughing themselves to the bank” while Ontarians can’t afford to keep their lights on. He answered a handful of questions then vamoosed off the stage, leaving his energy critic to field the rest. They were tough questions, because the Wynne government partially privatized Hydro One beginning in 2015, so as premier, Ford couldn’t actually fire the CEO. He can get rid of the board and install a new one that would fire the CEO, but that would entitle Schmidt to a $10-million payout, at which point the plan becomes a weird way to save money.
A few years ago, it was a minor internet joke to type nonsensical travel plans into mapping apps. So you could ask Google Maps, say, how to walk from Toronto to London, England, and it would tell you to stroll for a week and a half to Halifax, then hop into the Atlantic Ocean and go for a swim—destination reached. Ford’s approach to policy appears a lot like that: we will get from Point A to Point B by sheer force of personality, dammit, and anyone who says we can’t is a snob who doesn’t care about your grievances. So to point out that these policies don’t add up or will not solve the often-legitimate problems they have identified is both correct and likely beside the point for voters who are seeing and hearing in Ford something they like (hydro prices, health care wait times, taxes on low-income earners and a corporate tax are among his signature items).
The rally crowd in Ottawa a few days after Ford announced his everybody-fired Hydro One policy? They loved it. Recent polls have shown a slight tightening in the PC lead in Ontario—but Ipsos Public Affairs CEO Darrell Bricker argues that is only a regression to averages and there has been no real change in support since Ford won the leadership. Voters want a change—that’s it. At the same time, Abacus Data recently attempted to tease out the characteristics of “Ford Nation,” as distinct from other PC voters. It wasn’t demographics or address that explained who had climbed aboard the No-Gravy Train, and it wasn’t a particular issue, either. It was Doug.
“More than anything, what members of Ford Nation seem to have in common is an extraordinary affinity for Doug Ford,” the polling company determined. “He connects with these Ontarians more than any other politician, and they are enthusiastic to be his tribe. They feel he fights for them, speaks their language and doesn’t talk down to them.”
This is where Filion believes Doug Ford’s political skill lies, and why policy may be virtually irrelevant to his success. Just as the Fords themselves have always made their decisions by gut, they understand that’s how many voters decide, too: either I like that guy or I don’t, the rest is noise. “He just knows that if you ask 10 people if they think the head of Hydro One should make $6 million, nine of them are going to say no and five of them are going to be angry about it,” Filion says. “It doesn’t matter so much whether you can fix that or not—the fact that you are angry too and say you’re going to do something about it, that’s good enough.”
Back in Ottawa, after Ford concludes his speech, about one-third of the crowd hangs around, clustering around one corner of the ballroom, where a row of Ontario flags provides a backdrop for smartphone photos with the PC leader. Ford is in gregarious-salesman mode: every stranger who approaches is greeted like someone he’s heard about for years through some mutual friend and was hoping to see tonight. The preferred term of address is “buddy.” A young campaign staffer stands near Ford with a bottle of water tucked in one pocket and a tissue in the other. Every few minutes, he hands the bottle to Ford for a slug, and then the tissue to mop his face.
Susan Anctil and Helen Byers wait until nearly the end of the line to meet Ford. Anctil runs a home daycare and believes the Wynne government’s tightened rules will put her out of business. Byers, who used to work in MacLeod’s office, is appalled by the astronomical hydro rates people like her son, who lives in a rural area, must contend with. But underlying those specific issues is a much broader sense of just being fed up. “Enough is enough is enough,” says Anctil.
Byers feels sure the PCs are about to land a majority, and to her, Ford is the right leader because he’s “strong enough” to stand up to Wynne, and not afraid of her. “There’s something about the man that I feel that he’s got the strength and the power to win for us,” she says. “He talks to you like a person,” Anctil agrees. “And his sign, ‘For the people’? I believe that,” Byers chimes in. “Very much a people person,” Anctil concurs. “The whole Ford family was for the people, even Rob was.”
Around them, the ballroom has virtually emptied of all the people who turned up in an ice storm to hoist “FORD FOR THE PEOPLE” signs. The protesters lurking among them never did make themselves heard. It was just Doug Ford and his people, screaming at and over and around each other in an ecstasy of electoral fury.