By Jessica Bruno
When Doug Ford praised Stephen Harper’s record during a campaign rally in Toronto last night, the Prime Minister wasn’t in the room.
After Ford finished speaking and melded into the crowd, another Conservative had the job of announcing Harper’s arrival.
Richmond Hill MP and candidate Costas Menegakis gave Harper a 30-second welcome. Harper made his way to the stage, pausing to shake hands with supporters. He did not thank Doug for warming up his audience for nine minutes.
Harper had spent a nearly a week referring to the Fords as “those individuals” in the media. Last night, he mentioned the family by name. He thanked “all of the constituency associations, the organizers, the volunteers — including the Fords” for making the event possible.
In front of the crowd, that was it for acknowledgement.
Harper has faced questions about the Ford family’s involvement in his campaign since Doug and his brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, attended a Toronto-area campaign stop on Tuesday. When explosive excerpts from a book written by the former mayor’s ex-chief of staff were published in Maclean’s the next day, reporters turned up the heat. Why would a law-and-order Prime Minister — who is against the legalization of marijuana — campaign with a man who smoked crack cocaine while holding public office?
Harper wouldn’t comment, but the narrative became that as he trailed the Liberals in the polls he was grasping for anything that would help his candidates keep their seats in the suburban ridings where the Fords are still popular.
The Conservative leader stuck to economic themes last night — outlining the danger of a Liberal government to Canadians’ pocketbooks. It was the message the people in the room wanted to hear. They cheered as he listed each tax rate he would lower and every credit he would expand, were he re-elected.
“Stephen Harper, before he was in power, promised a five per cent federal [sales] tax. He did it. He kept his promise,” said Lydia Du, 58, a volunteer for Don Valley East Tory candidate Maureen Harquail.
On the Fords, she said Rob’s issues were a personal. “He always considered citizens’ benefits first,” she said of his city management.
As Harper spoke, the Ford brothers sat in the second row, behind the 20 or so local candidates in the audience. Harper’s wife, Laureen, and son, Ben, were in another part of the crowd.
If Harper and the Fords shook hands, it was away from the media spotlight. In fact, Rob was already seated when reporters were allowed into the rally a few minutes before it began.
The Fords did pose privately for a photo with the Prime Minister, which Rob posted to his Twitter account.
— Rob Ford (@TorontoRobFord) October 18, 2015
The last tweet on the Prime Minister’s account was a thank-you to an anti-drug community group.
Tory volunteer Tom Tracey, 54, drove 500 km from Renfrew County, Ont., to see Harper speak. It’s the Prime Minister’s work on major trade deals that’s important to him. “I think he’s a class act on the world stage,” he said.
Whatever the Fords’ involvement that night, Tracey said the family’s problems are separate from their work for the party.
“The Fords, both Doug and Rob, have been part of the Conservative family forever, and always will be,” said Tracey. “What [Rob’s] issues were personally I don’t think has anything to do with electing a good government for the future.”
Of the two Ford brothers, it was Doug’s night to shine. Before the rally, he milled about the crowd, greeting supporters and posing for pictures. Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke spent a few minutes with him, observing as Doug worked the room.
Later, it was Doug in the fore again, scrumming with media and downplaying earlier statements that the Fords had helped to organize the rally. “It was the Conservative party that organized it, we just invited family and friends,” he said. Earlier in the week, he told the media the rally was a “joint event” between the Fords and the party. Rob had also tweeted that he and Doug would “host” the Prime Minister.
Doug wouldn’t say whether his family approached the party about the rally, or the other way around, but he did underscore their deep ties.
“The Fords have been involved with the Conservative party for 50 years,” he said. “Every single federal, provincial, municipal election.”
Turnout at yesterday’s rally, which was held in the same venue as Rob Ford’s 2014 mayoral campaign launch, was estimated at 1,200.
“We had three days,” said Doug. “Not too many can bring a couple of thousand of people [out] in three days.”
He told Maclean’s that he and Harper spoke that night about getting Conservative voters out to the polls. “It’s critical to this country,” he added. His other talking points echoed recent party attack ads linking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. “It would be an absolute disaster if Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne were running this country,” he told the crowd.
But Doug walked away from the media when he was asked about the most recent shocker to come from Mark Towhey’s book. An excerpt published the day of the rally by American website Politico alleged Toronto police didn’t charge Rob Ford when they pulled him over for drunk driving, multiple times.
Still, Doug Ford told the crowd at the rally that the Fords were an asset to the Conservatives this election, singling out his brother for his ability to connect voters to the party when out campaigning for Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Scarborough candidate Chuck Konkel.
“There is no one [who] can change the colours of a street more than Rob Ford can,” he said. “He decorated the whole street blue.”
No doubt, that’s what Harper is hoping for.