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What we can learn about Doug Ford since winning the PC Leadership

Wed 14th Mar 2018 Add comment

Peter Seemann – President Grassroots Public Affairs, PC Party activist and current PC Party Regional Organizer

In the few days since the results from the tumultuous PC leadership were made official, media and political prognosticators have written extensively about Doug Ford’s win. Given what transpired over the preceding six weeks, the memorable ending to what was an unconventional campaign shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. More by accident than by design I found myself in the thick of the action after getting blocked in by media into the hallway where each leadership campaign had a meeting room for their volunteers.

Mr. Ford’s win surprised some onlookers, but there is much to learn about his style, his candidacy and his message for the PC party as we move forward to the June 7th provincial election.
In politics many candidates lose due to things outside of their control. On the contrary Doug Ford’s win was very much a result of what our party membership has endured and what they wanted going forward. In essence, the timing was perfect for a Doug Ford type candidate.
Before talking about our new leader allow me some personal thoughts on another important member of the Ontario PC party.

I have long been an admirer and friend of Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli. I worked closely with Vic when he ran in the prior leadership race of 2014/15. I supported his successful run for interim leader when Patrick Brown stepped down.  I was one of the many members who were advocating to delay the leadership race until after the spring election which would allow Vic to lead the PC Party into the June election. Vic’s handling of a very challenging and difficult time for the PC party displayed his exemplary abilities as a politician, as a leader and as a person. If the PCs form the next government my hope is that Doug Ford will include Vic in a senior cabinet position. He’s earned it, not only for his service in the last few weeks but his overall contribution over many years.

Back to the leadership race:
Personally, I saw strengths and benefits of all four leadership candidates. Various polls leading up to the leadership convention indicated Christine Elliott and Doug Ford were the front runners but in a race like this there are no guarantees. Caroline Mulroney impressed many by raising the most money and garnering some high-level endorsements. Tanya Granic-Allen also impressed, especially during the debates, as an assertive, forthright and skillful communicator.

Four strong candidates, all of whom assembled campaign teams, collectively sold thousands of memberships and raised the $100,000.00 entry fee quickly to become the next leader of the Ontario PC party indicates a healthy party heading into the battle with the incumbent Liberals.

Starting with the allegations made against Patrick Brown in late January and the roller coaster 6 week ride that followed the PC party was routinely criticized for “self-destructing” and “blowing yet another opportunity”. Yet the efforts of these four candidates did a lot to restore confidence amongst supporters that our party was in fact coming together and that no matter who won, we would be fully capable of defeating the Liberals.
Let me now focus on the two front runners. This was the third time Christine Elliott had run for leader and many believed this was to be her time to win.  However, the winner Doug Ford ran a pragmatic and focused campaign, promising relief for Ontario after almost 15 years of Liberal mismanagement and scandal. Having spent the weekend talking to party members and campaign workers across all four campaigns I gained some interesting insights on what our new leader brings to the table and what we should look for and expect as we move forward.
  1. Ford resonates with more Ontarians than people think – Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella posted some thoughts on why people shouldn’t underestimate Ford. If you haven’t seen it yourself go here and check it out. One of my favourite observations from Mr. Kinsella is the following: Going after Doug Ford because he’s a politically incorrect, rough-around-the-edges guy with a paunch won’t work. Ontario is full of politically incorrect, rough-around-the-edges guys with a paunch". Kinsella’s insight may be hard to swallow for many PC members residing in the big city.  The truth is Ontario’s middle class is large and wide across all Ontario and many are attracted to Mr. Ford’s “common sense” approach beyond his appearance and style. Many see him as following in his late brother’s footsteps in sticking up for the little guy. Increasingly we are seeing a growing interest from voters for what they see as authentic political candidates; “he’s one of us” or “he gets it”.
  1. Ford showed that he listens to his campaign team – His campaign team was small compared to the many that lined up around Elliot and Mulroney. He also raised very little money compared to others.    However, he remained focused on his campaign strategy and in the end, he got the job done. His messaging and communication style is very simple, which can be mistakenly seen as weakness by political opponents. Behind the scenes I learned how he effectively wooed not only the social conservatives that supported Tanya Granic-Allen but also gained some second-choice ballots from Mulroney supporters by successfully attacking Elliott. He didn’t try to be all things to all people. He talks in simple, straight forward terms and increasingly his focused, uncomplicated message resonated with members. Ford ran on a commitment to “clean out the elites” but early indications suggest he is smartly building a campaign team around him that includes supporters who were instrumental in his win along with competent and experienced staffers and campaign workers who have been working on the election campaign since last fall. Lastly the new leader seems to recognize the importance of a strong relationship with his party caucus, something his predecessor didn’t have.
  1. Ford might be the best voice for Rural Ontario - Doug is a Toronto guy.  His support in the leadership race however came from around the province.  Since winning the leadership Ford has repeated his interest to help spark economic growth across Ontario, including the far north, which has long been overlooked. The GTA and other large urban centres will continue to dominate government policy for some time, but Ford’s comments suggest he is willing to look beyond the city borders to help the wider province interests. Economically and politically this could be a significant opportunity for the agri-food sectors and related industries.
  1. Ford offers the best contrast to Wynne – Many think Premier Wynne won the lottery this weekend with Ford winning the leadership.  From my perspective the Liberals should be careful what they wish for.  While Wynne and her advisors might be relishing the opportunity to run against Ford given his family’s colourful past, they must surely also realize that he won’t be a pushover. Being from Toronto and having a strong and fiercely loyal existing base of supporters right in the heart of the GTA (something none of the other leadership candidates had) will undoubtedly threaten some long time safe Liberal seats. Wynne and her senior ministers have already started suggesting that this campaign will be one of values, suggesting that Ford and his “conservative” candidates (its clear they are purposely avoiding the word Progressive) are only interested in cutting government programs and services. Time will tell if the repeating of message that worked in 2014 will work in 2018.  My assessment is that the Liberals will release a VERY generous budget in 2 weeks time. A bona-fide election budget.  I expect them to use that as their campaign plan, challenging the opposition to oppose it. Their narrative will be: “We want to help and support you. They (the opposition) are against it.” Premier Wynne continues to poll poorly, in spite of the Patrick Brown scandal and a heated leadership campaign. But Doug Ford has recognized Premier Wynne to be a formidable campaigner and one not ready to throw in the towel. It really will be fascinating to watch Ford debate Wynne in the coming weeks and NDP leader Andrea Horwath will have to do her very best to get noticed.
  1. Social Conservatives VOTE and they still matter - Similar to what we saw in the federal election when Brad Trost surprised many in the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, social conservative minded voters are motivated to support a candidate they believe in. After what they feel they endured with Patrick Brown as leader, social conservatives within the PC tent must now feel much more empowered and won’t let Ford forget about them. In addition, after meeting Tanya Granic-Allen last weekend, a strong social conservative, I can tell you she is every bit as fiery and determined in person as she came across during the televised debates. With Doug Ford winning she will undoubtedly run in the provincial election and, if victorious, my sense is that she has a good chance at filling a role in a Ford government, further cementing the relationship with social conservatives.
Only a couple of days on the job and Doug Ford’s “to-do” list is long.  Already he is showing an ability to quickly build bridges, to unite the party and move on to the important job of campaigning against the Liberals.
Mike Crace was announced as the new Executive Director of the party. Mike is a long-time respected party activist, and someone I personally have enjoyed working with on the central campaign over the last several months.  Smart decisions like this will energize members of the core campaign team who were, perhaps understandably, experiencing concerns.  I’ve fully recommitted to my role as one of the regional organizers and will continue working hard for the PC party now being led by Doug Ford.  
In politics timing is often out of a candidate’s control. Doug Ford failed to win the mayoralty race in 2014 for Toronto and was looked upon as the long shot to defeat incumbent John Tory this fall.  But his candidacy for leader of the Ontario PC Party suddenly seems like perfect timing and an ideal fit. Will he become Premier? We will all know in less than 100 days. Buckle up!