Though American voters have managed not to elect more populist right-wing businessmen with legal trouble so far this year, the same may soon not be true in its neighbor to the north. In Thursday’s Ontario elections, Doug Ford, brother of infamous Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, could become the second-most powerful politician in Canada.
If you need a refresher: Rob Ford was the mayor of Canada’s largest city from 2010 to 2014 and became an international media sensation after news broke that a secret video existed of him smoking crack. When Rob became sick from cancer during his re-election campaign, his elder brother, Doug, ran in his place, taking up the mantle of Ford Nation—a populist political movement that mirrors America’s Tea Party in right-wing outlook and ferocity. During the Rob Ford administration, Doug had been everywhere. A city councilor, he was often at his brother’s side, boosting the mayor’s pledges to cut government spending. Together the brothers hosted a weekly radio show and, for one ill-considered afternoon, a TV talk show. Doug was among a handful of councilors to vocally defend his brother’s proposals for budget cuts, and when the story broke about Rob’s drug use, Doug responded by attacking the media for prurience.
But while Rob was seen as the friendly face of right-wing populism, Doug was more of an attack dog, preferring to play to his conservative base rather than ingratiate himself to the broader public. On the City Council, he denounced all forms of government spending, including libraries, a stance that lead him into a public fight with Margaret Atwood. He pushed for flashy business deals, including never-realized corporate partnerships to bring an NFL team to Toronto. He told the father of an autistic child to “go to hell” after a group home opened in Ford’s district against his wishes. In the end, Ford finished second in the mayoral race, with 34 percent of the vote.
His return to prominence has been sudden. The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party came into the year with a commanding head start in the polls. Its leader, Patrick Brown, ran a moderate campaign promising a return to centrism. But in late January, he was accused of sexual misconduct by two women and was forced out. With the election just months away, the party held a snap leadership contest, and Ford used name recognition and his loyal base to narrowly beat out an establishment candidate for control of the party. So far, he’s run the campaign everyone expected he would. Instead of speaking to the media, Ford’s team hired a staffer to post TV news–style reports straight to the campaign YouTube channel. Ford spent plenty of time denouncing things he didn’t like but didn’t release a detailed platform until last week. And he’s made simple gaffes, like railing against public radio spending, an issue he wouldn’t have authority over as premier of the province.
It’s always tempting to draw comparisons between the American politics of the moment and what’s happening in Canada, and you don’t have to look far to find similarities between Doug Ford and President Donald Trump. Ford is a wealthy businessman, a self-styled outsider with an inherited fortune, running for office on the argument that his acumen as a CEO qualifies him to captain the ship of state. His campaign rhetoric speaks to “forgotten” people, though his actual policy ideas include scrapping a minimum wage hike and lowering the corporate tax rate. But Fordism predates Trumpism. As David Sax pointed out in the New Yorker last year, “If you lived in Toronto during the four years of Rob Ford’s term as mayor, the seesaw of Donald Trump’s first months as President would feel strikingly familiar,” including constant attacks on the media and other “liberal elites” and a long track record of untrue public statements.
One parallel that deserves particular attention is how Trump and the Fords emerged not out of a dire economic moment, but from an apathy toward career politicians. The current Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne, has overseen a low jobless rate and championed progressive causes like a $15 minimum wage and a pilot project to test out a universal basic income. But she is desperately unpopular—last fall, she had a 17 percent approval rating, the lowest in the country. Some voters say she’s insincere. Others cite homophobia and misogyny, since she’s the first lesbian premier. But the biggest factor is her party’s longevity. The Liberals have been in power for 15 years in Ontario, which, as pollster Lorne Bozinoff pointed out, is long enough to make everyone mad at some point, whether it’s unions the government has fought or small-business owners affected by the minimum-wage hike. Lagging in third place, Wynne actually conceded defeat last week, urging voters to ignore her role as party leader and focus on the good qualities of local Liberal candidates.
The New Democratic Party, traditionally the left-of-center third party in Ontario, now finds itself the only thing standing in Ford’s way. Its leader, Andrea Horwath, is not known for her charisma, but she has the best approval rating of the three leaders. The party has argued that its strongest policy ideas—such as subsidized prescription medication and more affordable day care—have been pilfered by the Liberals, which weakens the argument that the party is a fringe option. The open question is whether Ontario has moved past the most recent time the NDP formed government. Inheriting a recession in 1990, it embraced austerity, and many public-sector employees had to take mandatory, unpaid days off. It’s been in third place ever since.
Until this week, it seemed likely the Conservatives would cruise to victory. Polls have shown the Conservatives and the NDP in a very close race, separated by as little as 1 point. But vote-splitting between Wynne’s and Horwath’s left-leaning parties means Ford’s Conservatives are expected to win a lot of three-way races. The CBC poll tracker shows the Conservatives with an 89.7 percent chance of forming a majority government as of Wednesday. There’s a realistic chance they lose the popular vote and still win the election in a walk.
But a last-minute twist in the race complicates Ford’s whole argument—and the timing of which would make James Comey blush. On Monday, news outlets reported that Rob Ford’s widow filed a $16.5 million lawsuit against Doug Ford, alleging he mishandled the family business and has been negligent in his stewardship of her family’s inheritance. Ford denied the claims and suggested the lawsuit is extortion. The suit radically undercuts his two main selling points—the family name and his ability to run a business—even if there’s not enough time to litigate it.
The scandal could be an earthquake that destroys the Ford political dynasty. Or it could be another in a line of scandals that Ford survives—like the Globe and Mail investigation into whether he was a drug dealer in the ’80s—that would have wrecked another politician.* Thursday’s election will show whether that trait runs in the family.
Correction, June 7, 2018: This piece originally misidentified the Globe and Mail as the Global and Mail.
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