“Doug Ford is a builder,” a moderator read out to the audience of a recent Ontario election debate that asked leaders of the three main parties to submit biographies of themselves.
It’s an image the Progressive Conservative leader has worked hard to present as he asks voters to re-elect him as premier.
He's hopped aboard a construction vehicle and driven it back and forth for a photo op. He’s worn hard hats to campaign announcements and to worksite photo ops with tradespeople.
Months earlier, Ford drove around his Toronto neighbourhood during a blizzard, pitching in with a small red shovel – a viral image that was mocked and criticized by some, but ultimately speaks to Ford’s approach to politics, says McMaster University political scientist Peter Graefe.
“The idea that he's out there helping and making a difference is his way of doing things,” Graefe said in an interview.
Now four years after the Tory leader rode to electoral victory over Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, Ford is campaigning on a similar brand with similarly limited media access, despite the fact that he now has a record in office. (The Canadian Press was not granted an interview with Ford for this story.)
At a recent news conference, Ford said he's been accessible to the media during the campaign while prioritizing meeting with real people, who he said are receptive to his party's plans to stimulate the economy.
"I think people see it, I hear it, we have the momentum out there," he said.
Ford's direct mode of leadership – meeting with residents and solving problems on his own – likely stems from his background as a businessman with his family's company and as a municipal politician, Graefe said. Ford and his late brother, controversial former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, emphasized “doing politics directly” when on city council, giving their cellphone numbers to anyone who wanted them and hosting barbecues in their family’s backyard.
The 57-year-old father of four still presents himself as an accessible guy who’s a text or call away. Karl Baldauf, who worked with Ford as chief of staff to his Treasury Board president until December 2020, said that’s authentically how he operates.
Baldauf, now vice-president at public affairs firm McMillan Vantage, described Ford as having a sharp sensibility for the concerns of his constituency. In an interview, he recalled that Ford would invite him and other political staff to meet him at Perkins bakery in west Toronto for provincial budget conversations.
“I think he wanted to enable us to actually get out of the bubble of Queen's Park physically, so that we could be in a more conducive setting to have a more relaxed conversation about some of these really important public policy issues, and I appreciated that,” he said.
Since Ford was elected in 2018, there have been not-insignificant changes in his policies and style – including a transition from a small-government advocate keen on cutting spending to a leader whose government is delaying balancing the books with the largest spending plan ever tabled in the province's history.
That change may not matter at all, Graefe said, because Ford's brand and "particular charisma" is strong enough with his base that many people will at this point believe he's about small government regardless of what he actually does.
Even so, Ford's popularity took a nosedive after his government’s first budget, which was defined by controversial cuts to spending on health care, the environment, social programs and the arts, and by patronage scandals after it came to light that people close to Ford’s now-former chief of staff had been given lucrative appointments.
The opportunity for a rebrand came in March 2020 when Ford was suddenly thrust into the position of a leader who had to guide people through an unprecedented crisis.
Baldauf said he saw a change in Ford around that time, describing it as a pivotal transition period for the Tory leader, whose government was in the process of “recalibration” after its poorly received budget. He said Ford came to embrace the role of “coach” to a larger team, as opposed to a more "siloed" way of governing when he was in municipal politics.
“It gave him a focus that was undeniable,” Baldauf said of the pandemic.
Ford’s pandemic handling prompted criticism, some from Ontario residents and business owners frustrated with lengthy, on-and-off business and school closures and limits on social gatherings in response to the disease. Many families have called for greater accountability for those who oversaw the long-term care sector, which was devastated by death and disease, and have criticized Ford for bringing in law they said shielded companies from liability for neglecting residents.
His pandemic media appearances became more testy and less frequent as the situation – and opinion on his handling of it – worsened. Still, many people rallied behind him as a leader, Graefe noted.
“Ford appeared caring. He emoted in important ways,” Graefe said. “I think for a lot of Ontarians, that humanized him.”
That response may have been based on “emotion over reason,” Graefe noted, because in many cases “he was emoting but then actually not doing things that he could have done to improve it." For example, with the issue of paid sick days for workers, Ford’s government had cut that program earlier in its term and held off on implementing a new program during COVID-19 before finally launching one over a year into the crisis that critics said fell short of the full 10 days needed to reduce workplace transmission.
One of Ford's defining characteristics is his desire to be liked by everyone, and observers have credited that for the theme of repeated COVID shutdowns.
In trying to keep everyone happy, Ford may have had the opposite of the intended effect at times, Graefe said, when he repeatedly delayed bringing in public health measures despite warning signs, only to anger swaths of the population when the health system buckled and shutdowns became necessary.
But so far in the campaign, people’s pandemic frustrations don’t appear to be impacting Ford’s chances at re-election, Graefe said, noting that people may have "priced in" their assessment of his COVID-19 management. Polls suggest the Tories hold a wide lead, and at this point, the majority government the Progressive Conservatives need to stay in power – opposition parties have said they won’t support a Ford-led minority – appears within reach.
At a recent campaign stop, Ford met with members at a Scarborough ping pong gym. He greeted people with a simple "Good to see you," posed for selfies, autographed a dozen ping pong paddles and then played a few rounds, prompting compliments from the crowd on his skills. (Ford said he used to play with his brother, Rob.)
People seemed generally excited to see the leader, but with just over a week to go until election day, not everyone was decided on giving him their vote.
University student Jeffrey Li said Ford's pandemic response could have been better, particularly around repeated lockdowns, and he said he wanted to hear more from all the main parties about community funding plans and measures to tackle affordability.
Playing a round with Ford didn't make up his mind.
"I just like to play ping pong," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.