TORONTO – The newly crowned leader of Ontario’s Opposition has vowed to get the beleaguered party back on track after months of tumult and a polarizing leadership race, but Doug Ford is already facing resistance from within Tory ranks as his main rival refuses to concede.
Ford, a former Toronto city councillor and brother of the city’s controversial late mayor Rob Ford, was heralded as the party’s new leader late Saturday after party executives said he narrowly beat out former Tory legislator Christine Elliott in a race plagued with mishaps and infighting.
Elliott, however, is disputing the results, which she alleges stemmed from “serious irregularities” in the vote, and has pledged to investigate further.
In a brief victory speech Saturday night, Doug Ford acknowledged the race had alienated some party members but said he would win back their confidence and restore unity in time for the spring election.
“I will get our party back on track,” said Ford. “We will put a platform forward that will speak to every Ontarian.”
Ford hasn’t commented on the allegations from Elliott, who said thousands of party members were assigned to incorrect ridings during the voting process.
The party said, however, that Ford’s win was definitive. It noted that there had been an issue with the allocation of certain electoral votes but the matter was reviewed and resolved.
“These results are definitive and provide a clear mandate to Doug Ford as outlined in our party constitution and the leadership election rules,” said Hartley Lefton, chair of the party’s leadership election organizing committee.
Uniting the party and making it appeal to a range of voters may prove a daunting task for Ford given his brash, often confrontational approach, which he displayed in his brief career in municipal politics and again in his leadership campaign, said Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
Ford’s contested victory has also capped off a day of snags and miscommunication that left smouldering tensions in the party, Siemiatycki said.
“It certainly does leave, as a remnant, a divided party, and one doesn’t exactly think of the Ford political brand involving bridge-building, reaching out to those who disagree with them to forge compromise or common ground,” he said.
“The leadership style is very alpha and alpha male, and it remains to be seen how that will go over,” he said, noting there is no reason to expect anything different now that Ford is at the helm.
Over the course of the campaign triggered by former Tory leader Patrick Brown’s departure amid sexual misconduct allegations, Ford repeatedly vowed wrest control of the party from elites and give a voice to the grassroots members.
He also touted his experience running the Ford family’s label-making business, saying it had prepared him to run an efficient government.
Ford further promised to scrap a proposed carbon tax that formed a key pillar of the party’s election platform introduced in November under Brown, criticized the Liberal government’s sex education curriculum and said he’d allow caucus members to vote with their conscience on policy matters.
His populist message and critique of the political establishment will likely win him some supporters, Siemietycki said. But there is little to back up Ford’s assurances that running the family business has prepared him for provincial politics, he said.
“If you go into government thinking that you’re running just another business like your family business, that can really, really be problematic,” in part because governments can’t charge for services, he said.
The governing Liberals and the New Democrats have panned Ford as a step backwards for the Tories, accusing him of currying favour with the party’s socially conservative elements.
“With the selection of Doug Ford, Ontario Conservatives have chosen corporate interests over workers, religious extremism over the rights of women, and cuts at the expense of our healthcare and education,” the Liberals said after his victory was announced.
The second son of Diane and Doug Ford Sr., Ford spent most of his life immersed in politics and business, but was first propelled into the spotlight as his brother’s champion and often mouthpiece.
Their father, a Tory backbencher, co-founded the adhesive products company Deco Labels and Tags, and Ford took a leadership role in the family business even as he joined city council in 2010 – the same election that saw his brother win the mayoralty.
The father of four and self-described family man has repeatedly painted himself as the only one equipped to curb reckless spending at Queen’s Park and vowed to free up billions of dollars by eliminating waste, which he said he achieved at city hall.
But experts have said the Ford brothers – despite support from the so-called “Ford Nation” – accomplished far less than they claimed and achieved only nominal savings in their years in office, which also marked a chaotic period in the city’s government.
After cancer forced Rob Ford to abandon his campaign for a second mayoral term in 2014, the elder Ford sibling stepped in, casting himself as a natural successor while also distancing himself from the cloud of scandal and substance abuse problems that defined his brother’s tenure.
Doug Ford nonetheless sparked controversies with his contentious remarks, which once saw him threatened with a defamation lawsuit by the city’s then-police chief until he issued a public apology.
After losing the mayor’s race to former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, Ford said he was considering a run to become the next provincial Conservative leader, replacing Tim Hudak.
But he eventually opted against it, instead promising a rematch with Tory in the next mayoral run, scheduled to take place this fall.
He reversed course earlier this year and announced his candidacy for the Progressive Conservative leadership in a news conference held in the basement of his mother’s west Toronto home, becoming the first competitor to jump into the race.
Ontario heads to the polls June 7.