Doug Ford targets seats in northern Ontario, long a wasteland for PC party
Ford's rally in Liberal stronghold of Thunder Bay draws 200, including lifelong Liberals
If Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives win the Ontario election in June, it will be in large part because of voters like Paul Maydo.
Maydo is co-owner of a mechanical contracting firm in Thunder Bay, a city that has sent Liberals to Queen's Park for 23 years straight.
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"I've always been a Liberal, a staunch Liberal, voted for them since I was in my early 20s," Maydo said in an interview Tuesday. "But this time around I've decided to step up to the Conservative party, mainly because of Kathleen Wynne."
Maydo was one of about 200 people packed into a meeting hall Tuesday evening in Thunder Bay for a speech by PC Leader Doug Ford. It's part of Ford's first tour of northern Ontario since winning the party leadership a month ago. The aim is to capture seats in a part of the province that has long been hostile territory for his party.
Ford was barely a minute into his half-hour speech when his attacks on Wynne began.
"For 15 years we've seen the Wynne Liberals destroy this province," he said. "Kathleen Wynne has zero respect for the hard-working taxpayers."
Ford's message was not particularly tailored to northern Ontario. He didn't mention the Ring of Fire, the massive potential mining development many see as a big driver of northern jobs. Rather, he stuck to the broad themes he's been talking about across the province since his successful leadership bid: cutting taxes, saving money by finding budget efficiencies, and putting a big sign at the border declaring Ontario open for business.
New in this speech from Ford was a threat to fire the CEO of privatized Hydro One, Mayo Schmidt. His salary and bonuses reached $6.2 million last year.
"This guy has the nerve to give himself a $1.7 million raise," Ford said. "That's disgusting That is absolutely disrespecting the taxpayers. Well I can tell you folks I'm putting him on notice. He is on notice. He is gone. He is gone when we get down there."
Ford did not explain how he would fire the CEO of a company the province does not control. The Wynne government privatized Hydro One in 2015, leaving the province as a minority shareholder.
Ford inaccurately claimed credit for bringing Hydro One salaries into the open. "We keep hammering away at the CEO of Hydro One. And they're keeping it hush-hush," he said. "Finally, after every single day going after this guy, they were forced to publish their salaries."
However, that had nothing to do with it: the TSX requires Hydro One (and all publicly traded companies) to publish the compensation of their five top-paid executives.
Still, Ford's message resonated with much of the crowd. He drew applause for suggesting he would fire the Hydro One CEO and for his promise that anyone earning under $30,000 would pay zero income tax.
"I think he's a wonderful person. I have a lot of trust in him and I think it's time for a change," said Jennifer Hahnle, a voter in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. "I haven't ever voted PC before, but I like his platform, so I'm very impressed. I like what he stands for and I'm definitely going to vote for him."
Northern Ontario has been pretty much a wasteland for the Progressive Conservatives for the past three decades. They haven't won a single seat north of Nipissing in a general election since 1987.
But following the Sault Ste Marie byelection win of Ross Romano last June, the PCs believe they are poised for a breakthrough in the 11 seats up for grabs in the north.
"I think we've got good shot in probably six or seven, high end we could probably take 10," said Derek Parks, an environmental consultant on his second run as the PC candidate in Thunder Bay-Superior North. "You don't vote a new government in, you vote an old government out and I think that's where we're at right now."
Parks said he believes voters' dislike of Wynne outweighs voters' positive feelings toward local Liberal MPPs. He also argues that many northern voters will find Ford a natural fit.
"He understands working class northern Ontario folks," said Parks in an interview Tuesday. "The enthusiasm Doug has brought up when he's gone to the north ... is very refreshing to see."
The PC candidates have finished third in both Thunder Bay ridings in the past four elections.
The PCs' best hopes for winning in northwestern Ontario could be the riding of Kenora-Rainy River. The seat is currently held by the NDP's Sarah Campbell, but she is not seeking re-election. Greg Rickford, the former Conservative MP for the area, is the PC candidate.
The PCs also like the chances of their candidate Clifford Bull, chief of the Lac Seul First Nation, in the new riding of Kiiwetinoong, where two-thirds of the population is Indigenous.
The first stops on Ford's northern Ontario tour were in Kenora, Dryden and Sioux Lookout.