Doug Ford officially launches bid for leadership of Ontario PC Party

One of the most polarizing figures in Ontario politics has officially launched his bid for the leadership of the provincial Tories on Saturday.

Upcoming election 'the most critical in Ontario's history,' the former Toronto city councillor tells rally

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, centre, announced his intention to run for leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party earlier this week. He spoke at an event on Saturday night called Rally for a Stronger Ontario. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

One of the most polarizing figures in Ontario politics officially launched his bid for the leadership of the provincial Tories on Saturday.

Doug Ford, brother of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, held a rally to kick off his effort to helm a party reeling from allegations that have left it without a leader just months before a provincial election. 

"We are ready to take back our province, and I am ready to fight for you," Ford said. 

The former Toronto city councillor called the upcoming election "the most critical in Ontario's history" and took aim at the provincial Liberals. 

"People across Ontario are suffocating under the weight of high taxes and big government," he said. "Seniors are forced between choosing food or electricity, heating or eating. The people of Ontario have suffered under the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government far, far too long." 
A Doug Ford supporter at Saturday's Rally for a Stronger Ontario. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Ford told the crowd that Wynne's government is out of touch with Ontarians. He called the Liberal's energy policies "disastrous" and criticized Ontario's health-care system, traffic congestion and job losses. 

"You shouldn't have to wait weeks to see a doctor. You shouldn't have to be stuck in traffic for hours every single night," Ford said. "This province has lost over 300,000 manufacturing jobs, and we will get them back. I guarantee you."

Ford also stressed that he was the candidate to keep taxes low and said he would not introduce a carbon tax. 

"I will not support our policies that increase taxes and make life more expensive for each and every one of you," he said. "We're going to make sure we don't have burden on families just trying to heat their homes. Folks, I'm not going to introduce a carbon tax."

PC membership smaller than previously announced

Throughout his speech, Ford reiterated the need for those who would like to see him become party leader to formally sign up and become a party member. 

On Saturday, The Canadian Press reported that the interim leader of Ontario's PC Party had said the Tories have just over 133,000 members — some 67,000 fewer than claimed by former leader Patrick Brown less than a month ago.

In an email to the PC caucus obtained by The Canadian Press, Vic Fedeli said a check of the party's membership system this week turned up the discrepancy.

At Saturday's rally, Ford urged people to become a PC member to vote him in as the party's leader. (CBC)

Within hours of Brown's sudden resignation on Jan. 25, party IT workers shut down the Tories' membership management system to protect member information, he said.

In media interviews on Jan. 12, Brown said the party's membership had swollen to more than 200,000 people across the province.

'Can't be underestimated,' former PC MPP says

Ford was early to announce his candidacy, and political observers say the combination of name recognition, a well-defined message and open disdain for an unpopular government mean Ford could mount a credible challenge for the Tory leadership.

"Doug Ford can't be underestimated in this race," said Rob Leone, a former Progressive Conservative member of the Ontario legislature and current political science professor at Western University.

Leone said Ford, who was a city councillor until a failed mayoral bid in 2014, has a leg up thanks to an established ground game and support organization, which could be key assets as leadership hopefuls scramble to meet a tight, five-week timeline. Voting to choose the new leader begins March 2, with results to be unveiled March 10.

"The advantage of having a defined brand is it allows people to identify with that brand," he said. "It allows them to sign up to join that team and that movement. I think that when you have a less established brand, it becomes harder to do."

Leone said Ford may even have what it takes to find traction beyond the Greater Toronto Area. In a province where Wynne's Liberals have taken a beating in the polls over consumer issues such as rising electricity rates, he said Ford's messages may find favour "in all pockets of the province."

A recent study between The Canadian Press and EKOS Research, for instance, identified one Ontario community as the most likely in the country to respond to a populist movement.

In the national poll, 38 per cent of respondents in Oshawa held viewpoints suggesting they had a negative perception of their own economic outlook and the prospects for the next generation, as well as a sense they're not getting ahead. Those themes figure prominently in Ford's political rhetoric. The results were well ahead of the national average.​

With files from CBC News