Ford's PCs are focused on Windsor-Essex this election. Here's why
Auto investments, NDP incumbents not running could be a chance to pick up seats
Windsor-Essex has become a battleground in the lead-up to the June 2 Ontario election as the Progressive Conservatives try to capture several ridings traditionally held by the Liberals and most recently the New Democrats.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was in the region Thursday with local candidates.
"The people of Windsor know the New Democrats always fight for them," said Horwath in an interview at a campaign stop.
But there's evidence the NDP's hold on the area could be slipping, possibly due in part to several high-profile auto announcements made by Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just before the campaign. The region could also be in play because two NDP incumbents decided not to seek another term in office.
In addition to Horwath, Ford has made stops in the area this week. He's scheduled to make an announcement in Windsor Friday.
Meanwhile, one of Horwath's stops is Essex. The NDP's Taras Natyshak had represented the riding since 2011 and announced late last year he wouldn't run again.
In 2013, Windsor city councillor Percy Hatfield won Windsor-Tecumseh in a byelection for the New Democrats, then won in the provincial election the following year. He's also not running this time.
So far, polling suggests the PCs have a big lead in the southwest, including in Essex, according to CBC's Poll Tracker.
'Electric vehicle revolution'
The biggest announcement for the region came in March, when Trudeau and Ford unveiled a $4.9-billion electric vehicle battery plant to be built in Windsor that would create 2,500 jobs and even more spin-off employment.
At the time, Ford said the plant was "game changing."
"[It] will help guarantee that Ontario is at the forefront of electric vehicle revolution," he said.
"That's really going to push this region forward," said Rakesh Naidu, president and CEO of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"There is a lot of positive news and optimism in the air."
Ford and Trudeau made yet another stop in Windsor on May 2, just days before the campaign started, announcing Stellantis plants in Windsor and Brampton would get upgraded to support the company's push to make EV batteries and vehicles.
The Windsor region is built around an automotive industry that's seen a huge downturn in recent years, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and plants shutting down.
That makes these announcements "fundamental" to the future of the city and the region, according to Wayne Petrozzi, professor emeritus in the department of politics and public administration at Toronto Metropolitan University.
"This was a city down on its luck," said Petrozzi, who was born and raised in Windsor. "This investment really breathed new life into the city and its future."
He added it also "plays into the narrative" Ford is trying to paint.
"It says, 'I stand for the working people,'" he said.
Petrozzi said Ford's announcements are also meant to pivot attention away from the first half of his term in office where the PC government did not support the changing auto industry by cancelling electric vehicle rebates, for example.
"It's quite a contrast to four years ago when they basically ignored the region."
Progressive Conservative strategist Rob Gilmour said he's seeing unprecedented labour support for the PCs, including an endorsement from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers this election.
"It turned a lot of heads," he said, noting labour unions do not typically support the PCs.
However, who Windsorites decide to vote for could also depend on whether the fallout from the pandemic factors in.
Aldo DiCarlo, the outgoing mayor of Amherstburg, located in Essex County, said the debate is polarizing.
"It is probably even a little more contentious than usual," he said.
"There was a lot of passion, good and bad, throughout the pandemic regarding restrictions."
Windsor was hit hard by COVID-19 as hospitals were short staffed and patients flooded in.
But many people opposed the strict lockdown measures, and most recently, various levels of governments drew criticism for the handling of the blockades at the Ambassador Bridge that cost millions of dollars in trade.
However, DiCarlo and Petrozzi aren't so sure the pandemic will trump the recent funding announcements.
"This is not just words. This is action," said Petrozzi.
"I think [the pandemic] is likely to recede into the back's of peoples' minds," he added.
"They're going to choose to focus on a future that looks a lot brighter."