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Is this the biggest test Doug Ford will face this election?


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Is this the biggest test Doug Ford will face this election?

WINDSOR, Ont.—Can Doug Ford’s “Big Blue Collar Machine” pass its biggest test?

In the final week of Thursday’s election, the Progressive Conservative strategy of courting the labour vote — and peeling support from the NDP and Liberals — comes down to the crunch.

None of this is more apparent than in Windsor and the suburbs, small towns and farms of surrounding Essex County. While the Tories are pushing hard to win working-class ridings held by Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats in Hamilton, Brampton, Oshawa, London and Niagara, it is Canada’s Motor City where Ford has the highest hopes of expanding his base and ensuring a second majority government.

The nexus of Ontario’s automotive industry, across the river from the legendary car capital of Detroit, has long been a scrapyard for provincial Conservative hopes. As an old Windsor joke goes, “the PCs can hold their meetings in a phone booth.”

But that is changing with the retirement of two local New Democrat MPPs, recent massive investments in the province’s electric vehicle future at a time when some feared Ontario was being left behind, and the riding of Essex electing a Tory — Chris Lewis — in the last two federal elections.

Ford also has the backing of Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, who two weeks ago urged residents to “send some MPPs from our region to Queen’s Park that will actually have seats and voices around the government table,” and endorsements from several private sector unions.

“The Conservatives could definitely pick up two ridings here, most likely one,” says a veteran Liberal who spoke confidentially to discuss strategy.

In line with the auto industry’s “just-in-time” delivery strategy came back-to-back pre-election announcements from Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Dilkens and Chrysler parent Stellantis that totalled $8 billion and included a new EV battery plant.

After years of work, the deals came together at a fortuitous moment for the Conservatives. But delays of a few months in landing them could have made for a very different campaign, rival parties maintain.

“It was very lucky timing on Ford’s part,” says Green candidate Melissa Coulbeck in Windsor-Tecumseh, a landscape designer who notes Ford axed EV purchase subsidies for consumers, cancelled green energy contracts and ripped out charging stations after taking office in 2018.

“He has seen the light, but only because it’s going to get him votes.”

Those cancelled EV purchase subsidies — which Ford still opposes and which other major parties are promising to reinstate — could have helped the region by spurring sales of the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan, says Ron LeClair, the NDP candidate in Essex.

“That was detrimental,” the public school trustee and retired Windsor police inspector says, shaking his head at a busy Tim Hortons in LaSalle, a bedroom community on the edge of Windsor.

The battery factory is slated to open in 2024 with 2,500 employees. It will be larger than the nearby minivan plant it will supply, feeding an assembly line retooled with $1 billion in taxpayer aid to produce both battery- and piston-powered vehicles.

Chrysler’s assembly plant in Brampton — where the Tories have their eye on three NDP ridings — is also getting a flex line with taxpayer assistance and will use EV batteries from Windsor, as will the company’s assembly lines in the U.S.

“Attracting this multibillion dollar investment will secure Ontario’s place as a North American hub for building the cars and batteries of the future,” Ford boasted at the late March announcement, seven weeks before the campaign officially began.

Not shy about taking credit for the investments, he has returned to the area during the campaign to shore up support, as has Horwath. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca will finally make his first election visit to Windsor on Sunday. Liberals have not elected an MPP in the area for a decade after dominating it for years.

Cosying up to labour is a path taken by federal Conservatives here and in the United Kingdom. In Ontario, it has included heavy promotion of careers in education and the trades by Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.

Ford’s Windsor-area candidates are riding high on the EV announcements and a pre-election contribution of $9.8 million to continue planning of a much-needed new hospital near the airport — something the previous Liberal government talked about but didn’t deliver before its defeat in 2018.

“What I am hearing at the door is people are very pleased they have a premier in Doug Ford who is working for working people,” says Anthony Leardi, a litigator and former deputy mayor of Amherstburg running in Essex.

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Essex is personal for Ford, who vowed to win it in the wake of taunts from departing New Democrat MPP Taras Natyshak, who once dubbed a customized van the airplane-shy Ford wanted for trips around the province “a souped-up man cave on wheels.”

The NDP’s LeClair charges the Conservatives are recent converts to the needs of the region, with a funding announcement confirming the hospital will be built and open in about 10 years not coming until last October.

“They were virtually absent for four years. And now they’re back down here making promises.”

But Windsor-Tecumseh Conservative Andrew Dowie says he is getting a good reception from voters in the east-side riding that includes the Chrysler minivan plant, the new battery factory, and the planned new hospital in addition to a long-established Ford Motor Co. engine plant.

“Conversations go very easily for me that Premier Ford is willing to go to bat for us,” he says at his campaign office a short drive from a roadside billboard with his name on it that reads “building YOUR hospital.”

On doorsteps, he pitches the riding as having a greater say at Queen’s Park with an MPP in government.

“Imagine how much more we can accomplish together, if we are an influencer and decision-maker,” adds Dowie, a bilingual engineer who is the drainage superintendent for the City of Windsor and a town councillor in suburban Tecumseh.

Windsor resident Anna Jurak, who was furious when Ford scrapped the basic income pilot project for welfare recipients, says she can sense change coming in Windsor-Tecumseh, represented by popular New Democrat Percy Hatfield, a former city councillor and CBC reporter. At 74, he is not running again.

“It’s going to be close. I think we may get a Conservative here. This might be very significant.”

That is not what Liberal candidate Gary Kaschak, a Windsor city councillor on Jurak’s doorstep, wants to hear.

He later points to the city’s role in landing the $5-billion EV battery plant.

“Our task on Windsor city council was to assemble and buy the land and we went $50 million in debt to make this happen. That’s a huge endeavour,” says Kaschak, a retired administrator at the Canada Border Services Agency.

“Certainly, Premier Ford came down and put some money towards it like the feds did as well … so there’s certainly some political opportunities that the Ford government has taken advantage of, yes.”

NDP candidate Gemma Grey-Hall, the University of Windsor’s fundraising officer and a community activist, says Ford “rolled in for the photo-op” at the new battery plant but was nowhere to be seen when truckers and others protesting COVID-19 restrictions blocked the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit, holding up shipments on both sides of the border.

“He wasn’t here when the people needed him most. I think he was out snowmobiling at his cottage.”

She questioned the sincerity of Ford’s outreach to the working class after he froze the minimum wage four years ago and resisted the NDP push for more than three paid sick days for workers without benefits during the pandemic.

“You want to talk about what contributed to community spread of the virus and additional lockdowns?”

Back in LaSalle, in a neighbourhood of posh new homes on the Seven Lakes Golf Course, Essex Liberal candidate Manpreet Brar said the hospital planning grant from Ford’s government would have speeded up the project by years had it come early in his term.

“Nothing happened for three-and-a-half years.”

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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