As a municipal politician, Rocco Rossi spent much of last year trying in vain to fight the Fords' magic. Now that he's seeking provincial office, he's hoping a little of that magic rubs off on him.
On Thursday morning, the Progressive Conservative candidate for the riding of Eglinton-Lawrence was touting that Rob Ford would attend a community barbecue he's hosting on Aug. 24. Later the same day, after the mayor's office flatly denied that was the case, Mr. Rossi said that a "scheduling conflict" had gotten in the way. But he still seemed excited that Doug Ford, a city councillor with nearly the same degree of profile and power as his younger brother, was planning to attend.
The extent to which Mr. Rossi is eager to publicly rub elbows with the city's power siblings – and where he's looking to do so – offer hints of how Tim Hudak's Tories hope to make a breakthrough in Fortress Toronto.
The Fords are unlikely to win Mr. Rossi too many votes in North Toronto, a relatively tony area that leaned more toward George Smitherman in the 2010 mayoral race. But whereas those were once the sorts of neighbourhoods that helped keep the Big Blue Machine in office, today the Tories have higher hopes for the half of the riding that's west of Bathurst Street.
For a very long time, that chunk of the city – made up mostly of middle- and lower-income neighbourhoods that include large Italian, Filipino and other minority communities – has been fairly safe ground for Liberals. And it may yet remain so, with veteran MPP Mike Colle having built strong ties.
But Rob Ford won that half handily, exposing some strong small-c conservative undercurrents – or if nothing else, an appetite for a brand of pocketbook populism that the Tories are more moderately pushing. So Mr. Rossi will trot him (or at least his brother) out to glad-hand at the Columbus Centre, an Italian-heavy complex that Liberal organizers have typically relied upon for big, morale-boosting campaign rallies.
It's not just Eglinton-Lawrence where the Fords will be in demand. In Scarborough, in Etobicoke, in North York – all home to immigrant-heavy ridings that the federal Conservatives recently demonstrated are there for the taking – the municipal election results suggest that the brothers are assets.
That's not to say, of course, that they couldn't also prove liabilities. While the mayor seems to remain popular, looming service cuts could conceivably lead to a backlash by the time Ontarians go to the polls on Oct. 6. And Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are already warning that it would be dangerous to have conservatives in charge of all three levels of government – an argument the Fords could help make for them, if they seem too eager to elect Mr. Hudak's party.
Perhaps for those reasons, or else just because it can't control them, Mr. Hudak's campaign has treated the Fords with a degree of caution – avoiding aligning the leader himself too closely with them. But on the ground, seeking to woo people who've never previously voted for their party, the Tories evidently aren't afraid to use them as star attractions. The bigger question, based on the confusion over Rob Ford's appearance alongside Mr. Rossi, is how much they want to be used.