An OPP officer keeps an eye on Premier Doug Ford and MPP Sam Oosterhoff at Summerfest on Saturday. VOICE PHOTO

For 90 minutes on Saturday, Summerfest was Doug Ford’s party

BY DAVE BURKET
The VOICE

Ontario Premier Doug Ford stopped by Summerfest on Saturday afternoon, arriving at the foot of Church Hill Street around 3:45, alighting from one of a small fleet of black SUVs carrying his advance team and OPP security.

“Oh, I can’t tell you that,” answered a burly OPP plainclothes officer behind dark shades, when asked how many more of his colleagues were in the crowd.

Ford, looking relaxed in a polo shirt and jeans, greeted local dignitaries first. On hand were Pelham Mayor Dave Augustyn, Regional Councillor Brian Baty, Regional Chair Alan Caslin, and Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff.

“It’s a way of thanking the people,” said Oosterhoff, whose idea it was that Ford come out to Niagara. “It’s a classy thing to do.”

Niagara West was the only Niagara riding won by the Conservatives in June’s provincial election. The riding encompasses Grimsby, Lincoln, Pelham, West Lincoln, Wainfleet, and a sliver of St. Catharines.

Ford’s progress through the crowd was slow. No sooner had one selfie been snapped when another cellphone appeared, attached to a waving hand.

The presence of celebrity provokes varying levels of euphoria—relatively restrained in the case of politicians, unhinged when it’s a boy band or television icon.

In Ford’s case, a mild but evident elation built as his entourage moved north along Pelham Street, the Premier careful to stop at each booth on the west side of the street, chatting up vendors, trying samples. After hiding during the morning, the sun was out and the air was heavy with heat.

Everyone was all-smiles, save the security detail and staffers, some of whom looked to be barely into their 20s. Ford periodically sipped from a plastic water bottle carried by an assistant. Small children watched quizzically—first eying Ford, then the people in the street aiming cameras and cellphones at him.

Alan Caslin, running for re-election as Regional Chair, and Dave Augustyn, running to unseat him, managed to find their way into a large percentage of fan photos, often snapped by Ford’s lead assistant, the only man at Summerfest wearing a suit. Augustyn, whose photo-bombing prowess is legendary, was the more persistent, tending to pop up in the background, time and again, Where’s Waldo-like.

Asked whether Ford was always subject to so many photo requests, another large OPP plainclothes officer in dark glasses nodded yes.

“Yesterday I was with Trudeau,” he said. “Even more. You come to expect it.”

One of Ford’s advance team approached the officer and spoke quietly about a man seen with a penknife, acting oddly. He was moved off of Pelham Street as a precaution.

Ford was received politely by vendors and the public, although a few festival-goers could be heard grumbling as they passed, distinctly uninterested in obtaining photographic evidence of a close encounter with Ontario’s new premier.

Social media reaction was similarly cool. At the time of this writing, only four in ten Facebook user comments, posted in reaction to a video of Ford’s arrival, were positive.

This mirrors the PCs’ June performance at polling stations located closest to Summerfest’s Pelham Street locale.

The Conservatives, via MPP Sam Oosterhoff, failed to win an outright majority in any of them, garnering an average of 43% of the vote.

At best on Saturday, Ford and Oosterhoff were strolling among an audience in which six out of 10 voted against them—especially factoring in visitors from elsewhere in NDP-dominated Niagara.

(The PCs’ worst Pelham result was at Shorthills Villa Retirement Community, where the Conservatives earned but 36% support. In raw numbers, the PCs did best in South Fonthill. While at 42% they still failed to obtain an outright majority, Oosterhoff earned exactly 666 votes. If that’s prophetic, the irony is inescapable.)

Yet #PelhamProudPragmatism tended to prevail. The election, after all, earned Niagara West a seat at a majority government table, which hasn’t happened since 1995. Said Facebook user Jerry Cornelious, “Pelham is due! The area is a conservative stronghold, and would not be given much by the Liberals. I am no fan of the right, but Ford should back ridings that always vote for his party.”

Under the arches on Pelham Town Square, Ford and Oosterhoff posed with a gaggle of teenage girls. From the stage, a singer belted out Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the line, “And don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts” nearly in sync with the snap.

As Ford and Oosterhoff slowly made their way forward, Mal Accursi, spouse of Town Councillor Gary Accursi, and Town Recreation Director Vicky Van Ravenswaay both took photos. Accursi’s camera looked equally capable of capturing Serengeti cheetahs at a thousand yards.

Teresa Quinlin, Town Treasurer, responded to the suggestion that Ford’s visit was a minor coup.

“This puts Pelham on the map,” said Quinlin.

On their way to a kiddie play area, Ford’s staff separated him and Oosterhoff from the crowd for a brief press scrum in front of Town Hall, the press in this instance consisting of Niagara This Week and the Voice, plus a Ford staffer recording the conversation for posterity, and presumably accuracy.

Watching Ford work the crowd, and especially up close, it’s easy to understand why his team was confident this spring that bypassing the press during his campaign wouldn’t make much of a dent in his odds of winning.

His government may be about to set sexual education back a generation—to a prehistoric era before smartphones, social media, and same-sex marriage—but his manner is calmly reasonable. Like the American president to whom he is so often compared, Doug Ford Jr. comes from a wealthy family and is rich, yet he manages to come across as “relatable” to us ordinaries, the ultimate accolade in retail politics.

At a distance of two feet, Ford is less imposing than one expects, and shorter, but that’s normal. Fame flames expectations.

The coifed hair and unblinking eye contact are real enough. Ford restrains his smile, saving it like a reward. His tone is measured as he answers our questions, saying nothing unexpected, which was expected.

Ford expressed support for the local wine industry, saying that recent proposals to double the amount of liquor that consumers can take across provincial boundaries will help Niagara wine, beer, and spirits producers.

He echoed his campaign pledge to find efficiencies in provincial finances, including examining the past government’s spending with a “line-by-line audit.”

The most interesting moment came after the interview theoretically ended.

“Off the record,” Ford started, then changed his mind, saying that on the record was fine.

The last remarks he’d made were related to the proposed all-day GO Train extension to Niagara, which Ford said he continued to support, suggesting that an announcement on a firmer timetable could be coming by mid-August.

“You guys have probably heard about this,” he said, meaning his two-reporter audience. Ford said that during the campaign he’d heard persistent rumours of land purchases along the planned GO Train line, insider deals based on insider knowledge, the implication being that Liberal government officials tipped-off Liberal-friendly developers that it might not be a bad idea to buy parcel X in town Y, wink-wink.

Ford wasn’t wrong. Such rumours have been floating for several months. Rumours only, mind you, but interestingly consistent, and Niagara-centric.

“We’re going to look into that,” he said, smiling big, and with unmistakable pleasure.

 


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