When Dean French calls, people pick up.
With good reason. For better or for worse, he speaks for Doug Ford.
As chief of staff, he is the eyes and ears of the premier. He also has Ford’s back — and vice-versa.
The loyalty between these two eerily similar soul mates — chief of staff and cheerleader in chief — is reciprocal, as the premier made clear Wednesday.
No matter what lines are crossed. Even on matters of law and order.
Turns out the premier’s office, rather like the now notorious White House, knows better about law enforcement. Speaking on the premier’s behalf, French has now taken to dictating whom police should arrest, and when:
As the Toronto Star’s Rob Ferguson reported this week, French set off alarm bells among his fellow Tories — those who haven’t forgotten their fidelity to public service — when he demanded that front-line cops do his bidding, the better to enhance the premier’s public profile. In two conference calls on the morning of Oct. 17, French issued edicts to senior staff that police be instructed to raid outlaw cannabis stores so that “people in handcuffs” would appear on a noon newscast on the very day marijuana was legalized.
Asked to respond, the premier’s office gave evasive answers — trumpeting their achievements while dodging Ferguson’s direct questions. Confronted in the legislature, Ford stood behind his man — just as he has rallied behind other embattled Tories in recent weeks.
By law and convention, political staff and cabinet ministers don’t exercise direct control over police operations. Their authority is limited to overarching policy and overall legislative frameworks, a separation of powers intended to prevent politicians and staff from manipulating or meddling in policing.
As we’ve seen in the U.S., one reason is to prevent politicians in power from seeking retribution against their predecessors, or other political enemies. “Lock her up!” takes on a chilling significance when a premier’s chief of staff believes he can tell police whom to go after.
This isn’t French’s first attempt to bend the rules, and judging by the premier’s loyal support, this won’t be the last. Ford once again ducked media reports that his chief of staff telephoned the chair of the board at Ontario Power Generation to demand the firing of a political adversary, vice-president Alykhan Velshi (for the sin of disloyalty to former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown).
“I just want to be clear I support my chief of staff 1,000 per cent…He works hard, he’s honest, he has integrity,” the premier insisted as he dismissed questions about lines crossed.
That’s the same language Ford used when Michael Tibollo, his then-minister of community safety and corrections, became an albatross after boasting about wearing a bulletproof vest while joining police in the Jane-Finch area, and feebly trying to explain away his past legal tangles in private life: Tibollo “is the most credible minister down here — he has integrity, he has transparency and he’s an absolute champion,” Ford said at the time. “I’ll stand beside him any day, 365 days a year — I have 1,000 per cent confidence.”
Upon reflection, he demoted Tibollo in a cabinet shuffle.
Same with Jim Wilson, his scandal-prone economic development minister, whom Ford fired just hours after singing his praises as part of an “all-star” cabinet — his favourite turn of phrase for the Tory team.
Cabinet ministers, of course, come and go, serving at pleasure of the crown — or more precisely, at the whim of the premier. But a chief of staff is at the locus of power, operating as an extension of the premier so that mere ministers and senior staff almost always acquiesce.
Not all do. Veteran lawyer Ken Bednarek, the top adviser to the minister of community safety at the time, may have paid the price for dissenting. Bednarek, who has declined comment, was fired shortly after those improper phone calls from French.
There is only one person more powerful than a chief of staff gone awry — the premier himself. French is an unelected apparatchik, but the premier is accountable to voters, and the legislature, for his actions (and inaction) while his chief of staff runs amok.
When push comes to shove, French wields power not only because he speaks for Ford, but because Ford speaks up for him. The reason the premier’s chief of staff acts like a chief of police is that Ford cheers on his soul mate, as enabler in chief.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn