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Is there a budding bromance between Ford and Sutcliffe?

Over three meetings this spring, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has presented Doug Ford with a sports jersey, a dozen donuts and a welcome mat — all to the premier’s apparent delight.

Ford called the donuts “beautiful” and the mat “fantastic.”

His gifts, meanwhile, were more substantive: a $543-million “new deal” for Ottawa, a $37.5-million check for meeting housing targets and, most recently, a new provincial office downtown.

The visits came loaded with chummy banter, as Ford repeatedly joked that he was spending too much time in Sutcliffe’s basement and trying the patience of the mayor’s wife. Sutcliffe said he was grateful for their “very strong and productive working relationship.”

“I love this guy,” Ford said, resting his hand on the mayor’s shoulder. “This guy’s a champ.”

But how much should one read into those signs of a budding bromance between the two leaders?

While some of it is no doubt performance, some observers see promising signs that Ottawa is looming larger in the mind of a premier who values ​​the personal touch.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford shows off a customized shirt from Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe in Ottawa on March 28, 2024.

Ford shows off a customized shirt that Sutcliffe gave him during the March 28 meeting. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Geneviève Tellier, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, said building relationships is a familiar feature of Ford’s political style.

“Doug Ford is like that,” Tellier said. “He likes to have personal ties with people, with the people that he has to work with. You see it with others, even (Toronto Mayor) Olivia Chow, where there are unnatural inclinations between the two. But nevertheless you will see them together on the same stage, smiling, joking.”

Even if Ford is known for his generally friendly style, it’s still important to see concrete evidence of it in Ottawa. When issues get jammed between city hall and Queen’s Park, contacts at the political level can clear the way for a solution.

“Final decisions are always taken at the top,” Tellier said. “So when there are some issues that are stalling, the only way to resolve those is when the leaders, those at the top, take matters in their own hands and say, OK, I want that resolved.”

Premier Doug Ford receives a dozen donuts from Mayor Mark Sutcliffe in Ottawa on April 5. The donuts were produced by Maverick’s Donut Company.

Premier Doug Ford receives a dozen donuts from Mayor Mark Sutcliffe in Ottawa on April 5. The donuts were produced by Maverick’s Donut Company. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

The early years of Ford’s premiership. Tellier noted, they were difficult for Ottawa. There were “tensions,” she said, as former mayor Jim Watson and the premier “did not see eye to eye on several issues.”

In her view, there was a perception that Ottawa no longer existed on the provincial agenda.

“It is probably easier with a new approach, a new mayor,” she said.

Former mayor says new office could help cement ties

Bob Chiarelli has gotten a close look at both sides of the relationship.

Ottawa’s mayor between 2001 and 2006, Chiarelli was also in the provincial cabinet under Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.

I have agreed that personal connections are “very important” to getting results for the city. Even before he was older, Chiarelli said, he learned that a friendly phone call can get the wheels of the provincial bureaucracy spinning on the city’s behalf.

When the ice storm hit hard in 1998, Chiarelli headed the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton. “We were under tremendous, tremendous pressure,” he recalled. But a call he placed to then-premier Mike Harris’s personal number, he said, helped step up the province’s response.

“I was able to connect with him, and within about five hours he had two people here on site,” he said.

When he became mayor of the amalgamated city, Chiarelli said he maintained a strong working relationship with premiers of different political stripes, from Ernie Eves to McGuinty.

Ottawa mayoral candidate (and former mayor) Bob Chiarelli poses for a photo in October 2022.

Former Major Bob Chiarelli, seen here in 2022, says the 1998 ice storm cemented for him how important it was to have a personal relationship with the province’s premier. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

One thing in particular helped, Chiarelli said: an office McGuinty set up in Ottawa, a short walk away from the mayor’s office. He suspects that Ford’s new regional office might have the same effect.

“The premier’s new office in Ottawa will definitely help the relationship between the mayor and the premier,” said Chiarelli. “A lot of people think that this is very innovative and new, but it’s not.”

Officials would meet at McGuinty’s Ottawa office to hash out everything from transit funding to ambulance shortages, Chiarelli said.

In his view, political logjams get solved when the right people are in the right room at the same time.

“If you don’t do that, then things can go astray,” he said.

Cabinet departure, political calculations, likely behind visits

At Wednesday’s meeting, city manager Wendy Stephenson said the recent funding deal with Ford’s government has helped cement relations with her provincial counterparts on the administrative level — but she hopes Sutcliffe’s ties with the premier will help back up the work of the bureaucracy.

“Having the greatest strength in his relationship with the premier has also been really good as we come through this, so very positive,” she said.

Tellier has a few hypotheses to explain the premier’s more visible interest in Ottawa over recent weeks, and none of them involve locally-made doughnuts.

Ford might be spooked by his party’s byelection loss in Kanata-Carleton, a seat previously held by Merrilee Fullerton. Her departure, Tellier said, left Ottawa with no representation at the cabinet table.

That void heightens the need for a direct line of communication, she said, while the loss might signal that the Progressive Conservatives have to pay more attention to Ottawa in a tougher political environment.

“Probably the next election will be much more competitive than the previous one,” she said. “Every seat is important, and there are some seats that are winnable for the Ford government in the area.”

Premier Doug Ford announced on April 29 a plan to open a new regional office in Ottawa.

During his most recent visit earlier this week, Ford announced a plan to open a new regional office in Ottawa. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

Chiarelli agreed that Ottawa’s lack of cabinet representation is probably part of what Ford suggested to step into the breach.

“I think he’s a bit guilty that he doesn’t have ministers here, and he’s got to fill in the vacant space. I think that’s a big part of it,” Chiarelli said.

“He was sending a strong message: I want to be a partner with you, I want to help you. Translation: I need some MPPs to be elected in your city.”

Whatever the reason, Tellier said Ford’s recent visits are a positive sign for a city that sometimes feels forgotten.

“We had the sense that we were under the radar at Queen’s Park, and so when Doug Ford was talking about municipalities and issues around the province, we were thinking, well, he’s talking about Toronto, but what’s in it for Ottawa?” Tellier said.

“Three visits in a short time, that was unexpected, I would say. I think it is welcome.”