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Who is Dean French, Doug Ford’s now-undisputed second-in-command?

Who is Dean French, Doug Ford's now-undisputed second-in-command?
Dean French/Twitter

Last week, news broke that Doug Ford’s principal secretary, Jenni Byrne, would be leaving the premier’s office for a position on the Ontario Energy Board. Byrne was Ford’s most seasoned aide, with years of previous experience as a key organizer for Stephen Harper. In Ford’s administration, she was a power broker. But she’s not the only one with Ford’s ear. In her absence, Dean French, Ford’s chief of staff, will presumably become the second-most-powerful person at Queen’s Park. Here’s what you need to know about him.

He doesn’t have a lot of experience in government

French’s only previous high-profile job in government was back in 2000, when he was an aide to Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. French left shortly after Day jet-skied his way into a distant second-place finish in that fall’s general election.

French spent the next decade helping his wife, Jane, run Etobicoke’s Phoenix Montessori School and building up his insurance consultancy, Advisor Co. He also spent time coaching girls’ basketball, volunteering with Team Canada Lacrosse and working behind the scenes to get Tories get elected in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. He was president of the riding association in 2006 when that year’s Conservative candidate, John Capobianco, lost to Michael Ignatieff.

He’s an old Ford friend

Ford and French have known each other since at least 1995, when they volunteered together to hammer in lawn signs during Doug Ford Sr.‘s first run for a seat in the provincial legislature.

In 2010, when Rob Ford was considering a run for mayor of Toronto, he turned to French to build the team. Mark Towhey—who was Rob’s director of policy and, later, his chief of staff—says it was French who arranged his initial job interview, which involved a meeting with Doug at a Perkins diner near the airport. Towhey describes French as knowledgeable, well connected, and “the kind of guy that was always in the background somewhere.”

In 2014, when Rob briefly ran for mayor (before falling ill and ceding his place on the ticket to Doug), French ran for city council in Etobicoke’s Ward 3 on a platform of lowering taxes, fighting densification and privatizing more city services. While he was arguably the most polished candidate at the ward’s single televised debate, his promotional materials were filled with typos, suggesting an improvised campaign. He finished fifth, with a dismal six per cent of the vote.

Tories seem to fear him

French started to gain notoriety in November, when he was accused of interfering with the operations of a Crown corporation. Patrick Brown’s former chief of staff, Alykhan Velshi, was apparently fired from his new job as vice-president of Ontario Power Generation at French’s request.

A week later, the Star reported on another alleged attempt by French to flex his power: he had apparently ordered Queen’s Park staff to direct police to raid illegal pot shops on the first day of cannabis legalization, so that there would be video of people in handcuffs on local newscasts at noon. Directing the day-to-day operations of the police is a no-no for political staff.

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Globe columnist Adam Radwanski reported that French had gotten into a screaming match with MPP Paul Calandra in a caucus meeting and, on a separate occasion, berated the administration’s communications directors to the point that one of them cried. And remember last year, when Question Period involved so much fervent clapping that it resembled the National Congress of the Chinese Community Party? That may have happened because MPPs were “under the impression,” that French “is closely monitoring their public behaviour for signs of insufficient enthusiasm.”

French also has admirers

Not everyone thinks French is to blame for the way he’s perceived. Chris Froggatt, a lobbyist and public relations strategist who has known French since they were kids in Peterborough and served under him as vice-chair of Doug Ford’s leadership campaign, says the criticism probably has a lot to do with the fact that MPPs, many of them neophytes, are feeling burned out. “The criticisms,” he says, “are the result of a very aggressive agenda moving forward in a very short amount of time.”

Ford, meanwhile, has said he has complete faith in French. “I think he has integrity,” Ford told reporters after Velshi’s ouster. “He’s honest.”

The reality is, Ford may need someone like French to help keep the provincial legislature in line.

As Towhey puts it: “I don’t honestly know whether Doug knows all of the players in the legislature—both on the PC caucus as well as the opposition members—but Dean probably knows the backstory behind most of them and can anticipate where their reactions are going to be,” he says. “That’s really what you want.”

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