Introducing Andrea Horwath

She’s been at the helm of the Ontario NDP for nine years, so why do we barely know her?
May 29, 2018, 6:59pm
Cover image: Ontario NDP leader  Andrea  Horwath arrives ahead of the Ontario Elections Leaders debate at the CBC building in Toronto, Sunday May 27, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch)

It’s the first long weekend of the summer, and Jagmeet Singh is stealing Andrea Horwath’s thunder. In a Brampton, Ontario parking lot, the federal NDP leader emerges from Horwath’s campaign bus grinning and clapping, accompanied by two dhol drummers who are doing a stellar job of revving up the crowd with bhangra beats. There are screams and catcalls for the youngest leader in party history. At the tail end of a long procession of handlers, supporters, and candidates is Horwath, all smiles, but not nearly the centre of attention. The order of appearance in this parade is rather puzzling.

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On stage, Singh is delivering a rousing introduction of “my good friend Andrea Horwath.” He was her provincial deputy not too long ago after all, before leapfrogging every toiling party hopeful to become leader. When Horwath starts speaking, her voice cracks — not from emotion, but from the sheer toll of attempting to match Singh’s fervour. And then she’s on a roll — free dental care, free prescription drugs for all, converting student loans to grants, lowering those dastardly hydro rates.

It’s hard to tell who Andrea Horwath really is from simply watching her speak. She’s on message track, delivering slogan after slogan to a crowd that has all but memorized the NDP’s latest platform. Preaching to the converted.

A mere 10 minutes into her speech, there’s a low murmur in the background, as people slowly start leaving the stage area and head to the back of the banquet hall to chat, sip coffee, and munch on samosas. She’s losing the crowd, but it’s unclear if she even knows that. The sloganeering continues, and has taken on potent meaning as the party climbs in the polls and flirts with the prospect of a majority government, led by a woman that, arguably, remains an enigma.

Never commanding centre stage until now, Horwath is actually a seasoned politician. At 55, she’s been in the game for a good two decades, starting out as city councillor in Hamilton in 1997 where she was a local champion for people hardest hit by the steel recession of the early 1990s. In 2004, she switched over to provincial politics as MPP for Hamilton East, and within five years was elected to lead the Ontario NDP. She’s spent nine years at the helm of a party that has struggled to make a substantial dent in the minds of voters, perhaps up until the last two weeks. But now, with certain polls putting her in the premier’s seat after election day, some are wondering what went wrong all those years — and what’s changed.

"She’s not dragging the party down. The party is dragging her down."

“She’s not dragging the party down. The party is dragging her down,” declares her good friend and former colleague Sam Merulla, a Hamilton city councillor for Ward 4. “She’s a victim of the Bob Rae mess. It’s quite remarkable really, how that thing is still resonating.” Merulla is determined to convince me that Horwath’s personal popularity within the party has never lagged. It’s the ghost of the much-maligned Rae tenure of the 90s — the only time the NDP has led Ontario — that Horwath is a victim of, not her own personality.

That’s not entirely untrue. Horwath defeated her competitors with 60 percent of the vote at the 2009 NDP leadership convention. In 2012, she grabbed 76 percent of party support. In 2014, despite the NDP’s poor performance in that year’s provincial election, her internal party support inched up slightly, to 77 percent. Something seems to be lost in translation — what is the NDP seeing that Ontarians simply haven’t? Until now, perhaps.

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I get a glimpse of that missing factor during a one-on-one interview with Horwath on her tour bus a few days after the Brampton rally. Her campaign team is giddy — just a day earlier, two different polls showed Horwath’s support climbing, and Doug Ford’s waning. There’s even some evidence that the NDP might be chipping away at traditionally Conservative terrain. No one seems particularly concerned with Liberal leader and current premier Kathleen Wynne, whose Hydro One mess has worked out beautifully for both Ford and Horwath.

I’m given a strict 15 minutes with Horwath, but since everyone’s in a great mood, that extends to a good 23 minutes. We’re parked outside Seneca College in Scarborough even though the NDP has never really had a problem bagging the student vote. Horwath is again all smiles when she emerges from the event. She has this rather charming and hilarious habit of winking at supporters when she catches their eye, more out of instinctive niceness than anything, I suspect.

The tour bus has an unventilated smell of sorts, a mixture of stale coffee and leftover ham sandwiches. A couple of other media folk are poking around the bus, presumably also looking for clues as to how a long-time party leader no one seemed to pay much attention to suddenly emerged in the spotlight of provincial politics.

Horwath greets me, and I follow her to the back of the bus — her spot. Not even 30 seconds into our interview, and she’s in slogan mode again. “I’m excited about the opportunity to show people the stark difference in choice they have on June 7. For me, it’s about fulfilling the vision that we’re saying is possible for Ontarians. It doesn’t have to be about cuts and more pain for families.”

It’s a struggle to get her off that track, and we stay on message for a good 10 minutes. I want to talk about her background growing up in a working class family in Hamilton, why she became a labour rights activist and tenant advocate, her life as a single mother to a now 25-year-old aspiring musician, and why she chose local politics instead of a more lucrative field like law (she tells me later she applied to law school with the hope of doing labour and environmental law).

Finally, she breaks. “We didn’t have a lot, but we weren’t struggling,” she tells me. “Kids I was going to school with, they were getting a car when they were 16 and things like that.”

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So you didn’t get a car when you were 16?

“No, no. We had a Pinto that we shared, my sister and I. A used Pinto that we shared. I don’t know if you know anything about Pintos but they had a really bad reputation. If they got rear-ended they would burst, blow up,” she says wryly.

“I only remember my dad having one brand new car. We always had used cars because we couldn’t afford it.” There’s no resentment in her tone, no indication that she would have rather grown up in a more middle class home. Nor is she saying this as a talking point to justify why, out of all three candidates for premier, she can best relate to working class Ontarians.

As a teenager, Horwath worked in an industrial dry cleaning factory, where dirty gloves, aprons, and coveralls from nearby chemical and steel plants were cleaned. “As you can imagine there were chemicals everywhere, so it wasn’t an easy job. I also waitressed for 10 years to put myself through university,” she says. “So all of these things have exposed me to different people, from different walks of life.”

Her father was an auto worker at a Ford plant in Oakville, and a trade unionist, so it’s no surprise that she speaks of a personal mission to even the playing field a little, help everyone achieve a certain standard of living. “Social justice is her driving force. She’s a fighter for the underdog and has been fearless in addressing issues even though they might be publicly unpopular,” Merulla attests.

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Her background and upbringing might explain the fact that as someone in a position of power, she appears to not have any airs about her. No real trace of the pompousness or arrogance that is often associated with people who ascend political or corporate ranks. In the 2014 Ontario election, when the New Democrats came in at a dismal third place with just 21 seats and 23 percent of the popular vote, Horwath’s office conducted a shake-up — her long-serving Chief of Staff Gissel Yanez and principal adviser Elliott Anderson left their positions.

“Chemistry is important to everything that we do in politics. Chemistry is going to have to work for the leader. And the decisions that are made are for the most part never personal,” is Merulla’s cryptic response when I ask about their ouster.

"Mrs. Horwath and the NDP can’t do their math."

Another close friend of Horwath’s from Hamilton, Denise Christopherson, wants to make the point that Horwath has a “strongwoman” personality. “Andrea can go into any boardroom and make her case. She listens to all opinions but when she makes a decision, she moves forward with it.”

I point out that Horwath tends to come across as inaccessible and stiff from afar. She brushes me off. “I think it’s total rhetoric. She’s got a real good understanding of what makes communities thrive and she was always able to connect to people.”

“Anyone who meets Andrea won’t forget meeting Andrea,” Christopherson emphasizes.

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But that’s the problem. Most voters will never get to actually meet the candidate they plan to vote for or against. And politics is, unfortunately, much less a game of substance, than it is of charisma, especially when you have a candidate like Doug Ford in the mix — a former Toronto city councillor and brother of the late mayor Rob Ford who has been riding high in the polls with no real platform to speak of except a vague promise to lower gas prices and “put money back in your pocket.”

At a rally in Horwath’s hometown, Ford commands the room. It’s two days after my interview with her and he’s throwing out slogans, but with a dash of humour, realness and far, far less finesse than Horwath. The crowd is small, but they’re laser-focused on Ford.

“Mrs. Horwath and the NDP can’t do their math. They made a seven billion-dollar error!” he exclaims, presumably in reference to the $1.4 billion mistake in Horwath’s platform that underestimated budget deficits. After a short speech, it’s time for the real treat — a chance to take a photo with Dougie. “I like him, he’s nice,” a woman called Mia tells me.

She’s disabled and on welfare, and is steadfast in her belief that Ford will make life better for everyone. “There are so many people with mental health issues, and he knows that.” The PC Party has promised to commit $1.9 billion over the next 10 years to “mental health and addiction support,” less than the $2.1 billion allocated in the Liberals’ platform. The NDP is promising a complete overhaul of the mental health system, adding 2,200 workers and cutting wait times for children who suffer from mental health issues to 30 days. But they don’t have a dollar figure attached to the plan — in any event, it’s not resonating with voters like Mia.

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I ask Horwath about Ford’s populism, whether she’s concerned that personality will end up trumping substance. “No, I’m not worried about Doug Ford’s populist politics. I’m worried about Doug Ford not telling the people of Ontario what his plan is,” she responds sharply, not missing a beat. “When you have one person saying it is time for change, but not telling people what kind of change he has in mind, I think people will start to recognize that.”

In a race where progressives have two parties to choose from and conservatives have just one, Horwath is well aware that she cannot afford to alienate centrists who are fed up with 15 years of Liberal Party rule.

What do you say to people who have this idea that the NDP takes from the rich, is on side with the unions and doesn’t reward hard-working people?

"When we talk about taxing the wealthy, it’s not like I vilify those folks."

“When we talk about taxing the wealthy, it’s not like I vilify those folks. We live in a market-based economy and we have people who are able to do well whether it’s because of their own talent or their own merit or because it’s generational. The point is that it’s got to be respectful. I have to be equally respectful with the person I have the same lived experience as, and with the wealthiest people that I meet.”

(If she comes into power on June 7, Horwath has pledged to increase income taxes on those earning more than $220,000 by one percent, and those earning more than $300,000 by two percent.)

She’s determined to make her point to me. “Look, that does not mean that we are always going to agree. On the things that we agree on, we’ll build. On the things that we can’t agree on, we’ll put that aside. Maybe it’s because I’m a middle child, I was the negotiator in my family!” she says with a big laugh.

The 20-odd minutes are up. I ask Horwath where she’s off to next. “Globe editorial board,” she says with a grimace, to which her handlers laugh nervously, ushering me out of the bus.

Cover image: Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath arrives ahead of the Ontario Elections Leaders debate at the CBC building in Toronto, Sunday May 27, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch)

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