How Andrea Horwath became the imperfect underdog - Macleans.ca

How Andrea Horwath became the imperfect underdog

The social activist turned politician was ideally placed to soak up the votes of fed-up Liberals. But do Ontarians know what they’re getting?

by

Ontario New Democrats Party Leader Andrea Horwath is photographed before a campaign rally in Brampton, Ont., on Tuesday, May 21, 2018. (Photograph by Cole Burston)

For eight years of childhood, Andrea Horwath lived with a lump on her nose. The lump got her teased from age 11. It followed her to high school. She had no money or need for cosmetic surgery. Whenever asked of the lump, she would answer honestly: “I was hit in the face with a baseball bat.”

Horwath had played organized ball in Stoney Creek, Ont. She was waiting in the batter’s cage for her turn to bat when her predecessor threw the bat in its traumatizing trajectory. Horwath’s puffed, black face turned out to have a deviated septum, but her health coverage wouldn’t pay for the corrective operation until she was 19 and had trouble breathing.

“I don’t think my life was any tougher or easier than anybody else’s,” says the Ontario NDP leader on her campaign bus in Toronto, looking back on various parts of her childhood. “What’s made it such a good campaign for me is that it really is focused on everyday people, and that sounds maybe corny, but that’s where I come from, that’s who I am, and so it feels like it’s really a part of me. The campaign feels like it’s mine—not in a possessive way, but it just feels right.”

Horwath is the archetypal underdog. She wasn’t supposed to have a solid chance of leading Ontario, far behind her opponents in the winter, in a province that hasn’t elected the party in 28 years.

She is a single mother whose own mother was a janitor before leaving the home and whose single immigrant father did welding and quality control at a Ford factory while educating himself by reading the Hamilton Spectator each day.

Horwath was the only one of four siblings to go to university, where she took labour studies, and fellow social activists pushed her into municipal politics with the goal of having an inside woman on council. She then went provincial for one of the poorest ridings in the province, Hamilton Centre, and what she lacked in agility she made up for in authenticity, as one who grew up heating the family home by burning recycled bundles of the Spectator.

READ MORE: Ontario election 2018 platform guide: Where the parties stand on everything

“For her to come from where she was born … and now is one step away from becoming premier of Ontario is a Cinderella story; it is a script that Hollywood should be looking at,” says Sam Merulla, a Hamilton city councillor who worked with Horwath in the early 2000s. “She might look as if she could be taken for granted, but those that have in the past have paid the consequences.”

The NDP had close to 38 per cent of support in late May, according to poll averages, up from less than 20 per cent at the beginning of the year, and Horwath became the most-approved leader by early June. (As of June 4, the Maclean’s-Pollara tracking poll of decided voters had the PCs leading at 39 per cent to 37 per cent for the NDP.)  Horwath has benefitted from two trends: Kathleen Wynne, deeply unpopular, has come to represent 15 years of Liberal mismanagement, while some potential PC voters have been turned off by Doug Ford’s brand of populism, lack of a detailed policy platform and controversies.

Horwath has branded herself as the non-Ford liberator from Wynne, and any more NDP gains will likely owe less to her merit than to opportune Fordian slips.

The Horwath phenomenon raises angst that she won’t have enough competent candidates to form a strong cabinet if she wins. Critics say she’s a weak leader who has failed twice already to get the party elected, lacks fiscal restraint and during the campaign could not win debates, answer questions or check math, as her platform had a $1.4 billion mistake. But if voters are finished with Wynne and afraid of Ford, they might be tempted by Horwath, still something of an unknown even after a long run in Ontario politics and a 30-day campaign.

***

Andrea Lynn Horwath is named for her father, Andrew, who immigrated from Slovakia and worked at a Ford factory for 42 years, beginning as a welder. Her mother, Diane, worked the switchboards for Bell Canada before having children and later as a janitor at a high school. Horwath’s great aunt acted as a nanny to Horwath, her older sister and two younger brothers, who lived in a house with a garden of banana peppers and beets for pickling and a pool that another great aunt paid for.

“We didn’t feel insecure in any way, but we didn’t have lots of extras either,” Horwath says.

Her mother had to stop working after an incident in the basement; Diane was playing soccer with the children when she fell and broke vertebrae in her back. Good times still ensued, including a 1977 road trip to Florida during which the siblings, fed up with their 9-year-old brother’s constant demands for bathroom breaks, eventually made him pee in the backseat into a 2L Coke bottle.

The year after the road trip, when Andrea was 15, her parents’ marriage became tense to the point that Diane left. Andrew refused to move out, and Diane thought it best that the children stay in the family home. She moved to a trailer in Chatham-Kent where the children visited her on weekends. Her father would prepare cabbage rolls, pierogis and other meals before going to work his 10-hour shifts, and he taught them home remedies, such as if they burnt a finger on the stove to touch the finger to an earlobe to cool the burn.

READ MORE: Just how far can Andrea Horwath go?

“Their home was kind of like a little bit of the community centre,” says Sandy Shaw, Horwath’s childhood friend. “It was like the group home where we would always go and hang out,” he says, noting he learned to swim in the Horwath pool.

Horwath continued playing baseball even after her nasal injury. “She had this lump, and it was pretty big,” notes her brother, Mike Horwath. “She didn’t have a problem with being teased about it. She was a strong person.” In terms of surgery, “She lived a long time with that lump,” he says. “If she didn’t have the breathing issues, I don’t think she would’ve got it done.”

Mike also recalls Horwath’s strength in a rare case when their father got mad. During a fight between her father and other brother, the father headed for a cabinet. “He grabbed a broom, and I swear he was going to strike him with the broom, and Andrea jumped in there,” Mike recalls. “She physically stopped him from doing it.”

Horwath also helped Mike himself, one night sitting beside him for three hours to explain essay structure as he wrote an essay on Macbeth. “She called it, even back then, critical thinking,” Mike says. “You got to dissect stuff and go back and re-evaluate. I grew up that day a little bit.”

When her siblings grew up, her sister Suzanne opened a tailoring shop in Hamilton, called Udder Delight in honour of her affection for cows, and her brother Andrew joined a company that installs energy-efficient ceilings in curling arenas and hockey rinks. Mike works in quality control at a Toyota factory. He could get Horwath a deal on a car, but “I’m not buying a foreign vehicle,” she told him, as Mike recalls. “‘They’d kill me at the legislature.’ So she still has a Ford.”

Horwath waited tables to pay for her labour studies degree at McMaster University (this labour was particularly painful because she had toe bunions. She got surgery on one foot, but the procedure was so painful she declined the second). During her time at McMaster, she met Ben Leonetti, a DJ and jazz musician, and they had a son, Julian, and later separated.

Horwath joined McQuesten Legal & Community Services to help clients get social assistance and compensation for workplace injuries, pushing for policy change from city council until her friends convinced her to run for office one day while meeting in Hamilton at the Black Forest Inn.

“Banging on the door from the outside has been effective up to a point,” Horwath recalls. “We need to think about being on the inside. I drew the short stick of all my colleagues and all my friends on the social justice route. Literally we had this conversation … we had talked about who would be best suited to maybe try to win a seat on city council. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, but I need all of you to be on my team.'”

Horwath lost in the federal election of 1997, but the campaign publicized her name ahead of the municipal election later that year. Her political pivot made sense to her colleagues, who had noticed her absorption with policy. As former director of McQuesten Michael Lewis recalls, “She would frequently say, ‘I have a problem with that.”

***

Horwath began profiting from Liberal anger long before Wynne.

“She was very at home at city council, and a lot of people had hoped that she would one day be mayor,” says Wayne Marston, a friend and former NDP MP. “She wasn’t in a hurry, and I think that’s important-pacing yourself in politics. You have got to learn your craft.”

Although Horwath didn’t run provincially in 2003 because her father was dying of lung cancer, she ran the next year in a byelection after Liberal MPP Dominic Agostino passed away, and the Liberals alienated certain supporters by not appointing their favoured candidate, Bernie Morelli.

“The [Liberal] party pulled one of the most ridiculous and unsophisticated moves in the history of politics,” says Merulla, who was a Liberal supporting Morelli. “The Liberals kicked [its own supporters] aside and said, ‘we’re going to exploit the Agostino name and appoint his brother.'”

Horwath won, converting Liberals including Merulla—”I am an Andrea Horwath New Democrat”—and branding herself in part with single motherhood. She focused on the wellbeing of children as Julian stopped playing sports around age 12 when he turned to videogames, and she pushed for lower hydro bills while making sure Julian did laundry only on weekends to save electricity.

Running for party leader in 2008, Horwath was a candidate who would cry and get angry along with voters when they told her their problems, and she beat Peter Tabuns among others on the third ballot. At a later convention in Vancouver, Jack Layton told her, as she recalls, “your numbers are higher than the party. That’s a good thing. Keep it going. And don’t forget, you’re my leader.”

As Liberals got angry at their party, so did the most progressive New Democrats as Horwath shifted to the centre—a trademark mistake of former federal leader Thomas Mulcair in 2015.

Deirdre Pike, a longtime NDP supporter, recalls a meeting with Horwath: “She explained until she was elected she really couldn’t talk about poverty, and that what Ontarians wanted to hear about was childcare and dental care,” says Pike, who is now the Liberal candidate for Hamilton Centre. “The things we were demanding were starting to appear—but under Kathleen Wynne.”

But under Horwath, the party gained support in Brantford, Kitchener and Waterloo and went from 10 to 21 seats in the legislature from before she was leader to the 2014 election. In 2017, the NDP bet that Ontarians disliked Wynne so much that they could offer almost the same platform and run as an alternative to Ford, and the moment Horwath realized she could also win certain Conservative votes came when a Tory phoned into her appearance on a radio show.

“I think his name was Robert,” Horwath recalls. “He said, ‘Ms. Horwath, I’ve only ever voted Conservative. I’m a Conservative through and through, but I’m voting for you this time because I need dental care.’ And then he hangs up, and the host said, ‘I’m verifying for you, Andrea, that this guy is a true Conservative.'”

Horwath secured populist votes in part thanks to campaign director Michael Balagus from Winnipeg, where he’d served as chief of staff to two premiers. “There is a different feel to Horwath’s NDP,” says John Duffy, a volunteer advisor to the Liberal Party. “The overt influence of Toronto and Toronto issues is certainly less with Horwath than it was with [Bob] Rae or even with [Howard] Hampton. They’re certainly keeping the urbanist tradition, but they brought a healthy dose of Manitoba to this.”

Horwath hasn’t addressed recent controversies of a series of NDP candidates that Ford calls “radical”: one who was previously arrested for trespassing, one who attended an anti-police demonstration, one who opposes poppies on Remembrance Day and another whose Facebook page displayed a meme showing Adolf Hitler.

And when Horwath’s team was called out for underestimating the deficit in the platform by $1.4 billion, Horwath said merely, “it will mean our deficit will take a little longer to eradicate.”

“The NDP team and Horwath decided they had enough of a good thing going … that they felt they were in a position to attempt a shrug-off,” says Duffy. “And it worked.” Horwath hung back in the first leaders debate to let Wynne attack Ford, then stepped up in the second debate but missed an opportunity in the third debate to solidify support. As Duffy says, “Horwath’s performance didn’t seal the deal.”

When visiting the Toronto Star and asked if she had a “thick enough bench,” Horwath offered jokingly, “training programs for Cabinet. Good training programs.” A Conservative ad spread this clip with the tagline, “NDP Not Ready.”

At a stop in Toronto during her last week, after she toured a Caribbean cultural organization to examine mannequins with wired bras and reptilian-themed accessories— “look, look at these snake cuffs”—a scrum of reporters was still bringing up claims that she’s a “weak leader.”

“I don’t think it could ever be the same campaign with a different leader,” she says on her bus. “This campaign is kind of formed around who I am and what politics means for me and why I do this in the first place and why I started doing this 20 years ago.”

Horwath has peculiar potential to be up next at the job of premier, but Horwath, 55, like Horwath, 11, still needs to survive the wait.

MORE ABOUT 2018 ONTARIO ELECTION: