Ontario election 2011: For Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, it’s all about connecting

Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny/The Globe and Mail

Saturday, September 24, 2011 – Globe and Mail

Friday night in North Bay, Ont. The blonde behind the bar is talking up patrons on tax policy.

They aren’t sure who she is or why she’s here; 15 minutes ago, they’d never heard her name. But they are riveted and, for that matter, so is she: Her politely agitated handlers need to pry her away to scrum outside the pub.

“Can you get her to come back?” schoolteacher and pub-goer Val Spivey asks. “We want to ask about her education policy.”

This is what Andrea Horwath does.

Like most politicians, she knows the value of a thousand-megawatt smile. Unlike most politicians, she learned it waiting tables in Hamilton’s bars and restaurants, paying her way through an undergraduate degree at McMaster University.

“You have to connect with people – you have to have a good rapport. Because that’s how you get better tips, right? But ever since, that’s been part of who I am.”

This compulsion to connect is her greatest political asset, and she knows it. “People wanted to do things for Andrea,” is how long-time political ally Wayne Marston puts it. The question now is whether she can compel millions of people to vote for her.

She grew up the second-oldest of four children in Stoney Creek, where she remembers walking her younger brothers to hockey practice and sitting wedged between siblings on long drives in the back seat of the family’s Ford LTD.

Her father, Slovak immigrant Andrew Horwath, worked the lines at Ford Motor Co.’s Oakville plant. His namesake daughter was raised on a steady diet of organized-labour culture. She pored over pamphlets, attended union picnics at Crystal Beach and soaked up her dad’s gossip about who was causing trouble.

“I was interested in it; he was interested in sharing,” she says. “I never saw it as a career opportunity.”

Video: Andrea Horwath on her dad’s union legacy

But at McMaster, she found herself drawn to labour studies rather than her original major, human resources. After graduation, almost despite herself, she was working in literacy training, legal-aid advocacy and “community organization” – a fuzzy term that, in Ms. Horwath’s case, often meant going indignantly to bat for people no one else would go to bat for.

She didn’t mince words then, and she doesn’t now. This is, after all, the politician who looked askance at reporters asking in June why she wasn’t releasing her party’s whole platform.

“Look, I’m a woman,” Ms. Horwath shot back at the time. “I know you don’t give it all up at once.”

In 1996, she was a newbie activist when she and Mr. Marston, then with Hamilton’s Labour Council, helmed one of the largest demonstrations in Canada’s history. About 100,000 people converged on Hamilton for two “Days of Action” to protest Mike Harris’s budget cuts.

“Because of the ‘action days,’ people stopped and looked at Andrea,” Mr. Marston says. He was convinced his compatriot was destined for political leadership. “For years,” the NDP MP says, “I said Andrea would be the next premier of Ontario.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that she was nudged into politics, placing second in a federal race and then winning a seat on city council in 1997. Maybe the only person more surprised than Ms. Horwath at her electoral entry was her dad.

“He said, ‘Oh, honey. Are you sure?’ ” she remembers. “I think he knew, more than I did, what I was getting into.”

What awaited her was a bare-knuckled city council and a gritty downtown ward she’d vowed to rejuvenate.

Ron Corsini, who was elected as a rookie alderman to the same ward as Ms. Horwath, remembers a tenacious councillor who put in masochistic hours, obliging him to do the same to keep up. “Andrea is a tough cookie. Extremely tough. … And at the end of the day, if all the guys were going out for a beer, she would come, too. She wouldn’t want to miss anything.”

What she remembers, though, is feeling out of her element and, at first, overcome with self-doubt.

“I sat at my desk and thought, ‘Why the heck did I do this? Have I ruined my life? Have I made a huge mistake?’… I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep that connection with people.”

Fourteen years, two provincial elections and a leadership race later, that anxiety still hasn’t dissipated entirely – and it’s influenced her campaign. “When we talked about how we were going to deal with the tour, I said, ‘Give me lots of chances to connect with people … even people who might not be New Democrats,’ ” she says. “They might not support us, they might be voting somewhere else. It doesn’t bother me. I’d rather have the conversation.”

She says the hardest thing about sitting in the leadership chair the last 2½ years is not getting home enough. In contrast to the Christmas-card-perfect public faces of some political broods, Ms. Horwath has endeavoured to keep her family out of the limelight. For months she kept her separation from her long-time partner, Ben Leonetti, from the public. And while her 18-year-old son, Julian, and other relatives come up often in her speeches, they rarely make campaign appearances.

Ms. Horwath’s challenge now is to make good on the most momentum Ontario’s NDP has seen since the 1990s. Its federal counterpart’s success in May -and goodwill following Jack Layton’s death – has helped. But it won’t be enough to carry the party through Oct. 6. She has to make sure that her gift for one-on-one connections translates into a provincial vision. And she’s gambling on a slate of populist platforms that depart from the NDP’s traditional progressive stance.

Mr. Corsini, himself a former Progressive Conservative now working for the Liberal candidate in Hamilton Mountain, is watching closely.

“I don’t hear the rhetoric I heard before from Andrea, about unions and labour. … Now she’s trying to appeal to a much wider spectrum of the province. Because she has to,” he said.

“Now, people who would never have voted NDP are saying, ‘Yeah. … She’s not as left as I thought.’ ”

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