Ontario election: NDP hopes Andrea Horwath is fourth time lucky – The Globe and Mail

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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath waves to supporters as she arrives for the Ontario election leaders’ debate in Toronto on May 16.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Andrea Horwath is standing in her Toronto apartment, talking to reporters on Zoom, with the background blurred out. You can see a slightly tired look around the Ontario NDP Leader’s eyes, but she still gestures animatedly about her party’s promises, answering question after question from reporters.

Catching COVID-19 means that on this day, she isn’t on the campaign trail in Thunder Bay, in a key battleground for her party.

Instead, she says, she is timing her doses of Tylenol to keep her fever down just before virtual press conferences and suffering from a sore throat and headaches. (On Monday, federal New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh took her place at events in Kingston, Ajax and Scarborough. Her isolation period is supposed to end Tuesday.)

“There’s no doubt it’s frustrating. I really do love campaigning,” she said, adding that she enjoys listening to voters’ stories and “giving them hope” on the campaign trail. “I get energy from that, and I’ve always been that way. And I do miss that, to be frank.”

It’s not the only thing about her campaign, her fourth after 13 years as a leader, that has not gone as envisioned. Her party started with high hopes after serving for four years as the Official Opposition and winning 40 seats amid a near-total Liberal collapse in 2018. It was an NDP high-water mark since the party last formed government in 1990. However, polls had the NDP in the lead late in the 2018 campaign and many felt it was a missed opportunity.

This time, the NDP has stayed stuck in third place, behind the Liberals, in most published polls since the writs for the June 2 election were drawn up.

COVID-19 disrupts Ontario election campaign as NDP’s Andrea Horwath, Greens’ Mike Schreiner test positive

Her platform includes billions in new spending for mental heath care, dental care and pharmacare, as well as hiring thousands of nurses and building affordable and social housing – all pledges she says are aimed at “fixing what’s broken” with a frayed social safety net laid bare by the pandemic.

At the outset, campaign manager Michael Balagus said the NDP was flush with record fundraising cash and planned to target Progressive Conservative ridings, aiming to snatch government from Doug Ford. Mr. Balagus said he expected Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca’s second-place support to soften early on.

Asked about this being Ms. Horwath’s fourth attempt, he pointed to former Manitoba NDP premier Gary Doer, who didn’t win until his fourth election.

However, with the campaign past its halfway point, pollsters say the numbers show little enthusiasm among voters for Ms. Horwath. Nik Nanos, chief data scientist with Nanos Research, released a poll after last week’s leaders’ debate showing the NDP dipping below 20-per-cent support. (Other polls have had the party in the low-to-mid twenties.)

Mr. Nanos randomly dialled land and cell lines for 515 Ontario adult residents on May 16 and 17, recruiting them for an online survey. The margin of error for a survey of this size is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

“The big question is how many seats will the NDP lose?” Mr. Nanos said. “Not if they will lose seats, but how many seats they lose.”

In an interview before she came down with COVID-19, Ms. Horwath vowed to keep fighting. She said she is running to form a government and noted that her party’s membership has strongly supported her in reviews every two years.

“I do this work because I am never going to give up fighting for people. It’s what my passion is. Trying to let people know that things can be different,” Ms. Horwath said. “I started out doing it before I was even elected. I was a housing advocate, I was a social-justice activist in Hamilton, before politics was even in my life. So it’s kind of part of who I am.”

Ms. Horwath, 59, grew up in Stoney Creek, which now part of Hamilton. Her father came to Canada from what was then Czechoslovakia and was an auto worker. Her mother died in long-term care in early 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. Ms. Horwath took labour studies at McMaster University and worked teaching English to immigrant workers and at a legal clinic before getting into politics.

She enjoys cheering on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, often attending the CFL team’s games with fellow Hamilton MPP and friend Monique Taylor.

To relieve stress these days, Ms. Horwath says, she bakes. After a debate-prep session just before the writs were issued, she made herself an apple pie from scratch.

She has certainly faced long odds before. The former Hamilton city councillor inherited an Ontario NDP in shambles, with just 10 seats, in 2009. In her first election as leader, in 2011, the party’s numbers doubled.

However, if Ms. Horwath doesn’t become premier after this election, there could be serious questions about her future as leader.

There has long been grumbling from some NDPers about her leadership. Last year, Ms. Horwath angered some supporters when she at first opposed mandatory vaccinations for health and education workers. Within a day, she reversed her stand and apologized.

Most recently, her inability to ensure that Black MPP Kevin Yarde could fend off a nomination challenge in Brampton North prompted open criticism of Ms. Horwath from other Black NDP MPPs. One of them, Rima Berns-McGown, chose not to run again in her Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, although she says she quit for other reasons, not because of Ms. Horwath’s leadership.

But Ms. Berns-McGown, who is Jewish, said her decision was made easier by another misstep: Ms. Horwath’s move in January to endorse former Ajax mayor Steve Parish as a candidate, even though he had defended naming a street in the town after a Nazi warship captain. After an outcry, Ms. Horwath dropped him.

“This is Andrea’s fourth kick at this can. And I think that the party will say after this one if she doesn’t become premier that it’s time for a change,” Ms. Berns-McGown said. “I don’t think that’s a controversial knife-edge opinion.”

Other MPPs praise her down-to-earth approach and say she is driven by a sincere desire to help people. Taras Natyshak, the long-time NDP MPP for Essex not running this time for personal reasons, says Ms. Horwath forms genuine connections with the people she’s fighting for.

“As far as what Andrea’s political future is, she has earned the right to decide what she does next, of course, whether she is the premier of the province or not,” Mr. Natyshak said. “But as far as I see it, she’s brought us to places I don’t think any other leader could.”

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