Sandy Shaw has a war story about Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath from back in the day.
She, Ms. Horwath and a third friend were door-knocking in an apartment building during one of Ms. Horwath’s election campaigns.
There have been a lot of them over the past two decades and no one involved remembers exactly which one it was. Ten years ago? More? Municipal or provincial? Only the place is certain – one of Hamilton’s less salubrious neighbourhoods.
They’d been at it for a while when they came to a door paranoically papered over in “No Flyers” signs.
While they debated whether to knock, the door swung open. A man was standing in the entrance holding up what Ms. Shaw remembers as a “bread knife.”
“I believe he was in his underwear,” Ms. Shaw says. “But I was more focused on the knife.”
For a moment, there was a silent standoff. Then, someone yelled, “Run!”
The women took off screaming down the hallway and into the stairwell. They were six flights up.
The underwear assailant chased them, also screaming, but gave up halfway down.
The trio hit the ground floor panting, jumped into their car and locked the doors.
“We were all sitting there, shaking, terrified, trying to figure out what to do,” Ms. Shaw says. “And just as we started to recover, Andrea says, quite seriously, ‘So, should we go back and finish the building?’”
Like Ms. Shaw, Ms. Horwath loves retelling this one.
The 55-year-old hot new thing of Ontario politics is sitting at the back of her campaign bus, squirming in her seat, hands flying over her head to mime tumbling down the stairs.
She gives a mournful, NDP-ish nod to societal ills – “… there’s a lot of mental-health problems, right? …” – and then it’s back to fun stories about terrible events.
“He was yelling that he was going to get us,” Ms. Horwath says, fist poised over shoulder à la the shower scene in Psycho. Her eyes have widened. She’s encouraging you to nod along with her. Everyone’s rolling around laughing.
“I’ll tell you another time about some of the weird things that have happened to me, because I don’t want them in the story,” Ms. Horwath says. “There’s a lot of stuff with towels” – and then a hardy-har-har tilt of the head.
This is all a bit surprising. This isn’t the Andrea Horwath you were expecting from campaign-trail highlights.
You were expecting the Horwath from such greatest hits as A Distant Third in Two Consecutive Elections; or I’ll Just Stand Here In the Corner While the Two of You Debate on Live Television.
It certainly looks like the Horwath Ontarians vaguely know – good smile, professionally styled colour blocking, unnervingly direct eye contact. There are the familiar tics designed to buy herself a second to think before proceeding (sweeping her hair out of her face, tugging at her lapels, fiddling with a bracelet).
But this Horwath moves more lightly. She’s suddenly very nimble for someone who’s spent so long with the political corpse of Ontario’s last NDP premier, Bob Rae, strapped to her back.
After all these years, Ms. Horwath’s having a moment. That is more a function of good luck in her choice of opponents than any personal vision. Either way, people – possibly for the first time – are prepared to listen.
The challenge over the few days remaining in the campaign is to convince them that there is a recognizable human tucked in behind the NDP’s policy platform.
In mid-May Ms. Horwath visited the Grassy Narrows First Nation, in the deep bush outside Kenora.
By distance, it is 2,000 kilometres from Toronto. By top-of-mindness, it is light years away. Grassy Narrows is known for two things – mercury poisoning and the resultant misery. No politician wants to be connected to either.
In cynical terms, there wasn’t much to be gained from this trip. Grassy Narrows is in a new riding created from one the NDP has held since forever. If some seats are safe, this one is bubble-wrapped.
The day has started unconscionably early. The call time was 4:30 a.m. Ms. Horwath was up late the night before at an all-candidates debate.
It’s a three-and-a-half hour charter flight from Toronto, followed by a gut-churning 90-minute drive on winding roads. The day is wet and dreary.
By the time the bus rolls in, the small crew along for the ride – staffers, a half-dozen journalists, a tech crew – look like they’re crawling out from under a bridge. Ms. Horwath hops off the bottom step like she’s popping out of an Eileen Fisher catalogue.
A small convoy of cars has been wrangled to ferry her around the reserve. She’s to visit various points of interest – the water-filtration facility, the clinic, a workshop.
At each stop along the way, Ms. Horwath will be asked some variation of “And, sorry, you are who again?”
By the time she gets to the clinic, she’s trying to get ahead of that one by introducing herself as “the leader of the NDP.”
“Is that federal or … ” says Wayne Hyacinthe, the man in charge, letting the question hang there.
“Provincial,” says Ms. Horwath brightly.
Terry Cooke, Hamilton-Wentworth’s former regional chair and one of many people who first spotted Ms. Horwath’s promise as a young rabble-rouser, describes this as the key difficulty of leading the NDP in Ontario.
“People are thinking about the pipeline debate, or what [Toronto mayor] John Tory and his council are doing this week. The province is not on the radar,” Mr. Cooke says. “And the leader of the third party might as well be in the witness-protection program.”
This lends itself to an anonymity that is frustratingly resilient, even after you’ve gotten in front of people for a while.
Ms. Horwath will spend a couple of hours here with the band chief, Rudy Turtle. The official portion of the day ends with a news conference in which Chief Turtle forgets Ms. Horwath’s name.
The few on hand who have a basis of comparison cannot help but make one.
“When Jack [Layton] was here, he’d walk everywhere, laughing, joking,” says Tania Cameron, a local woman hired by the party to wrangle the Indigenous vote in the North. “Such a leader. What a difference.”
Though she’s been at this most of her working life, Ms. Horwath doesn’t have a showman’s natural, physical charisma. She doesn’t command rooms. She slides into them and instinctively moves to the edges until called upon.
She also can’t acclimate to the bawdy humour that goes a long way toward winning friends in this part of the world.
(Ms. Cameron asks me later if this is the farthest north I’ve been in Ontario. When I say “Yes,” she says, “Well, then, we’ll have to get you out bareback riding.”
“Sorry, bareback riding?”
“Right. On the back of a bear,” and everyone around laughs delightedly at how the city slicker walked right into that one.)
Between adopting an expression of empathy and being seen to listen very carefully, Ms. Horwath can’t find the right tone on that score. She can be funny, but rarely while she’s on the clock.
At one point, someone says something softly to her, and she pulls back before figuring it out.
“Oh, you’re all such jokers around here,” Ms. Horwath says, patting him on the arm. The man walks away looking confused.
This is a sad place, but not an earnest one. Ms. Horwath’s Down East, straight-to-the-point approach doesn’t quite fit.
She comes by that ostentatious lack of political veneer honestly. The daughter of a working-class immigrant who was on the line at a Ford plant. An early convert to union scriptures. She came out of Stoney Creek, which has since become part of Hamilton, to work as a “community organizer” before that was a thing.
Ms. Horwath was first elected to Hamilton city council when she was 35. The city was not in a good way back in the late nineties. The result was dukes-up politics, quite literally.
“Sometimes after council, there were blows out in the parking lot,” says Hamilton Centre NDP MP Dave Christopherson, who also started out on the council floor. “Andrea could manage that part. She was also polished enough to have tea with the Queen.”
What everyone from that time remembers about Ms. Horwath is her pragmatism.
Mr. Cooke, a red Tory, recalls a months-long transit strike in the midst of winter. Ms. Horwath had only recently taken her seat. Mr. Cooke asked her to appear with him at a news conference to reinforce the idea that management’s offer to workers would not get any better.
“The strike ended a week or two later,” Mr. Cooke says. “She spent political capital to do the right thing. Demonstrated some courage. She didn’t have to do that. She could’ve laid in the woods and done nothing.”
There was also Ms. Horwath’s Stakhanovite schedule. She didn’t drift in and out of work. She did it compulsively.
“She is a bit of Rain Man,” says Cooke. “In a time of reality-TV candidates, she is the antithesis of that.”
Ms. Horwath became an MPP in 2004 and party leader in 2009. She’s won her own races and led for nearly a decade, but has never truly governed.
Until this point, she has always been the gadfly in Socrates’ analogy. Her only power is the ability to sting, which she has done more or less effectively depending on the times.
Asked to describe what she does when she’s not doing politics or worrying about politics, Ms. Horwath is momentarily at a loss. She has two other modes – “relaxing” and “coping.”
Coping is an hour each morning in the gym. Relaxing is visiting family and friends, though she doesn’t get the chance very often. She is single, with an adult son who is an aspiring hip-hop artist.
“It really is your whole life,” Ms. Horwath says of politics. “I still love it, which means I have a serious personality disorder.”
She’ll deliver this line three times in the short while I spend with her and laugh reflexively after each one.
Asked what she misses about municipal politics, she’ll say it’s the thing most politicians despise – going door to door. Perversely, Ms. Horwath seems to enjoy being put on the spot and having to explain her way out of things. This tendency is so strong that she routinely talks through her applause lines when in front of crowds.
She’s one of the very few Ontario party leaders in years to travel on the same bus as the media, allowing them close access to her at all times. She scrums several times a day and will stand there answering questions until reporters exhaust themselves.
By contrast, PC candidate Doug Ford travels alone and takes only a handful of questions each day. Once he hears one he doesn’t like, the availability often abruptly ends.
When things go sideways – such as the day she has to eat a $1.4-billion accounting “mistake” in her platform – Ms. Horwath’s mien doesn’t change.
“I try to do my best, and if something goes wrong, it goes wrong,” she says. It is an effective form of verbal judo – not aggressive, but difficult to attack.
Ms. Horwath’s unflappability is down to years spent in public skirmishes. Not everyone in the party meets that standard.
At the end of the visit around Kenora, there’s another news conference, this time in the home of Carol and Gary Burns. Ms. Horwath will be announcing another part of the NDP’s health platform. Twenty people wedge into the Burns’ tiny kitchenette so that we can all get in touch with the proletariat.
Until this campaign, Ms. Horwath rarely spoke in public without notes or a Teleprompter, even in a setting this intimate. That lent her commentary a robotic quality. She’s given those aids up almost entirely and extemporizes so cogently one wonders why she bothered with them.
The scripted part of the address goes well. So does the “casual” conversation, insofar as that is possible. Then, attention turns to the NDP’s local hopeful, a galumphing man in a one-size-too-small suit jacket named Glen Archer.
Like many fringe candidates in this election, Mr. Archer has in the past been less than his best self on social media. First, he wrote that premier Kathleen Wynne “should be in prison.”
He’s already apologized for that one.
But someone’s dug deeper and found that Mr. Archer also posted a line from that noted political philosopher Chuck Norris: “If I wanted your opinion, I’d beat it out of you.”
Mr. Archer is trying to explain. It isn’t going well.
“It was a quote I heard in a movie,” he says. “I thought it was quite funny.”
If, in his former life, Mr. Archer had been an accountant, it might be. He was, instead, a jail guard. No one’s laughing.
Ms. Horwath is sitting very still beside him as the microphones instinctively inch in. She’s staring so hard into the side of his head you expect two smoking holes to appear.
Mr. Archer muddles around for a solid minute before he can find a way to pivot back to the party plank. Once he does, Ms. Horwath begins nodding vigorously.
Note to potential cabinet ministers: If Andrea Horwath isn’t nodding at you, try harder.
At this point, that sort of talk is beginning to feel less fantastical. The NDP is coming up in the polls. Flanked by an opponent few trust and another few like, being a bit of a political cipher no longer seems like the worst thing in the world.
Ms. Horwath is resolute in not engaging her improved position in terms that might be mistaken for overconfidence, or even confidence plain and simple. Aside from her stump mantra – “It doesn’t have to be this way” – she doesn’t engage it at all.
It’s only in reflecting on the past that she tangentially touches on what happens after the election.
Last time around, it wasn’t until the campaign ended that she noticed her handlers only scheduled her to visit safe ridings.
“I suppose they wanted to keep my positivity up,” Ms. Horwath says, shrugging.
How’d that work out?
If the NDP has had an identity in this province, that’s it. The happy loser, the good sport, the one who keeps getting up (the implication being that they are constantly knocked down).
“You don’t win in politics until you decide that’s important. In the history of the Ontario NDP, winning has rarely been on the top of the agenda,” says Ms. Horwath’s chief of staff, Michael Balagus, who was brought in from Manitoba. “The one time they won government [under Mr. Rae in 1990], many people were traumatized by that in the party.”
Mr. Balagus describes a come-to-Jesus moment he had with Ms. Horwath before agreeing to take the job, asking her if she finally wanted to win something.
“That’s the difference this time,” he says. “She owns this campaign.”
Bad weather delays the flight from the next day’s stop, Sault Ste. Marie – a Conservative riding – into Ottawa.
It’s been another long grind of announcing and flesh-pressing. By the time the plane is taxiing, it’s well into the evening. There’s no WiFi on this Dash 8, so no one has to pretend to be working.
Ms. Horwath is sitting up front with her consiglieres. The media is spread out a few rows back. It is considered bad form to pester her in this environment, especially once everyone’s downed tools.
It’s a short haul. The flight attendant distributes a round of adult refreshments. People are a little overtired, a little loopy and a little loud.
In the midst of a punchline that gets a big laugh, Ms. Horwath suddenly appears. Everyone goes quiet, as if mom’s just caught them drinking in the basement.
One of the things that strikes you as odd about Ms. Horwath is that she is a shy person doing the most exposed job in the world. Even in the friendliest environments, it takes her a few minutes and a perceptible act of will to find her ease.
We all look up at her expectantly. She’s the leader. She talks first.
“So? How are you all doing?”
She has a can of Molson Canadian in her hand. She’s got one elbow awkwardly cocked on a seat back. She’s looking for some help.
The poor woman even jokes that she came back because “my aides thought it would be a good idea.” Ms. Horwath is George Washington in this moment – she cannot tell a lie.
As an icebreaker, a reporter hands her a red beer cozy he’s bought as a souvenir. He tells her she should keep it as a gift. An unmistakable look of innocent, gratified surprise passes across Ms. Horwath’s face.
Someone points out that between the red can and her blue jacket, she’s in all the wrong colours.
“NO PICTURES!” Ms. Horwath bellows theatrically, arm sweeping out in front of her. Too late. Someone’s taken one. There is a lot of comic jeering as he’s peer-pressured into deleting it from his phone.
Ms. Horwath’s posture changes. For the first time, you can see her mental switch flip over from “working,” past “coping,” to “relaxing.”
In trying to describe her, Ms. Horwath’s old war buddy Sandy Shaw kept coming back to the word “genuine” and then apologizing for using it. The cliché of the authentic pol is so ragged that, once deployed, people now tend to believe the opposite.
“It sounds corny to say, but, for her, this is not about politics. It’s not about her personality,” Ms. Shaw says. “This is her real self.”
None of us can properly describe what “genuine” looks like, but we know it when we see it. In this moment, at least, this is it.
Ms. Horwath is beginning to enjoy herself now. It’s mostly shoptalk and banter about the old days. She tells a couple of PG-rated off-the-record stories. Everyone’s leaning in. She’s holding the room.
It goes on until she’s asked where she’s staying in Ottawa. Ms. Horwath says she doesn’t know. “The Chateau Laurier, maybe?” someone suggests archly.
“Are you fu… ?” Ms. Horwath starts, catches herself, laughs in a way you will not hear her do on the stump and then starts again. “Are you kidding me?”
That’s done it. The spell breaks. You can see Ms. Horwath’s mental gear returning to normal operating service.
“This has been fun,” she says, pointing toward her seat just a few feet away. “But I have to go back now.”