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opinion

He was more pragmatist than idealist, the kind of leader the New Democratic Party in B.C. discovered it needed all along.

John Horgan exceeded everyone’s expectations of what kind of party leader and provincial Premier he would be, except perhaps his own.

Mr. Horgan shocked many on Tuesday when he announced he planned to resign from his position after the NDP elects a new leader in the fall. He made it through a well-publicized battle with throat cancer late last year that involved 35 radiation treatments that knocked the stuffing out of him.

B.C. Premier John Horgan says he plans to resign in the fall

When he revealed last week that he had recently been proclaimed cancer free, many thought that it was a green light for him continuing in the job until the next election.

But at a news conference, Mr. Horgan said the treatments had left him exhausted many days. He’d come home from work and go to sleep. During a recent weekend away with his wife Ellie, Mr. Horgan, who turns 63 this summer, said the pair went for a walk on the beach.

“We reflected on how many beaches we’d walked together in our lifetime,” Mr. Horgan recalled. “And I said, ‘Let’s do more of this and less of that.’”

That being the Premier’s job.

There will be other opportunities to discuss Mr. Horgan’s legacy. But without question, he will go down as one of the top two or three most popular premiers in B.C. history. He had the Irish gift of gab, combined with a common touch that made him highly relatable – a guy with whom you wouldn’t mind having a pint. That’s not something you teach; you’re born with those skills.

It’s funny when you consider he almost talked himself out of going for the job.

He first ran for the NDP leadership in 2011, and placed third. When the winner, Adrian Dix, lost the 2013 election, and was dumped as leader, the party asked Mr. Horgan to put forward his name again. At first he demurred, saying it was time for a new generation to take over the leadership. When no one stepped forward, he changed his mind and decided to go for the job – which was handed to him by acclamation.

As Opposition leader he was often chippy and surly, especially with the media. He’d come to truly despise the smugness of the Liberal government. He’d get his revenge in the election of 2017, however, when he formed government with the help of the three-seat Green party.

That gave him the platform to thrive. In the years that followed, he would regularly be ranked among the most popular premiers in the country.

“John is the first NDP Premier in B.C. to get re-elected,” former NDP premier Glen Clark told me. “And he’ll be the first to leave more popular than when he got elected the first time, which is quite a feat.

“I think his most transformative change in office was his decision to ban union and corporate campaign donations. It was a fundamental democratic reform that was badly needed.”

Often overlooked among the NDP Leader’s accomplishments is one I consider perhaps his most consequential of all: his ability to unite a party that was often marked by caustic, self-defeating rancour and public blood-letting.

The party had developed a history of eating its own, particularly its leaders. There were often unsolvable clashes between the more radical, Marxist wing of the party that cared less about power than it did policies that were socially aggressive but unpalatable to the wider population. This group also included hard-core environmentalists.

On the other side were more progressive moderates who believed in a better world, but also knew nothing would improve unless the party won election on a platform that appealed to the majority.

When John Horgan took over the NDP in 2013, he said he was all for protecting the environment, but he was also for creating jobs, including in the resource sector. And he made it clear that he would not tolerate the harmful internal conflict that had only served to benefit the governing Liberals for years and no one else.

There is little question that Mr. Horgan is the biggest asset that the B.C. NDP has. No one is irreplaceable, but often some leave bigger holes to fill than others. There is no obvious front-runner among the highly qualified potential candidates.

“His personality made him relatable,” Mr. Clark said. “He was often unscripted and thoroughly genuine. That’s why so many people have been drawn to him. He’s going to be missed.”

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