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Making a premier of himself

NDP Leader John Horgan has had to put a past failed leadership campaign behind him, unite a demoralized caucus and overhaul the party's platform, but now, he says, he's ready to win

BC NDP Leader John Horgan, centre, plays with a basketball during a visit to BC NDP candidate Ravi Kahlon’s, right, campaign office in Delta, B.C., on Monday.

"What the hell are you going to do in the rest of your life?" the veteran high-school basketball coach recalls barking at John Horgan, then a disengaged, though talented, Victoria-area teen who had lost his father as a toddler and hadn't yet found a reason to work hard.

Jack Lusk, now 78, recalls the need for harsh advice. "You could see there was talent there, but he wasn't putting as much effort into what was going on."

But Mr. Lusk noted that young John Horgan was listening.

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Read more: For B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, politics is a science

"I always considered basketball as being kind of an extension of life and part of life's lessons," Mr. Lusk says in an interview. "When he came out for the next practice and whatnot, he seemed to buy into this whole idea of working hard and making something of himself."

Mr. Horgan, 57, is now trying to make a premier of himself, leading the BC NDP into the party's fourth consecutive attempt at unseating the BC Liberals, who have governed the province since 2001. Voting day is on May 9.

To get to this point, the gregarious Mr. Horgan, acclaimed as party leader in 2014, has had to put a past failed party-leadership campaign behind him, carefully unite a demoralized caucus that now includes two former party leaders and overhaul the party's platform with the lessons learned from its devastating loss in the 2013 election campaign. Polls then predicted an NDP win, but Christy Clark led the BC Liberals to a surprise win.

At dissolution of the B.C. legislature this month, the Liberals had 47 seats, the NDP 35 and the Green Party one. There were two independents. That adds up to 85 seats, but two have been added by redistricting. To win the election, Mr. Horgan and his NDP will have to hold all their seats, and take around 10 more.

One of the NDP Leader's key challenges was rallying a dispirited caucus. Recounting the challenge, he recalls Mr. Lusk's lessons. "The team is counting on you. 'We've got a big game ahead of us. We need you to get going.' I wanted to get the best out of everybody," he says on his campaign bus last week, returning to the Lower Mainland after a day touring Kelowna, Osoyoos and Keremeos.

Mr. Horgan fondly invokes Mr. Lusk, the "stern, harsh guy" he regards as his "first real father figure" who steered him right at a challenging time in his life, introduced him to sports and ingrained the lessons he still leans on. "He was like, 'Get yourself together Horgan.' No ' mollycoddling.' That was a term he would use."

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Mr. Horgan was born in Victoria, the son of Pat and Alice Horgan, who had four children – three boys and a daughter. Mr. Horgan has no memories of his father, who died when Mr. Horgan was so young. But he does have stories from his family. "What excites me about my dad and the memory of my dad is how much they claim I am like him." Mr. Horgan's mother is also now deceased.

After playing soccer, lacrosse and basketball through his youth and adulthood, Mr. Horgan acknowledges his days of playing competitive sport are over.

"My knees are weak and my ankles are really bad, too," he says.

But the spirit of sporting competition is never far from his political persona. As he began his leader's election tour last week, he lingered at a round table in a Port Moody home to intensely chat with one participant who, as it turned out, has played top-level cricket. Mr. Horgan became interested in the sport as a university student in Australia.

BC NDP leader John Horgan, left, is greeted by BC NDP candidate Ravi Kahlon’s son Naven, 6, at his campaign office in Delta, British Columbia, Monday, April 10, 2017.

During a subsequent campaign stop in Kelowna, he responded to a media question about the realistic odds of winning seats in the Liberal stronghold region with a sports analogy. "I'm a team-sports guy. If you don't play the game, you won't know the outcome," he said jauntily.

At another event, originally set on a basketball court in Delta, B.C., but shifted to a candidate's campaign office because of rain, Mr. Horgan tossed around a basketball, and twirled it on his finger, declaring, "I could take Eby on any day of the week." He seemed to be joking. Sort of.

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Eby would be David Eby, the New Democrat running for re-election in Vancouver-Point Grey, and an NDP critic on such high-profile files as housing. Mr. Eby says Mr. Horgan has often reminded him of his own sporting youth. "He has a nickname for so many people in our caucus, mostly based on last names. So I am Ebes. The last time I was called Ebes was by hockey coaches when I was playing minor hockey."

Mr. Eby said his initial impression of Mr. Horgan, years ago, was of someone who played a lot of competitive sports, and was playing to win. "He brought that team mentality and competitive edge to what we were doing in politics," Mr. Eby says in an interview. "It sounds like something common in politics, but politics is full of people who haven't played a lot of team sports."

Behind the scenes, Mr. Eby says the Horgan playbook includes pep talks and strong supportive comments, but also a willingness toward constructive criticism. Mr. Eby has appreciated it. "The desire to win can be something that's lost in discussions about policy. If you don't have the desire to win, you can talk about policy all day, but you're not going to form government."

Some have accused Mr. Horgan of anger issues. Former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, who relied on Mr. Horgan as a troubleshooter on various files and has, more recently, offered policy advice, is dismissive of the suggestion. "I don't think he's an angry man. I think he has strongly held opinions. In the beginning, a couple of times, he let [Ms. Clark] bait him and rose to the bait. He doesn't any more."

Mr. Horgan dismisses the angry label as a Liberal concoction. But he explains that he's "passionate about things."

"I wear my heart on my sleeve, to be sure and I call things out when I see them. That again is part of my upbringing. I am a big physical force and I despise bullying. I was raised to protect those who need protection and that's what I am going to do."

Mr. Lusk's blunt guidance set Mr. Horgan on a path that saw him go on to study at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., where he met his wife, Ellie. At the suggestion of Trent faculty, he earned a master's degree in history at Sydney University in Australia, writing on British imperial history and connections between Canada and Australia.

Mr. Horgan, who also worked as a chief of staff to ex-interim premier Dan Miller, came gradually to the NDP and elected politics.

Three moments stand out on the journey.

While at Trent, a buddy of Mr. Horgan's said NDP legend Tommy Douglas was speaking on campus. "I had no idea who he was," Mr. Horgan says. "I didn't want to go." But his buddy kept egging him on, eventually saying they could go for a beer afterward. "That was the clincher, of course."

Mr. Horgan remembers a small man with a powerful voice. "His message really hooked me. That was the power of people banding together for social justice." Mr. Horgan transferred out of psychology – he was writing a paper on self-actualization using prime minister Pierre Trudeau as an example – and into history. He focused on learning about movements in Canada. "I couldn't get enough of it."

BC NDP leader John Horgan, centre, speaks to media during a visit to Delta, B.C., on Monday.

The second moment came in 1983 when British Columbia was rocked by the Solidarity movement of unions, community and other groups fighting the Social Credit government's austerity program. To Mr. Horgan, then waiting on tables, the conflict was a practical application of the material he was reading about. He walked into an NDP office and asked what he could do to help. "They said I could make a donation. I reached into my pocket and said, 'All I have got is $10.' And that $10 disappeared in a second. And they said, 'Congratulations. Fill this form out and you're a member of the NDP.'"

The third moment has sometimes come up in Mr. Horgan's stump speeches.

In 2004, Mr, Horgan was at home, yelling at the TV over news BC Ferries would have new ships built in Germany instead of British Columbia. "What are you going to do about it?" asked a 16-year-old friend of one of Mr. Horgan's two sons.

At the time, Mr. Horgan was working as a consultant. But he decided to run for a seat in the legislature. "I never saw myself as a front guy. I was always more into the policy development. I liked grappling with the big issues, and finding solutions," Mr. Horgan has said of the decision.

In 2005, voters in Malahat-Juan de Fuca elected Mr. Horgan as their MLA. He has been re-elected into the subsequently created seat of Juan de Fuca. He went on to serve as education and energy critic. In 2011, he came third in a bid to lead the party. He served as opposition House leader, and New Democrats say he honed his team-building skills in that role.

"He became, as House leader, in some respects, one of the deputy leaders of the party," says Adrian Dix, then the party leader. Mr. Dix says it was a challenging job for Mr. Horgan, a long-time friend. "You can't please everyone all the time. It's a negotiation, often about who gets a certain amount of time for debate. I think he was consistently straightforward. People understood what the strategy and the plan were all the time."

When the leadership job opened with Mr. Dix's departure after the 2013 election, Mr. Horgan initially said he would sit out the competition, declaring that a younger generation needed to take the helm of the NDP. However, party members called on him to run. Mr. Horgan was acclaimed. At the time, he quipped to The Globe and Mail, "I'm the younger generation I was looking for."

There have been, however, challenges larger than politics. In 2008, Mr. Horgan was diagnosed with bladder cancer. "When someone says you have got cancer, it is like getting hit by a big, huge baseball bat. You're kind of stunned for a while. You try and think. That must be it, then. We're all done."

Mr. Horgan eventually recovered. "The thing that I remember most about those times was how genuinely funny he was about his treatment and experience," Mr. Dix says.

But cancer has returned more recently to Mr. Horgan's life with his eldest brother being diagnosed in January with terminal lung cancer.

Mr. Horgan says his own cancer experience prompted him to live as though every day was precious, and could be his last. "But that starts to fade. I think it's human nature. You protect yourself from thinking of the worst by not thinking about it."

However, he says his brother's diagnosis has reminded him of life's frailty and, also, a saying of his mother's: "You're a long time dead. So while you're here, make an impact. Do something."

Mr. Lusk has been intrigued to see it all play out. At one point, he was living in Mr. Horgan's riding. There were troubles with logging companies in the area so Mr. Lusk called Mr. Horgan, who turned up to take a look at what was going on.

"He came along and listened to our stories," Mr. Lusk recalls. "I was impressed with the way that he had grown up from the [kid] whose pants I had to kick in order to get him to show up."

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