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women in politics

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Andrea Horwath has a lot on her mind. In her nearly seven years as Ontario NDP Leader, she has been through more than a few battles. She has held the balance of power in a minority Liberal government, and triggered an election that went badly for her party – for which she was criticized for selling out by some stalwarts.

Now, she finds herself – again – in the midst of not one but two defining political battles.

On Friday, she is in Edmonton at the federal NDP policy convention, where she is supporting Thomas Mulcair, whose leadership is under fire. She can relate, having faced her own leadership review after the 2014 Ontario election. (In the end, she sailed through, receiving 77-per-cent support.)

At Queen's Park, meanwhile, Ms. Horwath is one of three leaders at the centre of the political fundraising imbroglio; it is largely focused on the governing Liberals, but it has raised questions about how party politics has been played in this province for decades.

She meets Monday with Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown to discuss reforms to political financing. The NDP wants an open process and a non-partisan person – it has suggested Ontario's chief electoral officer – to frame the legislation.

But Ms. Horwath is not optimistic the Premier will listen.

She is hoping, however, Ontarians will begin to listen to her. At the halfway point in the Wynne mandate, Ms. Horwath, 53, is focused on a strategy that will lead to defeating the Liberals in the 2018 election.

As she persists in her attacks on Wynne policies, she is pivoting slightly and starting to explain to voters what her own policies are, and what she believes in.

Ontarians saw the beginning of that strategy last week at the Broadbent Institute's Progress Summit in Ottawa, where she announced her support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

On Friday in Edmonton, she will speak to NDP delegates at the federal convention, addressing in part the issue of what makes social democrats different from Liberals.

Ms. Horwath will continue on this tack in the hope that, by the time the next election is called, Ontario voters will know her – and what she stands for – a little better.

That seemed unclear in 2014, when the Liberals successfully defined her as a non-progressive for triggering an election by defeating their budget. It was considered a left-wing document as it included the creation of a provincial pension plan and billions of dollars for social programs.

In addition to the attack on her by the Liberals, Ms. Horwath was attacked from within by some prominent New Democrats, who penned a provocative letter suggesting she sold out the progressive side. It was a disappointing election for the NDP, which remained in third place and lost some key seats in Toronto.

Publicly, she did not react to the letter. Privately, however, she said it hurt.

"I do think you need to internalize these things, and you need to actually work them over, and think about them and feel them," she says. "Otherwise, you become part of the bubble that doesn't let you relate to everyday people and everyday life."

And so she sympathizes with Mr. Mulcair, who is facing a leadership review vote this weekend.

"I don't know that the failure of the campaign … sits all on the shoulders of the leader," she says. "It's the shared responsibility of the entire team. Certainly, he bears some responsibility. I don't think he shirked that at all. But I do think that he's been strong and great in terms of bringing … our presence in Quebec, that legitimacy that Jack [Layton] started, and then he was able to continue … notwithstanding the fact that we lost seats in Quebec in this last federal election."

Ms. Horwath's politics and ambition come from her working class roots in Hamilton. Her father was an auto worker, and active in municipal politics, while her mother, after being at home with four children, went back to work as a school janitor.

Union activity factored prominently in Ms. Horwath's life – the annual union picnic, the leaflets coming into their house, and talk of strikes. Her maternal grandmother, Jean Sutton, who was a widow at an early age and had her own hairdressing salon, was also a strong presence in her life.

"She just seemed to me to be modern," Ms. Horwath says. "She didn't have a partner, she had her own business, she could do whatever she wanted and she didn't have to answer to anybody."

Ms. Horwath, who has represented her Hamilton-area riding since 2004, has a young adult son, Julian. Her 25-year relationship with his father ended in 2010. For the longest time, she said, she tried to keep her family out of politics because it makes them so vulnerable.

But voters like to know about the candidates and their families; it makes them more relatable. So, in the 2011 campaign, Ms. Horwath and Julian were photographed going to vote.

The event didn't exactly go as planned. Julian was wearing a T-shirt, prominently depicting the name of a song from a heavy metal band, Chelsea Grin. Some curious reporters decided to check into the band's music, and discovered profane and misogynistic lyrics.

Ms. Horwath had no idea; nor, it seems, did Julian. He was embarrassed, and had her listen to the song, noting that he really couldn't make out the lyrics. He just liked the music, he told her.

"Well, I don't understand that either, honey," she said to her son. "But that's okay."