TORONTO - NDP Leader Andrea Horwath repeated her call for Ontario voters to put a woman in the province's top job on Wednesday as she pledged to provide more support to new mothers and babies.
Horwath, the single mother of a teenage son, took her feminist message to the Midwifery Collective of Toronto, where she greeted a line of young women cradling their infants.
"I didn't have to get into politics myself to kiss babies," joked Horwath, who studiously avoided the well-worn campaign cliche. "I could do that at home with my son."
Her son Julian is almost 19 years old, but she still considers him "her baby," she said.
"But I do remember what it was like when he wasn't 18, when he was a newborn and I was a brand new mom," Horwath said.
"You're suddenly left alone with a very tiny person who needs you for absolutely everything. It's an exciting time, a very exciting time, but it's also a little daunting and it can be a little bit scary."
An NDP government would do more for young mothers by developing a breastfeeding strategy and creating four new birthing centres staffed by midwives, she said.
The location of the four birthing centres would be based on need, a party spokeswoman said.
New mom Lisa Christini, 28, said she had a few "hiccups" when she first tried breastfeeding her two-week-old daughter Penelope — it took a while for her milk production to kick in.
Her midwives did a few extra home visits to ensure that her daughter was getting enough nutrients, said Christini, who was part of the campaign event in Toronto's Trinity-Spadina riding.
"I really believe it was because of that, in that crucial beginning phase that I've been able to continue, and I feel very committed to continuing as long as I can," she said.
Horwath also took aim at the governing Liberals, saying the NDP would stop cuts to a program that allows follow-up calls for new moms. Only those deemed high-risk get a post-delivery call from a public health nurse, she said.
"It's a bad move for new moms and it's a bad move for our health care," said Horwath, who gave birth in hospital with the help of a midwife.
All three initiatives will cost $5 million a year, she said. Her party plans to find the money by capping the salaries of public sector executives — including hospital CEOs at $418,000 — which they say will free up about $20 million a year.
The Liberals argue that capping salaries will only free up about $4 million a year, and say they've increased funding to the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program.
"There are no cuts to the program," said Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten.
With only two weeks left until election day, the New Democrats appear to be stepping up their efforts to show Horwath in a different light than her two male rivals.
They released a cheeky ad on Sunday to remind voters that they're the only major party with a female leader.
Called "Shoes," the ad shows three sets of feet in party colours: two men wearing red or blue pants flanking a woman in orange heels.
As the two men tap their feet to a cha-cha-cha tune, a voice intones, "The other two parties think it’s their right to govern. They just have to wait long enough for their turn."
The woman turns her left foot sideways and the voice adds: "This election, there’s another choice."
"We're offering not only the obvious change — in terms of having a woman leader to consider — but we actually have a platform that's very focused on making life more affordable, creating more jobs and re-prioritizing our health-care system so that it meets the needs of everyday Ontarians," Horwath said Wednesday.
However, the Liberals have 11 women in cabinet and an eight-year track record for creating policies that improves women's lives, Broten said.
"I'm a big proponent of having more women in politics, and I'm a big proponent of that because I want women's voices at the table making decisions," she said.
"But it's only valuable for women if the decisions that are made and the policies that are put forward are substantively improving the lives of women."
Horwath's leadership credentials are already being questioned by the Liberals, who say she should dump a Niagara-area candidate whose comments have landed him in hot water.
The Liberals have lambasted Niagara West-Glanbrook candidate Anthony Marco for "disturbing" remarks he made in a podcast posted on his website, including one where he says the economy is "messed up" because "we're lazy."
It's the second day that Marco's comments have come under fire. On Tuesday, the Grits called on Horwath to dump Marco over comments about Nazi Germany.
Asked about the controversy Wednesday, Horwath said she was unaware of the latest remarks unearthed by the Liberals and would "look into" it.
But she also dismissed it as another attempt by the Liberals to distract voters.
"I really think that people are tired of this kind of diversion off of the real issues," she said. "I think people really do want to talk about the real challenges that we're facing as a province and how do we meet those challenges."