05/12/2018 08:00 EDT | Updated 05/12/2018 09:18 EDT

Andrea Horwath, Ontario NDP Leader, Set For What May Be Her Last, Best Shot

She’s running on “change for the better.” It won't come cheap.

Frank Gunn/CP
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is surrounded by supporters at a campaign event in Toronto on May 8, 2018.

It feels like the sun is finally switched on but Andrea Horwath has us inside a community health centre in Toronto's east end, two days into May.

The Ontario New Democratic Party leader is promoting her plan for universal dental care, just the kind of thing that sounds good and expensive.

Ontario's election campaign is officially a week away but, if we're honest, the dreaded affair has begun.

The 55-year-old leader is standing in front of TV cameras, lights shining above her, as a reporter asks if Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford will bring in two-tier health care — one system for the rich, another for the rest.

Frank Gunn/CP
Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, left, and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath stand together before the start of their debate in Toronto on May 7, 2018.

Tories, she says, just believe that those with money in their pocket ought to be able to find their way to the front of the line.

"This is the kind of thing that we risk with putting somebody like Mr. Ford in office," Horwath says.

Next, she's asked about a video Liberals leaked of Ford promising to open up parts of the Greenbelt — permanently protected green space around the Toronto region — for development.

Shortly after the clip's release, Ford backtracked to say that, on second thought, he'd leave the Greenbelt alone. His rivals called it a flip-flop. The PC leader said it was simply an exercise in listening to The People.

"If he's cutting deals with his wealthy developer friends, who know what other deals he's cutting behind closed doors?" Horwath charges before deftly working in something for the ones in charge, too.

'Change for the better'

"We've had enough of the 'well-connected friends' kind of government," she says. "This is what Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals have done for 15 years."

And it's here, with a besuited press secretary looking proudly on, that she hammers home the key message she'll carry through what could be a change election in Canada's biggest province.

"Choose change for the better, not change that is going to drag our province backwards and make life better for those who already have it pretty good," she says. "And the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves."

A little later, at a coffee shop on Danforth Avenue with funky art on the walls and a steady stream of young people coming and going, Horwath cheerfully greets the owner.

In short order, a staffer hustles over a cappuccino, her one little treat of the day. She's brought her own raw sweetener in a small leather thing she calls her "Stevia pouch." She bought it in Sudbury, matter of fact.

Horwath has been leader of the Ontario NDP since 2009. This will mark her third election campaign for a party often seen as playing for bronze. She is perhaps lucky to be given another shot.

Back in 2014, Horwath's NDP held the balance of power at Queen's Park and the attention of Wynne's minority government. Though Liberals released a spring budget that year with all kinds of progressive goodies, Horwath announced her party couldn't stomach keeping them in power any longer.

After triggering an election that became dominated by then-PC leader Tim Hudak's pledge to cut 100,000 public sector workers, Horwath watched Wynne capture a majority government that June, in part thanks to the support of several unions.

"You make decisions at the time and you live with the results," Horwath says of that call.

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The moves Liberals have made since — chiefly a partial sell-off of the province's electric utility Hydro One that wasn't in the Liberal platform four years ago — confirm to her she was right not to keep them afloat.

"I don't regret it at all," she says in an interview with HuffPost Canada.

And what a shot it could be, this time around.

Polls suggest that Ontario's Liberals, in power since 2003, are unpopular. Ford, a former one-term Toronto city councillor, is out in front but seen by some as a risky choice for the premier's chair.

There has perhaps never been a better time to think seriously about the NDP. That is, of course, if Horwath can avoid being squeezed out of a battle between two better-known names who seem to magnetically attract headlines.

"What I say is they're fighting each other over who is going to make the worst premier of Ontario," Horwath says, with a smile, of Wynne and Ford.

It doesn't have to be this way, she says. Repeatedly.

"People don't have to choose between a premier that they don't want anymore and a premier that's just going to make life harder and worse for everyday families. That's my message," she says.

"You're maybe too young for Monty Python but now it's time for something completely different."

But what if, in the dying days and staring down the barrel of a Ford win — or Ford majority — centre-left voters decide it's safer to saddle up with Wynne's team to try to stop that scenario? Ontario has seen that movie before.

Simply put, Horwath thinks she's the better bet this time around. Disappointment about the Wynne Liberals is visceral, she says, especially in southwest and northern Ontario where "people use stronger language than disappointment."

Yet polls also show that while voters tend to like Horwath, not enough know anything about her. Even after all these years.

Horwath suggests she's not in the business of interpreting those kinds of numbers but says she does her best to be herself, to be straight and honest with folks.

Horwath says she didn't think she'd become a politician while growing up in Stoney Creek, a neighbourhood in Hamilton. Her father Andrew, who immigrated from Slovakia, was an auto worker at a Ford plant in nearby Oakville.

She studied commerce at McMaster University but says she didn't even last the whole year before switching to labour studies, something she liked better because the discipline looked at people as more than "widgets in the cog of the machine." Her campaign material notes that she paid for university by waiting tables.

Horwath worked as a community organizer for a downtown legal clinic and labour activist before taking a stab at politics in a federal byelection in 1997. Though she lost to a Liberal, she won a seat on Hamilton city council later that year.

City politics shaped her, she says, because it's so close to the people.

"You can't tell people that you are legitimately concerned about what they care about and how to make life better ... if you're not prepared to talk with them and meet with them."

You're maybe too young for Monty Python but now it's time for something completely different.Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath

In 2004, she won a provincial byelection to represent a riding that includes Hamilton, a place she calls the city with a soul. Horwath has one son, Julian, a 25-year-old musician.

She won't say if she will try to stay on as leader if the NDP fails to win government since the party's first and only victory in 1990.

"I'm going to wait and see what the voters have in store. It's their decision."

And if the 2014 NDP campaign was too soft and centrist in the eyes of some, a backfiring bargain made to show that the party was safe enough to govern, the plan this time has genuinely bold ideas that won't come cheap.

Among other things, her platform, titled "Change for the Better," calls for:

  • A $1.2-billion plan to expand dental coverage to 4.5 million Ontarians, including students, seniors, and workers without benefits.
  • A universal pharmacare system by 2020, expected to cost $475 million.
  • A child-care plan phased in over five years that would mean free coverage for Ontarians with a household income of $40,000, while those earning above that will pay an estimated average of $12 a day.
  • A 5.3 per cent boost to hospital spending, at a year-one cost of $916 million, with increases to stay at that rate each year.

The fully costed plan was called "reasonable" by Kevin Page, the former federal parliamentary budget officer.

New Democrats are projecting five years of deficits starting with a $3.3-billion shortfall in 2018-2019 and a $1.9-billion deficit in 2022-2023. They are pledging to pay for it by raising taxes on the well-off.

"So yes, if you're earning as an individual over $220,000, your taxes are going to go up by one percentage point," she says. "If you're earning over $300,000 as an individual, your taxes are going to go up by two percentage points."

And "the most profitable corporations are going to be asked to pay a little bit more." An NDP government would hike the corporate tax rate to 13 per cent from 11.5 per cent.

Horwath says she's listened to the business community's big message over the years: just don't spring things on us. Her corporate tax increase would start in the second year of an NDP government, leaving time for adjustments.

But there's a catch: the NDP's spending plan is based on the Ontario government's fiscal framework. And in a bombshell pre-election report late last month, the province's auditor general warned Liberals were downplaying their projected deficit of $6.7 billion for 2018-2019 by about $5 billion.

Horwath says her platform reflects what is really happening in Ontario and represents a ray of hope for freelancers, contract workers, and people "cobbling together whatever kind of work they can" who lack benefits.

"Too many people are left to fend for themselves in an economy that isn't working for them," she says.

Young people are making big life decisions, such as putting off having a second child, because they can't afford it, Horwath says.

"How did we get here? After 15 years of Liberals, how did we get here? I don't think that's what people bought into when they voted Liberal in the first place, which is where the disappointment comes from."

She also has a locked-in response for those who, worried about debt and waste, think now is the time to scale back the size and scope of government in Ontario.

"I think that people are going to pay in other ways," she says. "They're going to pay with less opportunity. They're going to pay with less health care. They're going to pay with less affordable child care. We've been on that road already for far too long."

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Progressive Conservative party leader Doug Ford reacts at a campaign rally in Oshawa, Ontario on April 30, 2018.

Heading into what might be her last kick at the can, Horwath suggests the NDP's ambitious dental plan is what makes her proudest. Dental care is, in her eyes, the next frontier in health care.

"Every three minutes, somebody is trying to get dental care at a hospital, in an emergency ward or at a doctor's office," she says.

She references a 30-year-old construction worker who spent years withdrawing from social settings, too afraid to smile after cracking his front teeth. There's a 24-year-old single mom in Sarnia who is this close to pulling her tooth herself because she doesn't have coverage, Horwath says.

"It's 2018. What happened to progress on our health-care system in Ontario? It's not where it needs to be."

Horwath's platform calls for other steps that could be seen as pie-in-the-sky, such as reducing hydro bills by a massive 30 per cent and returning Hydro One to full public ownership after the horses have long since left the barn. Both pledges have been met with considerable doubt.

Despite such a clear pitch to ordinary people, Horwath is reluctant to call herself a populist.

Doug Ford is 'going to rip people off': Horwath

"I hesitate to use that phrase because, depending on who's in the room hearing the word, you get a different reaction," she says. "And some of it is viscerally negative because of the (Donald) Trump-style of politics."

She laughs when asked about Wynne's framing of Ford as just another Trump. Certain pieces of the playbook are there, she says, especially the "bumper sticker language," but mostly she thinks voters don't have a good sense who the Tory leader is.

"You know, when I talk about ... increases to the wealthiest among us, that's going to be Doug Ford," she says. "Doug Ford is going to get a hit in his personal taxes, as well as his corporate taxes with an NDP government. But people don't see that as part of who Doug Ford is."

And if the vote boils down to who best represents both change and the so-called "little guy," Horwath plans to argue the Tory leader will leave "no stone unturned" in the interest of cutting and privatizing.

"He's going to rip people off and I hope that they see it coming," she says.

Nathan Denette/CP
Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath take part in a leaders' debate in Parry Sound, Ont., on May 11, 2018.

Horwath points to how her Tory rival has promised to scrap provincial income tax for those earning the minimum wage, which was hiked to $14 from $11.60 this year. At the same time, Ford opposes seeing the minimum wage go up again to $15 in 2019, as both Liberals and New Democrats want.

Minimum wage owners in Ontario would be about $700 better off with a $1 boost to their hourly rate than they would be with the tax credit Ford is proposing, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"It's the difference between, I think, somebody who is selling you a bill of goods as opposed to somebody who is actually trying to make life good," Horwath says with a laugh.

"If that sounds cheesy, I'm sorry. I just made it up. It's not in the message box."

Another staffer tells Horwath it's time to wrap up, but points out that some young moms have congregated in the corner.

Horwath wades into the group, moms of "winter babies" who met on Facebook. She tells them how she plans to boost the wages of early childhood educators.

One of the women says she works for the Ontario government and is pulling for Horwath.

"It would make me a lot happier if I didn't have to work for Doug Ford," the mother says.

With files from The Canadian Press