Editor’s Note: This is the first of four feature interviews with the leadership candidates for the Ontario New Democratic Party.

With less than two weeks to go before the March 6-8 Ontario NDP Leadership Convention, Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath has emerged as having a serious shot at becoming party leader.

What would having Horwath as leader mean for the NDP? Since the beginning of the campaign, Horwath has openly associated herself with Barack Obama’s theme of change and drew deliberate parallels with the new U.S. President by describing herself as a "community organizer." In an interview with rabble.ca, Horwath returned again and again to the concept of rebranding the NDP by virtue of being a leader with a younger, female face.

"When I become leader and the face of the party changes and the party is reinvigorated and reenergized, then people will have an opportunity to look at the NDP with a different perspective. I really believe that’s what I bring to this leadership race – I bring the opportunity for growth and change; I bring the opportunity for voters to stop and take a second look at the NDP… I certainly believe that, myself, someone with a different perspective, a different voice, a different look has everything it takes to reinvigorate our party and to re-stimulate interest in the NDP."

She returned to the theme when asked about her strengths.

"My strength is in what I have to offer in terms of really rebranding the party and changing the face of the future for us. And I think not only in terms of the typical look of myself as the brand for the party but also my skills and my history in terms of strong relationships with the labour movement but also strong skills around organizing and growing our base… From my perspective, being 46 years old, the youngest candidate – in fact 10 years from now I’ll still be younger than two of the three candidates as they are right now – you know what I’m saying? So I believe that’s an important asset and as well I believe that being a woman, providing that difference, that opportunity for the voters of Ontario to have a second look at the NDP in the way they haven’t been able to do in the last while is an asset."

When asked about messaging and specifically about the "Get Orange" slogan used in the last election, Horwath, who was co-chair of the NDP’s 2007 election campaign, bristled and answered defensively.

"You know what, to be fair in terms of the last campaign – we could have stood on our heads and spit golden nickels and we would not have cut through the faith-based school funding issue. We could have had the most perfect campaign in the world and it still wouldn’t have gotten through the Liberal’s brilliant move to pull that piece out of the Tory playbook and ram it like a wedge."

Asked directly what she thought the party’s message should be in an election, Horwath refused to speculate.

"You can’t develop your message now. The message gets developed in the context of the environment as you’re leading up to the campaign. I have no idea. I don’t know, I mean how deep is the recession going to be, how long is it going to last? … It’s absolutely impossible to do the messaging on a campaign when you have no idea what the environment is going to look like and what the variables are."

Organization is one of the themes she has emphasised. Horwath argues that the party needs to grow its base so that it can be competitive in elections and that this can best be done by partnering with the labour movement. Horwath told rabble.ca that unions "have people infrastructure and they have physical infrastructure in communities across this province. It’s not good enough that we just ask them for money when campaigns are on. Look at what SEIU and the Steelworkers did for Clinton first and then for Obama. A big part of his victory was the labour movement getting behind him and doing the on the ground work that needed to be done to connect with voters in communities across the US. We can do that here in Ontario."

Horwath rejects out of hand the claim some have made that she is inexperienced, pointing out that she’s been an elected official for 12 years since first winning a seat on Hamilton City Council and has been an MPP for two more years than Peter Tabuns and two fewer years than Michael Prue.

Here’s what Horwath had to say on a range of other topics.

On why she wants to be party leader

"The bottom line is the NDP is the party I’ve belonged to since university, right around the time I was 20, and I’ve watched the party lose steam and members for quite some time now. I now that I have a lot to offer in terms of helping to rebuild that party, rebuild the base and get to a place where we’re competitive again and where we can win government. I believe the only way we can get to the Ontario that we know we can have is with the NDP at the helm."

On how she will rebuild the NDP’s relationship with the CAW

"I’m a CAW brat, actually. My father was a CAW member – local 707 out of Oakville. I have good connections with CAW and you’ll see on my website I have some endorsements from CAW locals and presidents and various folks. I have a significant relationship with the labour movement that I’ve built over years and years of activism and work not only in my own community but as an MPP. A big part of rebuilding relationships is dialogue and connection and making sure you’re at all times trying to strengthen the understanding and solidarity between the party and the labour movement and I’m very well positioned in that regard."

On what accomplishments she is most proud of

"I have a couple. I have a piece of legislation that I drafted with firefighters around the province to get their occupational diseases recognized by the WSIB. It was called Bill 111 and it stems out of my own relationship with firefighters in Hamilton and particularly devastating fire that took place over a period of three and a half days in my neighbourhood… basically a firefighter who fought that fire ended up with esophageal cancer and in talking to his widow and his son I found out that, in fact, esophageal cancer and many cancers that firefighters contract weren’t acknowledged by the Workers Safety and Insurance Board as occupational diseases… so I worked with firefighters in Hamilton and province wide and we brought forward a bill that would bring those diseases under coverage by WSIB and then [after a year] the government brought forward legislation that pretty much accomplished what was in my bill.

That’s a broader issue but I have more individualised ones. For example, a fellow in Hamilton was in a car accident and ended up with a head injury. He had to have a piece of skull removed so that the swelling in his brain would be reduced. Working class guy, lower income family from a lower income neighbourhood of my community. He was told it would take 3 months before they could put his skull back on… after 9 months [of waiting] his wife called me and within a month of that conversation we got the surgery done.

Another one is special diet… I had a guy in my community with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He called me up to say that the government sent him a letter that he was being cut off of his protein drink, the only thing that he can consume to provide nutrients for himself since he can’t eat. They cut him off because of his special diet form and sent him a cheque for $70 and told him to buy a blender. The guy is bed-ridden, can’t blend his food, and it was outrageous so I pulled the media into his apartment which has a hospital bed in the middle of his living room and railed against the government and their callous treatment of George Goodwin and everyone with ALS and within two weeks we had the special diet form amended to include ALS."

On how the NDP can rebuild the economy and whether there is a future for manufacturing

"I think there are two pieces to this. One piece is the acknowledgement and recognition that the neo-liberal way of doing things has been an abysmal failure. We’ve seen now with the collapse of the economy, particularly the huge increase and wealth of the very few and the significant increase in poverty of the very many and that is absolutely unacceptable. New Democrats are uniquely positioned to be able to shine a light on that situation and be able to proudly say that we can rebuild our economy based on social democratic principles. We have that opportunity right now and we need to take that opportunity.

When you talk about how does that happen. I firmly believe that we have an opportunity to begin to look at a specific sector of our communities and focus in on that for the rebuilding and from my perspective it’s transit. We have the Metrolinx plan…and we have communities like Hamilton clamouring for LRT, Oshawa clamouring for LRT, Sudbury that absolutely wants to get the mining goods off the roads and onto rail because the roads are being destroyed by those big rigs. So here we have a need to get back to a transportation system, kind of back to the future more or less."

And I believe we have such an opportunity if we put in place a ‘Buy Ontario’ plan because we mine the raw resources in the north, that’s northern mining jobs, we make it into steel in Hamilton and Sault Ste Marie, we have passenger cars being built in Thunder Bay and cargo cars being built in Hamilton. We have the industrial infrastructure to really put forward a huge transformational transportation system in this province that will re-engage our work force. We have the skilled labour already. We have the knowhow. We have everything we need to really pump up the transportation piece and the bonus at the end of the day is we get people out of their cars, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and really deal with the carbon footprint that’s created with car transportation."

On the role of government

"Government should not be hands off. Government should absolutely be involved in the economy and the distribution of the wealth that the economy creates and the setting of priorities around things like education and health care."

On whether the NDP should campaign between elections

"I think that’s an opportunity we miss all the time and I believe that as we go forward in our rebuilding process that’s where we have to go. We have to be working not from the bird’s eye view but from the ground level with communities … when we look at trying to rebuild from the grassroots it’s not a matter of us sending some organizer from Queen’s Park and parachuting into some riding where they have no context and no understanding of what’s going on but what it is about is making sure that we have the ability to connect with and respond to issues that are rolling out in communities and have a voice as progressive New Democrats in those issues and raise attention to them so people identify progressive, positive solutions with the NDP."

On Michael Prue’s suggestion of re-examining Separate School funding

"I co-chaired that [last] campaign and I watched that train wreck up close and personal and I don’t believe we need to spend our time shooting guns at each other on the convention floor. I’m sure there will be some kind of resolution we’ll debate but I believe that we need to look at education from the perspective of where are the common pieces and a common piece is the fact that we’re still operating under the Harris funding formula; a common piece is that we know that there isn’t enough ESL being provided in our schools, there’s not enough special ed teachers for kids with special needs, our schools are physically crumbling as we speak, the closure of community schools instead of reopening them to the community so they can become hubs of recreation, of public health and all kinds of other services; the closing of rural schools, pulling out the last bastion of any kind of community activity from these rural communities. Those are the kinds of things that we have common ground on; those are the kind of things that we can build from on common purpose as opposed to the politics of division which I’m so sick and tired of. After Harris and now even McGuinty he’s following in the same footsteps in terms of the politics of division that Harris had except maybe a little bit more subtly. I’ve gotta tell you I don’t have time for the politics of division; I have time for the politics of building."

On the lessons from the Bob Rae government

"I think there were a number of things that created a schism within the party. One of those was the abandoning of public auto, one of those was the social contract. I think the lesson to be learned is many fold. One is the whole issue around party policy and remaining true to the values of the party … the sense that I get from some quarters is there was a real lack of communication and lack of dialogue, particularly around the Social Contract and at the end of the day a very small tight group of people made that decision happen and I don’t know whether that’s true or not – but if there are tough decisions to be made the issue is you have to pull everybody into the tent and hammer out some kind of decision even if it’s an uncomfortable one and I don’t believe that’s what happened."

On how the NDP can appeal to recent immigrants

"It’s about connecting and outreach and I have an extremely positive relationship with immigrant/refugee communities in my city. I’ve developed really strong relationships there and it’s something that we need to do better as a party. It’s not good enough to just search out candidates come election time so that they reflect the community. We have to build those relationships day in and day out.

Here we have all these reports that talk about the racialization of poverty and we’ve seen the roots of violence report. We know that racialized communities, particularly, are the face of poverty and yet as a party we’re not doing much to connect with those folks and to sit down and work out some real solutions that come from their lived experience. Again I firmly believe it’s about making connections with people and having the time and making the effort to develop solutions with them that we can then carry forward in platform and in policy development."

On the environment

"I really believe one of the things we need to acknowledge is that every person in Ontario whether they are a single mom, a new Canadian family, a steelworker or a forestry workers should be able to proudly call themselves an environmentalist and that’s only going to be able to happen if the New Democrats become government and we get serious about providing people with real opportunity to retrofit their homes, to put in solar panels, to get rid of those energy sucking appliances and it’s not going to happen unless government takes a proactive role.

From my perspective it’s a big failure of the McGuinty Liberals that they have not taken up that opportunity and we know very well that as people begin to take those opportunities we end up with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and everybody can feel they are contributing to the reduction of their carbon footprint. And I think that will be the start of engaging more and more folk in terms of our environment and the future that we need to get serious about."

On why people should vote for her

"I think I’ve set out a pretty clear scenario in terms of what I bring not only in regards the opportunity to rebrand but also to rebuild and also to bring attention as leader to our party once again. I really believe that that’s why I’m so well positioned and I really believe that that’s why I should be leader of the party."


Andrew Lehrer is a Toronto based writer and researcher.