Sidelined by COVID-19, Andrea Horwath is back on the campaign trail, if not quite on the comeback trail.
After six days stuck in quarantine — reduced to remote campaigning — the NDP leader tells cheering supporters she’s not only recovered but “re-energized.” Now, her chartered bus is rushing to make up lost ground — not just the missed photo-ops, but the missed opportunity of an election without the traction to defeat Doug Ford.
“I’m back on the bussssssss!” Horwath exults as she hops aboard at 8 a.m. for the rush hour ride to Brampton. She is heading straight into the commuter traffic jams that Ford’s Tories have transformed into an election issue, by promising to build yet more highways.
Horwath counters that she’ll build more hospitals instead — the theme of today’s tour and the centrepiece of her campaign.
The last time I boarded her bus, for an NDP swing across Northern Ontario, Horwath tested positive and the entire four-day tour was scrubbed: “I didn’t do it to duck you, Martin, I promise,” she quips.
A week later, we are on the road again — a day in the life of a leader. Like her last 13 years as leader, the next 10 hours will have their ups and downs, twists and turns.
Lumbering up to Brampton Civic Hospital, her specially outfitted bus is the last of the leaders’ tours that still has seats set aside for a travelling media contingent (who pay their own way). But in a sign of the times — and perhaps the polls — there’s just me and a reporter from Torstar-owned Queen’s Park Briefing (an online subscription service).
No one else has signed up for the ride.
“Hi Brampton!” she calls out to four local candidates who greet her at the curb. “Let’s make it happen!”
The NDP advance team has propped up a small lectern across from the hospital parking lot, proclaiming: “Ending Hallway Medicine.” Under a small tent, technicians have wired the lawn for sound and lights.
With the customary flourish, she is introduced as “the next premier of Ontario, Andrea Horwath.”
Talking directly into the camera, with a handful of party workers listening in, Horwath holds forth — pledging three full-fledged hospitals for Brampton and promising an NDP government will start “hiring thousands and thousands of front-line health-care workers” to get the job done:
Hospitals, pharmacare, long-term care, health care, mental health. And a 40 per cent cut in sky-high auto insurance rates, perfectly tailored for Brampton voters — details to come.
Lapsing into the third person, her pitch is that “Only Andrea Horwath and the NDP will … work for you, not for our buddies, not for the big fish at the top of the food chain.”
Unlike Ford, Horwath isn’t relying on a Teleprompter at most campaign events. But on cue, she blames both the previous Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne and Ford’s last four years as premier:
“We know that Liberals were the ones that brought us hallway medicine,” Horwath says. “Doug Ford’s choices are gonna hurt you, they’ve already hurt you, and I’m on your side.”
A reporter asks why more construction unions are endorsing Ford in the election. Don’t be duped, she counters, arguing that Tories are “building big highways to huge mansions that nobody can afford.”
With no one else lined up at the mic, it’s time for questions via Zoom. But there are none, and we are done.
Media momentum, not so much — until, end of day, there is an unscheduled encore with reporters galore. About which more later.
Back on the bus, I’m invited to join Horwath in her private seating area behind the partition, face to face but mask to mask across a table. This is her fourth campaign as leader, so I ask what’s changed — not just whether Ford is the new man he claims to be, but whether the ground has shifted.
“What they’re doing is keeping him out of view of people, and so I don’t know that he’s changed whatsoever — except that he’s being kept away from dangerous circumstances that might allow him to show his true colours,” she says without missing a beat.
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“It’s more for me about the dangerous path that he’s on, the privatization of our health-care system and education system, the cuts that are gonna come,” she tells me.
“He can pretend to be a changed person, but Conservative cuts are Conservative cuts.”
Four years ago, Wynne’s Liberals were the target and they were toppled by Ford’s Tories, despite Horwath’s best efforts. Now, she says, the province has gone from bad to worse.
Only her New Democrats can “fix what’s broken,” because the Liberals are still in disarray and discredited. And yet the polls suggest this isn’t shaping up to be a “change” election, at least not yet — Ford remains the front-runner by far, with the Liberals in second, the NDP trailing in third, and the Greens a distant fourth in voter share (seat predictions are far less reliable).
Whether or not change is in the air, uncertainty is everywhere.
“People are feeling uncertain about the future,” she muses. “They’re running out of hope, they are losing hope — I didn’t feel that last time around.”
Next stop is a food bank in Waterloo Region. Deliveries have increased by about 10 per cent since her last visit to 1,000 families, and the wait list is longer.
“Feeding kids — what could be more important than that?” she asks the volunteers.
“Someone has to be a voice for these people,” comes the reply.
And then on to the next stop at Grand River Hospital for another crack at the issue of the day. Perched on a vacant lot across the street from the hospital, two local NDP stars — incumbent MPPs Laura Mae Lindo and Catherine Fife — are backstopping Horwath as she talks about local health-care challenges.
Back on the bus.
And then, unexpectedly, the media are back in play again — adding a little excitement to an otherwise slow news day in a sleepy campaign. NDP strategists sense an opening for Horwath to hit back at rival Liberal party Leader Steven Del Duca, who moments ago blamed New Democrats for making it hard for female candidates to seek public office (his Chatham-area candidate was disqualified for repurposing old signatures when brought in as a last-minute replacement, and he’s accusing the NDP of pointing fingers and piling on).
The campaign swings into action, summoning their sound crew — all done for the day — to scramble back to a late-afternoon non-event in Fergus (Horwath handing doughnuts to paramedics) so that the leader can convene a full-fledged Zoom news conference linking her with major media back in Toronto. It’s the first time they’ve redeployed like this, and this time, unlike the morning lack of interest, there are easily a dozen questions from reporters — many, however, questioning Horwath’s tactics.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Del Duca needs to walk in a woman’s shoes to understand what sexism really is,” she rebuts one reporter on the line.
Back to the bus — and reality.
With less than a week until voting day, I ask Horwath what this election is really about for Ontarians. What will be top of mind when they cast their votes on June 2 — the so-called “ballot question” that campaigns try to anticipate and address.
Four years ago, the election seemed like a referendum on a 15-year Liberal dynasty. Today, Horwath says “Job One” is to defeat Doug Ford, but the polls suggest it may be a losing battle unless both New Democrats and Liberals can somehow hold him to a minority government — instead of dragging one another down.
Horwath pauses for a moment to consider her answer.
“I think the ballot question is health care. Of all the things that COVID laid bare, the fact that our health-care system is on its knees and is still hemorrhaging is top of people’s minds,” she tells me.
“I describe it as a ‘hope election’ — not that people have hope, but that they’re losing hope and they need to know that they can have hope again. That’s how I see it.”
Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn
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