Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats lost key Toronto ridings because the party wasn’t ready for an election it triggered and was seen as tacking too far right, defeated veterans say.
Ceding that prime real estate to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberals will make it tougher for the NDP in the 2018 election, leaving the party scrambling to reconnect with “progressives,” they warn.
“Andrea Horwath has a challenge on her hands. Her personal brand in Toronto took a hit,” said former New Democrat MPP Paul Ferreira, unsuccessful in a comeback bid in York South-Weston.
Unlike the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, the NDP has not held a post-election caucus meeting to hash things out after holding steady at 21 seats but losing the balance of power and experienced members.
It was tough going from day one on the NDP campaign trail, former MPPs Michael Prue (Beaches-East York) and Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) told the Star in separate interviews Wednesday.
Horwath’s promise to be a better custodian of hard-earned tax dollars in the wake of the $1.1-billion Liberal gas plants scandal played well outside Toronto — where the NDP gained three seats in Windsor, Oshawa and Sudbury — but sacrificed three ridings in the 416 area code where the Liberals now hold all but two seats.
“Having ‘respect for taxpayers’ was a message to many people in the Annex and Seaton Village that reminded them of Mike Harris,” Marchese said, while packing up his office at Queen’s Park after 24 years as an MPP.
“They were upset with the leader and in their mind we were moving to the right. It didn’t matter what I said. They had their impressions.”
Horwath, who has not met with reporters at Queen’s Park since election night, unlike Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, faces a mandatory review later this year.
Hudak on Wednesday informed his furious caucus mates via email that he will resign as of July 2 because “a significant number” of Tory MPPs believe he can’t continue.
Prue, a former mayor of East York who has been an MPP for 13 years, said he went door-knocking in two polls before the Liberals tabled their left-leaning budget on May 1, asking if the NDP should reject it.
“They said do it,” he recalled. “But once we did, people said, ‘How could you bring the government down? You’re risking Hudak.’ ”
That left both men, along with first-term MPP Jonah Schein in Davenport, facing uphill battles from the start. Schein did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
“New Democrats who had always taken signs from us wouldn’t do it . . . the die was cast,” Prue lamented, saying Horwath’s team didn’t expect Wynne to set the campaign in motion just hours after the NDP leader said she would not support the budget.
“I don’t think we were ready. We should have been fast off the mark with our platform. Instead we took a lot of heat at the door because we defeated a budget without any prospect of our own.”
That platform came in the third week of the campaign, including populist goodies like a tuition freeze, a cut to auto insurance and extra cash for transit expansion amid hopes progressive voters angry at Liberal scandals would go NDP — along with “light blue” Conservatives who thought Hudak’s plan for cutting corporate taxes and 100,000 public sector jobs was too radical.
Prue said he quickly sounded the alarm on the NDP strategy to gain ridings outside the 416 area code but it went unheeded until too late.
“I told the central organization you’d better circle the wagons here in Toronto. We have five seats to protect,” Prue added, noting the only NDP survivors in Toronto are Peter Tabuns in Toronto-Danforth and Cheri DiNovo in Parkdale-High Park.
“We never got any significant support until the last day from central. They were trying to save Rosario and Jonah . . . they were sending staff and resources,” added Prue, who lost to Liberal candidate Arthur Potts by a narrow margin.
On election night, Horwath said the overall outcome wasn’t what she’d hoped but maintained “we did increase our popular support. We grew in other parts of Ontario, which I think is extremely important.”
The NDP will need the next four years to decide how to better reach out to voters in Toronto, said Ferreira, who works for York South-Weston MP Mike Sullivan.
“We obviously failed. It’s going to be a challenge with only two seats,” Ferreira added.
“We have to reassess where we are in Toronto. Cheri and Peter will be older, we need to find a way to reconnect with progressives and with downtown voters.”
That talk will come, said Marchese.
“It was a huge loss and I think our leader understands this. We need a strategy for the old Toronto. We need to speak to it differently. I think the party will reflect on that.”