TORONTO - Whether Andrea Horwath is speaking with business owners at a shopping plaza or posing for pictures with high school students, it's clear the leader of Ontario's New Democrats loves surrounding herself with ordinary people.
It's those interactions with the residents of the province that help shape her political ideas, she says.
"People energize me and that's how I keep going," Horwath said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"I've seen so many people who have overcome amazing challenges and struggles, and it's their ability to meet their challenges and be able to succeed that gives me inspiration."
Horwath — who triggered the June 12 election when she refused to support the Liberal government's budget at the beginning of May — knows she's come under great scrutiny over the course of the campaign.
But the 51-year-old, nicknamed the "Steeltown Scrapper" after her native Hamilton, also feels she's made it clear that there's more to her than the sunny persona many Ontarians associate with the leader of the third party.
"You have to keep a positive attitude, but at the same time when things are requiring strength and toughness, you have to be able to have that as well," she said. "I think I've clearly been able to demonstrate that I have both."
Horwath has explained that she refused to continue propping up the minority Liberals because they failed to deliver on their promises. She ramped up her rhetoric during the campaign, calling Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals "corrupt" and unfit to govern.
She also repeatedly attacked the Progressive Conservatives, calling Tory Leader Tim Hudak's pledge to slash 100,000 public sector jobs while simultaneously promising to create a million jobs over eight years a plan that's "crazy."
The biggest difference between herself and her opponents, Horwath explained, is that she hears what regular people have to say.
"I listen to Ontarians, I spend time connecting with them, getting a sense of what their needs are," she said. "I respect them and my ideas come from them and I would really be honoured to be able to implement those ideas and make life better."
Horwath is under pressure to increase the 21 seats the NDP held in the legislature at dissolution, but no longer being the rookie in what is now her second election as party leader has brought more balance to her campaign.
She still packs most of her days with events and "unwinds" by reading briefing notes at night, but Horwath notes that she relaxes by drinking chamomile tea and tries to squeeze in an exercise routine every other day.
She also stays grounded by keeping in close contact with her 21-year-old son Julian.
"Thank goodness for texting," said Horwath, who separated from Julian's father, her partner of 25 years, in 2010.
While her son hasn't played an active role in this campaign, he has dropped in from time to time, said Horwath, who lights up as she recalls Julian bringing the family dog — a Wheaten terrier named Waffles — to see her after she took part in the televised leader's debate.
"My son's pretty proud of me," she said with a smile. "You get your passion from your community, you get your passion from your family and I can certainly say that my son's been fantastic in his support."
There's no doubt that community has played a big part in shaping Horwath as a politician.
One of four children, she grew up in Stoney Creek, in the east end of Hamilton. Her father, who had immigrated from Slovakia before marrying her mother, worked at the Ford Plant in Oakville and often spoke about labour negotiations and strikes with his children.
Horwath worked as a waitress while earning a degree in labour studies at McMaster University before becoming a community organizer at a legal clinic who was active in the labour movement.
Those days spent helping workers with literacy and English as a second language laid the groundwork for her career as a politician — a line of work she never considered while growing up.
She first attempted to run for parliament in 1997 but placed second. She was, however, elected to Hamilton city council later that year and was re-elected twice in 2000 and 2003.
She then turned down a request from former NDP leader Howard Hampton to be a provincial candidate in 2003 because her father was dying of lung cancer.
Horwath went on to be elected provincially for the first time in a May 2004 byelection, taking the Hamilton-east riding from the governing Liberals just two months after her father died. She became NDP leader in 2009, beating three of her caucus colleagues to replace Hampton.
As her political career advanced, there were times when Horwath worried about losing her connections to her community.
"Sometimes it's frustrating because I don't get to spend as much time in my home riding...but I've had a lot of support from Hamiltonians," she said. "Now as leader, the difference is I used to go to the Italian parade in Hamilton, and now I have been able to go to one in Thunder Bay."
As the campaign enters its final days, it remains to be seen if Horwath's push to make her party more mainstream and business friendly — a move that has angered some party stalwarts — will pay off.
"June 12 is a whole new ball game," she said. "I think people will make a choice. They don't have to choose between the bad ethics of the Liberals and the bad math of Mr. Hudak. They can actually choose a party that has proven that we listen to what Ontarians have to say."
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