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NDP’s John Horgan helps those who can’t help themselves

NDP Leader John Horgan has been around B.C. politics in one form or another for two decades. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Horgan is home among his people. And at a recent stop at the BC NDP Leader’s campaign office here, his people came out to cheer him on.

They included Jody Rice, 48, who has arrived in his motorized wheelchair. Seven years earlier the one he was using broke down, literally leaving him stranded. The provincial government would not help him get a new one because he lived at home with his parents, who did not have the money to help their son out.

That is when he went to his local MLA, Mr. Horgan, for help.

“He got me a new wheelchair,” Mr. Rice, who has cerebral palsy, recalled. “He really went to bat for me. I was getting nowhere and then John got involved and didn’t let go of this until I got my new chair. He made me feel like he genuinely cared for me, I have to say.”

An hour later, on his campaign bus, Mr. Horgan is asked whether he remembers helping Mr. Rice out.

“Oh yeah, Jody, isn’t he wonderful?” Mr. Horgan said. He not only recalls assisting Mr. Rice in getting a new wheelchair, but goes on to relate obscure details about the man’s life, in particular his love of sports. What is evident in his words is that these are the folks Mr. Horgan gets worked up about: society’s underclass, the helpless and vulnerable who are often ignored.

If John Horgan has a temperament issue, it surfaces when he thinks about the Jody Rices of the world. When he encounters people who are being ignored or treated unfairly, it can get his Irish blood boiling.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” he says. “It’s really what gets me up every day. In many ways that is what our campaign is about, giving hope to people who are struggling in any number of ways. People who are living paycheque to paycheque. People who have been forgotten by this government.”

Mr. Horgan says those who know him are bemused by the efforts of his political opponents to label him as Angry John or Hulk Horgan, as someone who could benefit from anger-management classes. While he doesn’t agree with that characterization, he concedes he can get riled up when someone is being wronged.

“I spend 99 per cent of my time with a shit-eating grin on my face,” he says. “I’m a happy, optimistic guy by nature. But when I see injustice, when I see unfairness, I respond and that’s because that’s how I was raised. My mom always told me not to stand by if someone was being pushed around and I don’t.”

With the 2017 provincial election heading into the home stretch, Mr. Horgan has his messaging down. He rarely relies on notes, which allows him to appear more natural when stumping. He is a stronger campaigner than many felt he was going to be and much more comfortable in front of a crowd than his predecessor, Adrian Dix.

While early polls showed the NDP with a sizable lead, particularly in Metro Vancouver, recent ones indicate the race has tightened considerably. It will be a dogfight to the end. Voter turnout will be key and so will the role that the Green Party ends up playing. The NDP could lose the election as a result of it.

The campaign itself, meanwhile, has played out in typical B.C. election fashion, with the Liberals carrying the free-enterprise banner, focusing on jobs and the economy and the NDP making the battle about class struggle. (The Greens are the fresh-faced alternative to the establishment parties.)

To that end, Mr. Horgan, 57, is a good choice to be the defender of the average working stiff. His roots are blue-collar, as is his suburban Victoria riding. He has lived in the same modest home for 25 years with his wife, Ellie, whom he has been with for 38 years. His community has very much shaped the often feisty person we see in the legislature.

He has been around B.C. politics in one form or another for two decades. He knows better than most how these election campaigns tend to end for his party. He has been part of ones in which the party was out in front in early opinion surveys but finished second in the only poll that matters: the one held on Election Day. He knows there are NDP supporters throughout the province counting on him to end the Liberals’ 16-year reign in power. He feels the burden of that expectation.

“I don’t want to let anyone down,” he says, as his campaign bus rolls down the highway toward Duncan. “I realize it is important to millions of British Columbians to get a different result than we’ve had in the past. It keeps me going. But I do feel the gravity of the situation for sure.”

He pauses for a moment.

“People like Jody Rice are counting on me,” he continues. “People this government doesn’t care about. You hope that for just one second they would find some empathy, a bit of compassion for those struggling every day but they’re incapable of it. Instead all we get are smiles and sound bites.”

John Horgan is angry. But in a good way.