John Horgan's roller-coaster B.C. election night

He failed to put a stake through heart of the Liberals, but the B.C. NDP will take a partial victory

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan watches election results on television at a hotel after the provincial election polls closed, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan watches election results on television at a hotel after the provincial election polls closed, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Early in the night, for a few minutes at least, it looked like a typical B.C. NDP result, and a fifth consecutive election loss to the centre-right. Some party loyalists might have wondered if the time had come to pack it in at last, to switch allegiances, move to Alberta or find a new passion, because their pursuit of political power and
influence in this province wasn’t panning out.

Then came this, at 9 p.m. PDT: an hour after polls had closed, British Columbia began to see the shift. Metro Vancouver and its huge basket of votes was moving left. Ridings once thought to be Liberal locks were falling. One high profile incumbent was seen bereft. And another. Several provincial cabinet ministers, toast.

Ten o’clock: John Horgan, the “regular guy,” suddenly seemed poised to become B.C.’s 36th premier, and the first NDP boss to win an election since Glen Clark accomplished the feat a generation ago.

Eleven o’clock: Perhaps not.

British Columbians have seen plenty of tight election results before, but none quite like those on Tuesday night. Thank the third party, the provincial Greens. They caused this squeaker, taking 16 per cent of the popular vote, twice what they achieved in 2013. And by tripling their legislative seats to three, the Greens have forced a minority government scenario not seen in B.C. since 1952.

Read more: Liberals cling to minority government after B.C. election 2017

The final picture was unclear, even after midnight. Regardless, the NDP has at least erased some doubts about its strength of leadership. Horgan’s election platform—standing up for the little guy, tax hikes for the wealthy, more spending, saying no to some proposed pipelines, removing tolls from Metro Vancouver bridges—was carefully crafted, the appeal just broad enough to push his party’s share of the popular vote to 40 per cent, and, more crucially, to move its seat count to at least 40, all gains at the Liberal’s expense. The ground game, bearing down on ridings in and around Vancouver, proved correct.

For the first time in years, the NDP will not be changing leaders, post-election. This is how it used to work: The NDP boss acknowledges election defeat and begins preparing for the putsch. A replacement comes in, hopes are raised, then dashed. Rinse, repeat.

Remember Carole James? Warm-hearted, caring. Too kindly, perhaps. She had two chances, but couldn’t beat the B.C. Liberals under Gordon Campbell, even after one night in Hawaii when he was caught driving drunk. James eventually took one in the back from her own party operatives and was tossed. The last guy, Adrian Dix, was a cold fish who famously flip-flopped on a proposed pipeline expansion, halfway through the 2013 campaign. He blew a substantial lead in popular support.

So Horgan avoids the chop, and party members will be relieved for that. The 55-year-old Victoria native may not have won a lot hearts over the campaign, but he didn’t make any significant gaffes. Which is a victory, of sorts.

The province will get to know him better. First elected to the B.C legislature in 2005, Horgan became NDP leader in 2014, a year after the Dix debacle. He didn’t want it. A physical presence, he was quickly defined by political opponents and reporters as impatient and quick-tempered, a tough nut to crack. Fair or not, the “angry man” label stuck, despite his best efforts to seem nice.

“I have a very soft side to my being that does not come through on the work that I do,” Horgan told The Tyee, a sympathetic online news source, two weeks after taking the party leadership.

Last year, speaking to the Metro newspaper chain, Horgan seemed to acknowledge a personality deficit. “I often say I’m going to out-smile Christy. She’s an outstanding campaigner and I have to demonstrate that I can campaign as effectively as her.” But he’s really her complete opposite.

And there was Horgan on the trail last month, during the only television leaders’ debate, trying to explain why he still hasn’t shaken the “Hulk Horgan” rap. “You have described yourself in the past as mercurial, which is by definition synonymous with temperamental, unpredictable, volatile,” said debate moderator Jennifer Burke. “The question for you is … do you have an anger management issue?”

“Of course not,” Horgan replied. “I’m an Irish descendant. I’m passionate. When I see a government that ignores children in care to the point where children take their own lives, I get angry. I think B.C.ers get angry as well.”

A smart response, given the circumstance. Horgan was talking about a decade in which hundreds of foster children in B.C. have faced sexual violence and other abuses, according to a recent children’s representative report that blamed the sad state of affairs on inadequate government resources and support.

Horgan and his party had plenty of issues to shape to their advantage over the campaign. While Clark and her Liberals preached a stay-the-course message built on the province’s relative prosperity and low unemployment rate, the NDP focused on the premier’s alleged cronyism, her “rich donor friends,” her tendency to exaggerate her government’s accomplishments and to “make stuff up.”

He spoke to the faithful, his party’s own bedrock base, and moved the needle forward, but only just. With the Greens’ emergence, there may be no more room for growth on the left; the NDP now shares some of the “progressive” vote, and they must somehow adjust to that.

Half past midnight: Horgan appeared before the loyalists and spoke. This was no concession speech. “We’ve waited 16 years for a new government and we have to ask you to wait a little bit longer, until all the votes are counted and the final results of this election are known,” he said. “But this is what we do know: A majority of British Columbians voted for a new government and I believe this is what they deserve.”

Angry? He was not. This wasn’t the result he wanted or expected, but it could have been worse.


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