Hamilton's Skyline in 2011 Credit: Joey Coleman / The Public Record

Could Hamilton Centre be a riding to watch in the upcoming provincial election? A few months ago, merely asking the question would get you laughed out of the room. A few weeks ago, eye rolls. After seeing Deirdre Pike’s nomination speech today, and looking around the room, it’s now a reasonable question to ask..
But Hamilton Centre is a safe NDP seat you say, after all the NDP have held the seat “forever” and David Christopherson managed to hold it when the Bob Rae NDP government was swept out of government.
Interestingly, in 1995, it was assumed that Hamilton was an NDP fortress – with the possible exception of Hamilton Centre.
“As part of your owner’s manual for this column, it should be remembered that I remain a committed New Democrat.” former NDP MPP Mike Davison opened his April 28, 1995 column in The Hamilton Spectator. The writ for the June 8, 1995 election was dropped the day his column was published.
Davison wrote the Liberals may unseat then first term MPP David Christopherson, Hamilton Centre had swung back and forth between the Liberals and NDP multiple times during the 1980s. The other seats in Hamilton were assumed to be safe, the NDP holding Hamilton East since 1963, Mountain since its creation in 1977, and Hamilton West since 1982.
The Liberals ran a strong campaign in Hamilton Centre in 1995; expecting to pick up the seat.
When results came in on election night that year, it was an major surprise. The NDP lost all its safe seats, and Christopherson was the last NDPer standing in Hamilton. He held on by a narrow 690 vote margin, but in the context of the NDP rout that night, his thin margin became the stuff of mythology. The Liberals all but abandoned the riding.
Twenty-Three years later, they want to take this “safe seat” from NDP Leader and current Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath.

Liberals Plan To Make Noise in Hamilton Centre

Will the Liberals take Hamilton Centre? Their nominee Deirdre Pike, who was confirmed today, is campaigning to win, and the Liberals are pouring resources and talent into the race.
Pike is a strong local candidate, widely known, widely respected, who has stronger social service and justice credentials than most NDP candidates. The NDP cannot outflank Pike on social issues, and Pike has both the networks and story to draw a large number of voters from the NDP in the riding.
The obvious value for the Liberals in having a strong candidate in Hamilton Centre is feeding the media at least one campaign story of Horwath needing to defend her own seat. Depending on the campaign narrative at the time of the local cable television debate, it could change provincial momentum.
Pike’s strengths are Horwath’s strengths. When Horwath debates Pike on Cable 14; she has much to lose, whereas Pike merely needs to hold Horwath to a draw to achieve a victory for the Liberals.
Kathleen Wynne made her first unofficial campaign stop in Hamilton Centre today for the nomination confirmation of Pike. Wynne spoke in Hamilton at the same time Horwath was unveiling key planks of the NDP’s provincial platform.
Wynne received little media coverage (other than myself, I only saw) CHCH and Cable 14 from the local pool) today, as Horwath enjoyed a good day of earned media.

Horwath is Popular, The Liberals Are Not. The Liberals Need To Chip Away at Horwath

The Ontario Liberals are very unpopular, having been the provincial governing party since 2003, they are entering the election with a great deal of political baggage and a leader in Kathleen Wynne who is viewed unfavourably by nearly 2/3rds of Ontarioians.
The Ontario NDP are entering the election with Horwath enjoying the highest favourable rating among major party leaders. Horwath’s 30% favourable rating is more than double Wynne’s. More importantly, her unfavourable is only 17% compared to Wynne’s 62%, and Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford’s 38%.
With these numbers, Wynne cannot directly criticize or attack Horwath without risk of backlash or increasing the public perception of Horwath as Premier in waiting. Wynne needs to outflank Horwath, which she has been doing by introducing policies NDP voters want such as the $15-minimum wage, partial pharmacare with OHIP+, and the basic income pilot.

The Local Campaign, as a Provincial Party Leader

Being a party leader means an exhausting schedule of travel, and limited time in your riding. Staff and other MPPs are entrusted to manage constituency issues between elections, the central party entrusted to send extra staff and resources to run the local re-election campaign.
No matter, it’s no substitute for one-on-one handshakes at the door. This is a disadvantage for a party leader who leads a provincial campaign; they do get a lot of media coverage which can compensate in part for not being at the door.
As the writ approaches, and campaigns enter the lawn sign phase (let’s be honest, the campaigns are already underway), much of what matters is what what is harder-to-see. The door-to-door canvass, the phone banking, and the building of detailed voter databases that feed into critical election day voters’ lists.
At Pike’s nomination today, I saw the building blocks of a strong campaign. There were the usual City Hall Liberal mainstays: Larry DiIanni, Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson,  Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr’s Executive Assistant Maureen Scally, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger’s Chief of Staff Drina Omazic.
Most important for Pike, there were many neighbourhood leaders in the room, these are the all important poll captains who get out the vote on election day.
With 23 years since the last serious race in Hamilton Centre, depending how the provincial election goes, the local campaign machine may decide the race in this riding.
One person in the room knew better than anyone else how close a race in Hamilton Centre can be. She ran against Christopherson in 1995 as a young lawyer carrying her eight-month-old daughter during the campaign. Filomena Tassi is today the MP for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, and will prove a key asset for Pike.
Yes, Hamilton Centre could be a riding to watch.