‘Hulk Horgan,’ reluctant premier with a heart, retires with no regrets

Written By Rob Shaw

“I have no regrets because I have, every day, tried my best to make a positive impact.”

John Horgan

John Horgan’s departure from the legislature this week signalled the end of a remarkable era in BC politics — the conclusion of the most successful chapter in the history of the BC NDP, and the start of a new, uncertain, future for the governing party.

Horgan announced Thursday his intention to resign his seat as Langford-Juan de Fuca MLA. 

As he walked out of the legislature for the final time, so did some of the soul of the NDP. A part of what made the party so popular left with him; a large slice of the indefinable connection with the public that New Democrats currently enjoy.

There’s no doubt that what is left under David Eby is a highly-functional policy machine. But does this new administration have the heart of Horgan, which made him the most consistently popular premier in the last 50 years?

The answer is no. 

‘John from Langford’

Labour Day 2019 with Carole James
Horgan still dreams of going pro, 2018 [Photos BC Government]

You either have it, or you don’t

The BC NDP will never fully recover what was lost with the departure of “John from Langford,” whose tenure was cut short by throat cancer. The party must grow in new directions and hope voters continue along.

Where Horgan brought empathy, Eby brings efficiency. Where Horgan led with emotion, Eby leads with reason. Where Horgan relied on his gut to make a call, Eby sticks largely with data. Where Horgan deliberated with others, Eby acts decisively on his own.

It’s a major transformation, and it’s been underway since Eby took over the premier’s office in November. But it was finalized symbolically when Horgan left the capital building permanently Thursday. For the BC NDP, there is now officially no going back.

The BC NDP will never fully recover what was lost with the departure of ‘John from Langford.’

Academics will spend many years studying how Horgan took over a ragtag group of dispirited NDP MLAs in 2014 and transformed them into a fighting force that brought down the 17-year BC Liberal dynasty and then secured the largest NDP majority in history in 2020.

One key element was his authenticity. The magic sauce in politics. You can’t manufacture it, fake it, or workshop it. You either have it or you don’t.

For Horgan, that authenticity meant he passed the ultimate public test for politicians: Would you want to have a beer with this guy? The answer was a consistent yes, even amongst those who didn’t support his party.

The reluctant premier

The public saw in Horgan, perhaps, the politician who was the reluctant premier. They saw a guy who refused to take off his Dr. Martens, even when he had to don a suit at the legislature. They saw a guy who occasionally put his foot in his mouth with a dumb remark or phrase, but always sheepishly apologized right away. They saw a guy who had a temper (the nickname Hulk Horgan stuck) that just so happened to coincide, at times, with their own anger at what was going on in the world. They saw a guy who, at the very least, was listening and trying.

Horgan talks to delegates at the 2022 UBCM conference. [Photo UBCM]

“My mom, Alice, taught me, at a very early age, that the best you can do is all you can do, ‘Do your level best, son, and everyone will be fine,’” Horgan told the legislature Thursday during his final speech.

“My mom, Alice, taught me, at a very early age, that the best you can do is all you can do.”

John Horgan

“I have tried, over 18 years in this place as an MLA, 30 years working here, 63 years drawing breath, to try and make it better every day for the people around me.”

Another key element was the fact Horgan didn’t want the job of NDP leader. He was hoping a younger Eby would take on the role in 2014. But Eby was having his first child. He, and others, twisted Horgan’s arm to the big chair.

Star Trek and dad jokes

Horgan’s discomfort in the role was evident through a rocky tenure as opposition leader, before he rose to the challenge in the crucial last few days of the 2017 election. From there, he settled back into what became his comfort zone of Star Trek references, dad jokes and frisbee golf. It served him well, even through the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have no regrets because I have every day tried my best to make a positive impact,” Horgan told reporters Thursday, on his way out the building.

“I started opening the mail, and I got to be the premier.”

John Horgan

“To have the opportunity over 30 years in this place is nuts. I started opening the mail, and I got to be the premier. That seems to be an interesting trajectory, but it just kind of happened. I never set out at any time to do anything other than to pay the mortgage, the kids, all of the things that normal people do.”

Horgan’s departure gives Eby a clear break. There will be no former leader hanging around in the backbench second-guessing the new premier’s decisions and causing trouble, ala Glen Clark in the 1990s.

New Democrats can move on into the post-Horgan future with a clean turn of the page. But they would be wise not to forget entirely the lessons left by the greatest leader the BC NDP has ever had.