Andrea Horwath may have a degree in labour studies from McMaster University.
She may have worked in a community legal clinic helping low income people with their problems.
And she may have a long record as an elected politician municipally and provincially.
But everything she needed to know to be premier of the province she learned as a cocktail waitress.
Horwath, 51, confessed this startling fact as we chatted over iced tea at a Queen St. tea room.
Her waitressing career started at age 16 in a Zellers in the Fiesta mall in Hamilton.
She laughs as she recalls the ugly orange and brown uniform.
As soon as she was old enough to serve booze, she started working as a cocktail waitress. And that’s where she learned her people skills.
Routinely voted the most likable leader, Horwath’s popularity scores higher than her party’s.
Her folksy, down-home Hamilton ways have endeared her to voters.
She’s the daughter of an auto worker who immigrated to Canada from Slovakia — and her upbringing shaped who she is.
“When you waitress, you listen to people,” she explained.
“You take their orders and you become part of their environment for the evening and I think that served me well over the years.
“Communications skills, listening skills, connecting with people. That’s one of the jobs that helped me with some skill sets I’ve used all my life,” she said.
“I try not to put on airs and I don’t think that’s what people want.”
And she learned another valuable lesson — about hard work. She made a lot of dough as a waitress. It helped her pay for university.
“When I was working Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights cocktail waitressing, I made a killing. But my friends were out partying. So I was out making money while they were spending money,” she explains.
Horwath grew up in Stoney Creek — then a rural area until suburbia encroached on it.
She has two brothers and a sister and her mom stayed home when they were young to care for them.
Her mom’s side of the family originally came from Alsace-Lorraine in France and started the first soda fountain in Hamilton.
Her grandmother and great-grandmother trained in New Orleans and opened a chocolate shop downtown.
“It had beautiful display cases of chocolates,” she recalls.
They went on to broaden their business into making wedding cakes for Steeltown’s rich and famous. It’s that family link that’s given Horwath her passion for baking. She loves to cook cheesecakes.
As we sip our tea, she gives me her secret recipe for her special tomato sauce for pasta.
You take a bit of olive oil, smash up some garlic and onions, cook them a little. Add fresh basil and tomato — and don’t cook too long.
Once the kids were older, Horwath’s mom went to work.
“She cleaned in high schools for a while, she did all kinds of different things. It was never a career — it was work to bring extra money into the household,” Horwath explained.
Her parents later divorced and Horwath and her siblings lived with their dad.
Horwath has a son, Julian, 21, from a previous relationship.
He’s working in a placement at a film company for the summer and told her he’d rather not be involved in her campaign this time around.
“He’s pretty independent,” she said. “Instead of me having a mother-son talk, he had a son-mother talk.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m OK. I’m a young adult. You don’t need to be calling and texting every day,’ ” she said.
The big question around Queen’s Park is whether there’s a new man in her life.
I have to ask.
“No, I am married to my party these days,” she said with a laugh.
She says she just doesn’t have the time. “There’s not much time even keeping connections with my family,” she said.
Sure, but isn’t it lonely at the top? I ask.
“That’s where my dog comes in,” Horwath explained. “She’s a great companion.”
Waffles the dog is a Wheaten terrier. And no, she’s not named for the old extreme left-wing of the NDP. It’s her soft fur that gives her the name.
“There’s another being when you get home at night,” Horwath explained. “She never gets mad at you. She never tells you you didn’t do your dishes.”
So my guilty vice is that I like to watch Coronation Street … does she have any?
Horwath confesses to liking mysteries such as CSI and Criminal Minds. Anything that doesn’t have a story line she has to follow from episode to episode — because she doesn’t have the time, although she likes Breaking Bad and House of Cards.
She loves to fish and likes to head north to canoe or kayak.
“I hook my own worm when I go fishing and I take the fish off the hook,” she says.
She finishes her tea and heads back out into the sunshine on Queen St. and another tough round of campaigning.
There are speeches to make and babies to kiss — and a thousand hands to shake before she finally gets home to Waffles.