When Andrea Horwath first won her seat at Queen’s Park, she was instantly valuable to the NDP.

Literally, Horwath’s entry into provincial politics gave $1 million to the Ontario NDP. After disappointing results in the 1999 and 2003 elections, the NDP didn’t win the required eight seats to qualify as an official party, and missed the $1 million in funding that designation comes with. With Horwath’s victory in a byelection in Hamilton East in May 2004, she gave the party the seat it needed to achieve official party status.

Then-leader Howard Hampton would call her the "million-dollar woman."

Vital signs

Born: Oct. 24, 1962, Stoney Creek, Ont.

Education: Bachelors degree in labour studies, McMaster University, 1986.

Political history: Hamilton city councillor, first elected as MPP in May 2004, elected NDP leader in March 2009.

Personal: Separated from common-law partner of 25 years, Ben Leonetti, in December 2009. The two have an adult son, Julian.

After that, Horwath’s political fortunes continued to grow. After another distant third-place finish for the New Democrats in the 2007 election, Hampton stepped down as leader. Horwath was the last of the four MPPs to join the race to replace him, and in March 2009 she became the first woman to lead the Ontario NDP.

Horwath was born in Stoney Creek in 1962. The union movement was part of her life from the beginning. Her father was an auto worker at the Ford plant in Oakville, and she went to union picnics as a child.

After graduating from Cardinal Newman Catholic High School in Stoney Creek, she chose Labour Studies as her major, getting a BA at McMaster. She worked her way through university partly as a waitress, partly at an industrial dry-cleaners.

Her work before politics always had an activist bent: teaching ESL to laid-off workers, running housing co-ops, community development, anti-racism training. After Mike Harris came to power, Horwath led a 1996 "Days of Action" protest in Hamilton that drew 50,000 demonstrators.

She first got into politics in 1997, running federally for the NDP and coming in second, but then winning a seat on Hamilton City Council that same year. She served on council seven years.

Horwath now represents the riding of Hamilton Centre, and lives in a townhouse in the Steel City. Her staff say she has a close relationship with her son.

The 51-year-old Horwath likes to swim and work out in a gym. She's a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan, and is known in NDP circles as a wicked cheesecake maker. Her staff say she's a hard worker, driven to accomplish things, and a strong woman.

She's been described in the media as warm, compassionate and approachable. The New Democrats hope that appeal — and a more populist campaign platform — will push the party to its best electoral showing since 1990.