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Monday April 1, 2013

Former MPP was in his element when challenging authority

A committed fighter for the little guy, he was loved by his constituents

Lanky and lean in his trademark cowboy boots, Peter Kormos's physical appearance matched his personality: plain-spoken, gregarious, a maverick.

A popular former NDP MPP and cabinet minister, he was an idealist, a man of the people to constituents and a thorn in the side of premiers. He was also possessed of a sharp intellect, an encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure and a rare ability to set partisanship aside and befriend even his ideological opposites.

Mr. Kormos was found dead in his Welland, Ont., home Saturday morning. He was 60 years old. He had suffered health problems in recent years - a case of Bell's palsy, a bad back and, by one account, high blood pressure - but his death took friends and colleagues by surprise. The cause is still under investigation.

"He was a fighter for the underdog and he maintained that commitment to people who are struggling every day," Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "No matter how smart he was, no matter how strategic he was, he would have people flocking to him at the market and the firehall and the dry cleaner when he went out in his riding."

Born Oct. 7, 1952, to a working-class family in industrial Welland, Mr. Kormos's political activism began in high school: He was expelled for leading a strike to protest against the principal's veto power over student council. Living on his own from the age of 16, he put himself through Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School by working nights at a Yonge Street bookstore. Degree in hand, he returned to Welland as a criminal defence lawyer.

He joined the legislature in a 1988 by-election. Then-NDP leader Bob Rae campaigned with him and saw his charisma firsthand.

"He was a terrific natural politician. He was very good with people in his constituency. He understood the old adage that all politics is local," said Mr. Rae, now a federal Liberal MP and outgoing interim party leader. "Whatever factory we walked through or a couple of local restaurants, he was just extremely, extremely popular, very personable. He knew everybody."

When the party won the 1990 election, Mr. Rae appointed him to cabinet. The two men soon had a falling out after Mr. Kormos appeared - fully clothed - as a "sunshine boy" in the Toronto Sun. They also clashed when the government reneged on a pledge to set up a public auto-insurance system.

Mr. Kormos became a left-wing critic of his own party as it tacked toward the centre, voting against Mr. Rae's so-called social-contract legislation that imposed unpaid days off on civil servants.

"Peter was an old-school fundamentalist when it came to the NDP and to politics. He was very much somebody who saw good guys and bad guys," Mr. Rae said. "He was somebody who was instinctively happier in opposition to authority than being subject to it."

When Mike Harris's Progressive Conservatives crushed the NDP in 1995 and began a budget-slashing program, Mr. Kormos put his parliamentary skills to good use on the opposition benches. Not only was he a sharp questioner and orator, but he helped keep party morale up during its hardest days.

Then-leader Howard Hampton recalled one instance where Mr. Kormos's procedural manoeuvring stalled a Tory bill from going to committee. As PC MPPs sat aghast, he said, Mr. Kormos hollered: "Learn the rules!" He later helped organize a 10-day filibuster when Mr. Harris created the Toronto megacity over local councillors' objections.

His personable nature also served him well when, determined to expose the effects of Mr. Harris's cuts, fellow NDP MPP Shelley Martel persuaded Mr. Kormos to join her and a videographer on an early morning excursion to the Family Responsibility Office in the Toronto suburbs. Mr. Kormos finessed his way past a security guard, telling him they were there to meet with the attorney-general, Ms. Martel recalled. Inside, they shot video of a room full of empty desks and unplugged computers.

Mr. Kormos was charged criminally in the incident - he was ultimately exonerated by a judge - and the proceedings gave Mr. Hampton a glimpse of Mr. Kormos's softer side.

"He came into my office and he almost had tears in his eyes. He said, 'You know that if I'm convicted that's probably it for me.' I said, 'No one's going to convict you,' " Mr. Hampton recalled. "This guy who had this gruff, gruff exterior - he could get pretty emotional about things."

Despite these battles, Mr. Kormos became friends with some of the most combative members of the Tory caucus, including John Baird.

"He was a one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life figure, a true parliamentarian, always fought for the little guy. I enjoyed working with him as House leader in government and especially in opposition," Mr. Baird, now federal Foreign Minister, wrote in an e-mail.

"On my last day as an MPP before resigning to run federally, he even showed up at my Conservative going-away party!"

When the Liberals took power in 2003, one of their MPPs took umbrage with Mr. Kormos's attire - an open-necked shirt with the sleeves rolled up and no tie - and moved to have the legislature adopt a suit-and-tie dress code. Mr. Kormos organized a caucus protest: His fellow NDP MPPs showed up in the House one day all dressed like him, while Mr. Kormos wore a tuxedo.

"He was making a point about who he was - and he wasn't about to change it for anybody," said NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson, who served as Mr. Kormos's chief whip.

More recently, Ms. Horwath credits Mr. Kormos with ensuring André Marin - Ontario's dogged, outspoken and oft-critical Ombudsman - was reappointed.

His constituency work was also tireless, as he frequently assisted and advocated for locals navigating the province's bureaucracy and helped solve their problems.

Outside work, Mr. Bisson recalled, Mr. Kormos liked to collect fountain pens and photography books, and shoot pictures himself. One time, Mr. Bisson took him out fishing on the Kamiskotia River, where Mr. Kormos got within a few feet of a moose to photograph it. When, at one point, the boat had to be hauled through some rapids, Mr. Bisson jumped out and did the work himself so Mr. Kormos wouldn't ruin his cowboy boots, Mr. Bisson laughed.

Mr. Kormos was also a voracious reader with a passion for political theory.

He took a leave of absence for back surgery before the 2011 election, and did not seek another term. Mr. Hampton said he also suffered high blood pressure and decided in recent years to take better care of himself.

Last year, Mr. Kormos won a seat on Niagara Regional Council. He also co-hosted a current-affairs show on a St. Catharines talk-radio station and was about to return to practising criminal defence law.

On the morning he was found dead, Mr. Hampton said, Mr. Kormos had been planning to go the market as he always did, and mingle with the people he long represented.

"He was always true to himself and what he believed in," Ms. Martel said. "He didn't really care whether people liked or disliked him for it."

Mr. Kormos never married. He leaves behind his mother and siblings.

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