PETER CONRADI and JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
WELLAND – A giant in Ontario and Niagara politics has died.
Reg. Coun. Peter Kormos, the former NDP MPP for Welland and a provincial cabinet minister, passed away earlier today. He was 60. Circumstances surrounding his death are not yet available.
According to Niagara Regional Police, officers responded to a medical call at Kormos’ home around 10:45 a.m. Saturday. In a brief statement issued around 4 p.m. Saturday, police said the cause of Kormos’ death is “still under investigation.” An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.
New of his passing spread quickly.
“I’m devastated,” Niagara Regional Chairman Gary Burroughs told Bullet News. “I was just talking to him Thursday and he was talking about running again. This is a huge loss, for the Region and for me personally. He was very helpful to me on a number of things. He will be sorely missed.”
St. Catharines Reg. Coun. Andy Petrowski called Kormos a political “titan” and expressed sorrow at his passing.
“I am honoured to have known (him) … and to have shared some very amicable and always respectful moments with him in his final contribution to the people he loved to serve as one of Welland’s regional councillors.”
Kormos and Petrowski recently started a weekly radio show at CKTB on regional affairs.
“This is a sad day for Welland and Niagara,” Petrowski added. “I have come to know Peter as a very kind and genuine man, a true friend who demonstrated extraordinary bravery and dignity in the face of his health challenges. Ontario has truly lost one of its most professional and dedicated public servants.”
Niagara Falls Reg. Coun. Bart Maves, who as a Progressive Conservative MPP from 1995 to 2003 served in the Legislature with Kormos at later at the region, expressed disbelief.
“I’m shocked to hear of his passing and I’m very saddened,” said Maves, who despite occupying a very different place on the political spectrum considered Kormos a “friend and colleague.” “Niagara and Canada have lost a unique character and an important political contributor,” Maves added.
Niagara Falls Liberal MPP Kim Craitor also served in the Legislature with Kormos.
“It’s hard to believe,” Craitor said upon learning of Kormos’ death.
Craitor said Kormos was a down-to-earth champion of workers and the disadvantaged, a principled man who never let partisan politics get in the way of the ideas he believed in.
“Peter put people first,” said Craitor. “That’s why I admired him so much – he never put politics ahead of people.”
Craitor also recalled how much in awe he was of Kormos’ oratorical gifts.
“Peter was one politicans I loved to listen to when he spoke,” remembered Craitor. “He had no notes when he spoke. It was just amazing, the speaking skills he had. You knew what he said came from his heart.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne took to Twitter to say, “My thoughts are with Peter Kormos’ loved ones, his friends and community, and his extended NDP family.”
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak said Kormos had the rare ability to leave politics at the door to the Legislature.
“Peter was MPP for Welland – a neighbouring constituency of mine – for many years. Yet we shared more than electoral boundaries. We shared Slovak origins.
“Although we were not close friends, we had that bond of heritage, which transcends politics. Through his many kind gestures, I always had the feeling he was aware of this. I felt it because Peter was one of those rare Parliamentarians who simply dropped the partisanship at the door on the way out of Queen’s Park at the end of the day. He was friendly, funny, compassionate and thoughtful.
“But Peter was also a tenacious fighter for the things he believed in. Eloquent, informed, by turns fiery and analytical. He was an iconic figure in the New Democratic Party, and beyond. Peter represented true democratic representation at its best.”
Kormos, a lawyer turned politician, was born in Welland in 1952. He attended Niagara College, York University and Osgoode Hall Law School, prior to being called to the bar in 1980.
He was first elected as a NDP member of parliament in 1988, having won a byelection called to replace former MPP and longtime mentor Mel Swart. He briefly served as Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations during the 1990-1995 government of former premier Bob Rae, until he was kicked out of cabinet having fallen out of favour with leader.
“Peter Kormos was one of my fiercest critics, but his death comes too soon for a man of his talent,” Rae said via Twitter.
Kormos ran for the leadership of the party its defeat at the polls in 1995. Howard Hampton eventually won that contest, but Kormos quickly became a solid deputy who helped the party rebuild and refocus after the loss to then premier Mike Harris and his Conservatives.
He chose not to run again in 2011 and stepped aside for former Welland mayor Cindy Forster to run. Kormos then ran in a byelection to fill Forster’s seat at the region. In his later years at Queen’s Park he suffered from Bell’s palsy, which temporarily paralyzed his face and slurred his speech. He also lived with back problems that left him on the sidelines for months.
No stranger to controversy, Kormos was someone who was always more than keen to take on the political machine when he felt it was the right thing to do.
In his early days as an MPP, Kormos famously staged an all-night, 17-hour speech in the legislature against no-fault insurance legislation.
That tenacity carried over to other causes, from pushing for increased organ donation and fighting for more support for kids with autism to fighting for higher minimum wage and advocating for pay-day lending legislation.
Kormos, who grabbed headlines a few years ago by refusing to accept a double-digit pay raise that MPPs voted for themselves, opting instead to donate it to community causes, was the first to admit his style found sometimes butting heads with the powers that be.
“I made sure that premiers knew where I stood on an issue,” Kormos said in an interview after announcing his decision to leave provincial politics. “Including my own party’s leader.”
Kormos continued: “The leaders (of your party) can put you sitting up front or in the back of the Legislature; It’s the voters who put you in.”
Kormos said he was grateful for the “enormous privilege” of representing Niagara residents at Queen’s Park. “While our communities have had our ups and downs over the years, one thing about people from Niagara is certain: they are strong, resilient and generous,” Kormos added.
Wayne Gates, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 199 and a Niagara Falls city councillor, was in a bargaining session Saturday when he learned of Kormos’ passing.
The news, he said, saddened everyone in the room.
“This is a terrible, terrible loss,” said Gates. “It’s a big loss for everybody, not just the labour movement.”
Gates said he has no doubt Kormos will be remembered with great respect by people of all political stripes, at the local, provincial and federal levels.
“He was a leader everybody in Niagara knew,” said Gates. “But his leadership went further than that, right across Ontario and across Canada.”
Welland Mayor Barry Sharpe has ordered the flags at City Hall lowered to half-mast in tribute to Kormos.
“I know the community will be in mourning for some time,” Sharpe told Bullet News. “I don’t know how you replace the kind of voice he was for Welland and for working people in Niagara and across the province.”
Sharpe, a longtime Niagara College instructor and administrator, first crossed path with Kormos at the college some 30 or so years ago.
Most recently, he sat near Kormos in the regional council chamber.
That Kormos, after 23 years in provincial politics, decided to run for municipal office once again at age 58 “says a lot about the deep-seated desire he had to continue to speak on behalf of the people of this community,” added Sharpe.
Former mayor Damian Goulbourne is the man Kormos beat to represent Welland at the Region.
“I am stunned like so many others in Niagara,” Goulbourne said. “Peter loved Welland and always did his best to help his home town. He cared about the people he served and always took on the issues. He was one of a kind and we will all miss him.”
Burroughs later released a written statement: “I am saddened by the loss of our colleague Peter Kormos, and on behalf of Regional Council extend condolences to his family and friends. Peter was a tireless advocate for the residents of Welland and represented them with a tenacity and flare that is rare in Canadian politics.
“He was a staunch defender of democracy and fairness, and these principles were at the heart of every cause he championed. A skilled debater, Peter’s style was both effective and entertaining, earning him respect and the admiration of both foes and friends.
“His voice and contributions to the work of Regional Council will be greatly missed.”
Tributes pour in for Kormos via social media
Within an a couple of hours of news of his passing, social media was abuzz with tributes for the late Peter Kormos. Three Facebook pages had been set up by 3 p.m. Saturday to allow people an opportunity to express their condolences publicly.
Here are some of the Facebook and Twitter posts memorializing Peter Kormos today:
“RIP. Peter Kormos a peoples politician.” - Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor.
“One of the good guys for sure…..condolences to his family and friends.” – Patsy Davis Ingoldsby
“I always respected this man and what he stood for. I like to think he was one of the more ‘honest’ politcians.” – Art Partridge
“RIP Peter, did not always agree with you but you served your party and country well.” – Robert Jones
“Just heard Peter Kormos, former MPP of Welland has died – one of the funniest and wisest legislators Queen’s Park has ever seen.” – Cheri DiNovo, NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park