Right up until the vote counting began, most members of Alberta’s Conservative establishment seemed convinced that Health Minister Nancy Betkowski was a sure bet to capture the party leadership and become the province’s next premier. But Ralph Klein, the folksy, 50-year-old environment minister and ex-mayor of Calgary, has made a career out of confounding the pundits.
And on Saturday night he did not let his followers down, scoring a decisive victory in the run-off election to succeed Premier Donald Getty, winning 46,245 votes—or 59 per cent of the total—to Betkowski’s 31,722. “It is a good mandate, from country and city,” Klein said as he kicked his way through a deluge of balloons released by party supporters from the ceiling of Edmonton’s sprawling Agricom Building. He added that grassroots Conservatives had rallied to him in droves after political analysts annointed Betkowski as the frontrunner. “People got mad,” the premier-elect said.
“They wanted to help.”
Only a week earlier, Klein’s chances of succeeding Getty had appeared to dim considerably. He trailed Betkowski, the bilingual, 43-year-old MLA from a well-off Edmonton riding, by one vote in the first round of a new, province-wide leadership selection process. In the following days, all but one of the seven other failed contenders threw their support to Betkowski, leading many to predict that Alberta would soon have its first woman premier. But in a political season marked by widespread disaffection with elites, that bandwagon of support for Betkowski actually appeared to work to her detriment. “When all of the others went for Betkowski,” said Bill Payne, a Calgary MLA and a Klein backer, “it made him look alone, the underdog.”
At the same time, Klein’s organizers made good use of the week between the first round of voting and Saturday’s run-off. Under new party rules, all paid-up Conservatives were eligible to vote in the leadership contest—and $5 memberships could be purchased right up until the polls closed. “There was certainly a backlash in Calgary,” said Thompson MacDonald, a communications consultant and Klein’s former boss at Calgary’s TV station CFCN. “We had people coming in to pay their $5 to join and vote, telling us, ‘I hear my buddy Ralph is in trouble.’ So many walked in that we ran out of membership tickets.” Another Klein supporter, 51year-old farmer Bill Gibb, said that he signed up
50 new Conservatives last week in his home community of Killam, 160 km southeast of Edmonton. “He was really the only one who cared about rural Alberta,” said Gibb. “If he lost, I was out of the party.”
Klein’s platform included a promise to reduce Alberta’s $15 billion government debt while observing the tradition of no provincial
sales tax. Unlike some of his rivals, he also pledged to keep his hands off the $12 billion Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, created in 1976 to retain a fixed percentage of the province’s annual oil and gas royalties. But for many grassroots Tories, the real source of Klein’s appeal lay in his description of himself as “the candidate of true change” at a time when the Conservatives, in power for 21 years, lag far behind Laurence Decore’s Liberals in opinion polls. A rotund, plain-spoken populist with an acknowledged fondness for cigarettes and beer, Klein assured his supporters that he would run a “people-oriented government with decision-making from the bottom up, rather than the top down.”
Although political analysts have often re-
fused to take him seriously, Klein’s free-wheeling nature and lack of pretension have clearly earned him a wide following. Bom in Calgary, he dropped out of high school at age 17, shortly after his parents divorced, and worked briefly for the Royal Canadian Air Force, an experience that he says convinced him of the need for an education. He then took a crash course in commerce at a tiny Calgary business college— later becoming the school’s principal. In 1963,, he switched jobs and became a public relations adviser. Six years later, CFCN hired him as a reporter, a job that piqued his interest in politics and made him a well-known figure in southern Alberta.
When Klein entered public life in 1980, running for Calgary mayor with $300 of his
own money and a promise of open government, critics dismissed him as an upstart. But he triumphed and easily won re-election in 1983 and 1986. After presiding over the successful
1988 Calgary winter Olympics, Klein entered provincial politics, winning a Calgary seat in the
1989 election. Throughout his carrer, he has never shied away from controversy—he once made headlines by lashing out at the eastern “creeps and bums” who, he said, were invading his city—but even detractors express admiration for his ability to read the public mood. And for his supporters who said that it is time for a break with the past, Klein is clearly the Tories’ most appropriate standard-bearer.
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