Considering the power he wields as a senior member of the Alberta government, Ken Kowalski’s title might as well be Mr. Everything. In addition to serving as deputy to Premier Ralph Klein, the 47year-old Kowalski holds the portfolios of economic development and tourism. He also controls several major agencies, including the Alberta Lottery Fund and the Alberta Gaming Commission, which allows him to enhance his already impressive reputation as the party’s patronage czar. In fact, Kowalski is now arguably the most powerful politician in the province. Privately, some fellow Tories grouse that Klein, who guided the Conservatives to their seventh straight majority victory in June, has delegated the day-to-day running of the province to Kowalski, freeing the jovial premier to travel the province, glad-handing voters. They also complain that Kowalski plays hardball politics. In the words of one former Tory MLA, the deputy premier “likes to reward, punish and control.” Opposition politicians are equally critical of Kowalski. Says Liberal MLA Grant Mitchell: “He makes Machiavelli look like a choirboy.”
Kowalski’s critics are especially incensed by what they see as two recent examples of blatant pork-barreling. On July 29, the provincial treasurer, Jim Dinning, imposed a $67.5-million cut in hospital funding. Just three weeks later, the government called for tenders for construction of a $10-million hospital in Kowalski’s home riding of Barrhead/Westlock, a sprawling rural constituency about 100 km north of Edmonton. The Tory cabinet ap-
proved funding for the new hospital just days before the June 15 provincial election. In addition, the government awarded contracts for new highway projects in Kowalski’s riding totalling around $1.5 million just days before the province declared a freeze on all new road projects. Sighs Liberal MLA Nick Taylor, who represents the neighboring riding of Redwater: “It is just so audacious.” Kowalski, who declined to speak to Maclean’s, acquired his political skills from an acknowledged master. One of his jobs before running for office in 1979 was as executive assistant to Hugh Horner, who represented the riding of Barrhead from 1967 until 1979 and who served as former premier Peter Lougheed’s deputy. Taylor once
summed up Horner’s approach to keeping his constituents happy in a well-known quip: “If it moves, pension it. If it doesn’t move, pave it.” Horner’s and Kowalski’s legacy is visible in the town of Barrhead (population 4,260), which boasts well-paved roads, its own modern airport and several gleaming
provincial government office buildings.
Before entering politics, Kowalski enjoyed success as an educator and senior civil servant. He earned a master’s degree in east Asian history from the University of Alberta, then worked for five years as a social studies teacher in Barrhead—and in 1973 coached the Lome Jenkin High School team to victory in the national finals of the television series Reach For The Top. He joined the civil service as a committee secretary in 1974, rising to the rank of deputy minister by 1979.
Now, Kowalski's influence extends well beyond his riding. From 1982 until 1986, he served as chairman of the committee that administers the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. During that period, he built up a sizable stockpile of political ious while considering requests from fellow MLAS for funds to build ball parks, rodeo fairgrounds and hospitals in their ridings. In 1988, he assumed control of the Alberta Lottery Fund, which distributes about $100 million annually to museums, urban and rural exhibition organizers and countless other beneficiaries. According to one senior Tory, lottery revenues represent “a giant slush fund” that allows Kowalski to travel the province sowing government cheques and reaping political credit.
Kowalski’s fortunes took a quantum leap last December when Klein succeeded Don Getty as premier. Kowalski had been an early and ardent supporter of the former Calgary mayor—and helped to deliver the rural votes that allowed Klein to defeat his chief rival, Nancy Betkowski. Still, relations between Klein and Kowalski have not always been easy. During the campaign, the premier publicly distanced himself from radio ads in which Kowalski accused the opposition parties of threatening family values because of their support for enshrining gay and lesbian rights. Klein, who enjoys a reputation for supporting minority rights, said that he personally disagreed with his deputy. But aware that Kowalski’s views appealed to many deeply conservative voters in rural Alberta, Klein quickly added that Kowalski was free to express his own opinion.
In fact, Kowalski has shown a propensity for controversy. He provoked a public uproar in April when he told listeners of his weekly fiveminute commentary on Westlock radio station CFOK that pay equity for women “means that everyone in society will get the same amount of money—it’s a communistic approach.” He was back in the headlines the following month when the Speaker of the legislature found that Kowalski had violated legislature rules by providing some Tory MÍAS with details of the provincial budget before its release. Kowalski later apologized to the legislature.
Such tactics do not endear Kowalski to his rivals. “If Klein has the guts to stop Kowalski, he may go on to become a great premier,” says Taylor. “But it’s doubtful— Kowalski is the guy who put Klein into the premier’s job.” Indeed, while campaigning for re-election last June, Klein seemed taken aback when an elderly woman in a Calgary nursing home urged him to dump Kowalski. “I can’t get rid of him,” replied the premier. “That is up to the people of Barrhead/Westlock.” If Kowalski continues to lavish so much care and attention on his constituents, his popularity at home will likely remain high for years to come.
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