Calgary alderman Sue Higgins recalls bumping into Ralph Klein on a downtown street in the mid-1980s, about a year after she ran—unsuccessfully—against him for mayor. “Higgins, I haven’t seen you in a long time!” exclaimed His Worship. “Let me buy you a drink.” Remembering an earlier episode when Klein had promised to buy her dinner only to come up short when the bill arrived, Higgins theatrically opened up her purse and said: “Look, Ralph, I really don’t have any money.” After being assured once again that he was good for the tab, Higgins accompanied Klein to a nearby bar, where they ordered drinks. But when their order arrived, says Higgins, Klein headed to another table where he started to chat up the halfdozen men assembled there. “Hi, how are you guys?” he said. “I’m Ralph Klein, the mayor.” Like practically everyone else in the city, the patrons knew exactly who the short man with the cherubic face was and responded with friendly greetings.
“Look,” said Klein, “could one of you spot me a $20?” Savoring the memory, Higgins draws jauntily on a cigarette perched in a plastic tip-holder.
“And you know what?” she says.
“Every one of those guys started pulling out their wallets.”
out of school at age 17, but after a brief stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force he resumed his education, and later became a teacher and then principal at the Calgary Business College before moving into the public relations field. He married at 18, but was divorced three years later. He married his current wife, Colleen, in 1972. The couple have five grown children: two from his first marriage, two from Colleen’s first marriage and one from their own.
After a six-year career in public relations, Klein went to work as a radio broadcaster at Calgary’s CFCN in 1969. He quickly graduated to that station’s television affiliate, where he served as a general assignment reporter before moving to the city hall beat. In 11 years as a journalist, Klein was known for looking at issues from the street level: he cultivated contacts among the city’s biker gangs, prostitutes
and municipal workers. “He understood that you could get a lot more information from a sewer worker than from a finance commissioner,” says MacDonald, who was Klein’s boss in the 1970s as CFCN’s vice-president of news. “He was also smart enough to be a regular at the Cuff and Billy club, the social hangout for police officers.” Among other things, those contacts paid off with a tip that resulted in CFCN TV getting exclusive pictures of a 3 a.m. police bust of a Calgary gambling house.
Q Klein would have had no trouble staying awake for s that assignment. He is a notorious night owl, famous \ both as a reporter and as mayor for late-night dinners I and drinking sessions in Calgary’s Chinatown. MacDonu aid recalls that, although he would gladly work on a story until midnight, it was almost impossible to lure Klein into the office for the regular 10:30 a.m. story meetings. “If he did have to get up early, his habit would be to take a long, hot bath—and have a nap in there, finishing his night’s sleep,” says MacDonald. “I’d have to phone up Colleen and say, ‘Can you please drag him out of that tub? I’ve got to talk to him.’ ”
As premier, Klein persists in his nocturnal ways. According to friends and associates, he rarely schedules meetings before 10 a.m. Indeed, the only thing that will rouse him earlier is the chance to in-
Ralph Klein has always seemed to live a charmed existence. A one-time high-school dropout, he became a celebrated local television reporter in the 1970s and then, against all odds, challenged and soundly defeated Calgary’s incumbent mayor in 1980. After nine years as one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history,
Klein then jumped into provincial politics; three years later, he succeeded the widely unpopular Donald Getty as premier with a populist leadership campaign that bested slicker efforts by a half-dozen rivals, most of whom had much deeper roots in the party. Then, in last June’s provincial election, he led the Tories from the brink of disaster to their seventh straight majority victory. Marvels Thompson MacDonald, a Calgary-based communications consultant and a longtime friend of the 51-year-old Klein: “The guy has made a career of being underestimated.”
Klein grew up in Calgary’s working-class Tuxedo Park neighborhood with his grandparents after his parents divorced. He dropped
dulge his passion for fishing. On the other hand, he often spends evenings at constituency meetings or work-related social events in communities across the province. His one demand: wherever he is, his handlers must schedule a one-hour break at a local gym for his daily workout—part of a constant battle against the extra girth that he first gained as mayor on the political buffet circuit.
It was also in his days as a reporter that Klein developed a lasting affinity with native people. In the late 1970s, he spent three months researching a one-hour TV documentary on the Blackfoot Indians who live just east of Calgary. During that effort and subsequent visits to the Blood Indian reserve south of Calgary, Klein immersed himself in the native culture, participating in a cleansing ritual known as the sweat lodge and gaining working knowledge in Backfoot language.
“He wasn’t scared away from the sweat lodges or the ceremonies,” recalls John Chiefmoon, a Blood elder from Stand Off, about 120 km south of Calgary. “Sometimes, he comes out of the sweat in tears—we know he’s got a heart. The Great Spirit tells us: that guy, he’s right; that other guy, he’s just acting. With Klein, we knew he was right all along. That’s why we respect him to this day.”
In fact, during both the 1992 leadership and 1993 election cam-
paigns, Klein’s native friends in southern Alberta held special prayer ceremonies on his behalf. For his part, Klein, who keeps a strand of sweetgrass, a plant used in native spiritual ceremonies, on his office shelf and another one in his briefcase, credits the natives with giving him a source of inner strength. “When you look at your sweetgrass, you need to contemplate,” he said in a interview with Maclean’s. ‘You need to think that there is, within our society, a sense of peace.” Native spiritualism may not seem a natural fit for the fun-loving Klein, but then at one time neither did politics. MacDonald recalls the day in 1980 when Klein, in a rare appearance at one of the CFCN morning meetings, announced that he was running for mayor. Eyeballing him across the boardroom table, MacDonald replied: “That’s very interesting, Ralph. Now, get your ass out there and get a story. We’ve got a 6 o’clock newscast to fill.” Later that day, the news of his candidacy appeared in the Calgary Herald, which thereby managed to scoop Klein’s own employers.
At the time, almost no one gave him a chance of winning. But building on the man-of-the-people profile that he had developed as a TV reporter, Klein defeated the incumbent mayor, a straight-laced accountant named Ross Alger, by more than 16,000 votes. He quickly became the stuff of local—and national—legend. In a speech to the Calgary Newcomers’ Club in 1982, the mayor railed against the “creeps and bums” who he said had migrated to his city from Eastern Canada without any job skills and were contributing to Calgary’s rising crime rate. The remark drew outrage from across the country. Ronald Irwin, then a backbench Liberal MP and now the federal Indian affairs minister, blasted Klein as a “fool and a knucklehead.” At the same time, however, many Albertans inundated Klein with calls and letters of support—and affectionately christened him Redneck Ralph.
Klein cemented his reputation as his city’s foremost I salesman by playing a key role in promoting and stagï ing the hugely successful 1988 Calgary Winter
Olympics, during which he was often seen holding
court with foreign reporters at his favorite downtown I watering hole, the St. Louis tavern. But, ironically I enough for someone who now preaches the gospel of % fiscal restraint, he was seen by many as a spendthrift ^ mayor who left the city with a $ 1.6-billion accumulated debt—the second-highest per capita debt of any city in the country at the time (after Montreal). According to Higgins, he remained uninterested in the
day-to-day running of the city. “He liked to be out there promoting the city,” she says, “but leave the details to others.” As premier, Klein has continued this hands-off approach, giving his ministers considerable latitude to develop their own initiatives while he focuses on communicating the government’s broader themes. “I’m elected to be a politician, not a manager,” is the way he explains it.
Klein’s decision, at Getty’s urging, to run for the Tories provincially in 1989 caught many by surprise: he had never belonged to the party and, if anything, was considered more sympathetic to the Liberals. Even more surprising to many longtime observers is the very vocal and personal role that he has taken in selling his government’s often painful austerity measures. Liberal Opposition Leader Laurence Decore dismisses Klein as the “front man” who is meant to put a human face on the far-right agenda of the mostly rural cabinet ministers who helped him to win the Tory leadership. Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, it is one that brings a smile to the lips of Klein’s old buddy, Thompson MacDonald. “Ralph is usually a few steps ahead of the people around him,” he says, “but, hey, he’s been underestimated before.”
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