FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Brian Jean, the co-founder of the governing United Conservative Party, is back in the Alberta legislature, setting up a showdown with his fellow founder turned political foe, Premier Jason Kenney.
Jean, a former UCP legislature member and a federal Conservative member of Parliament, defeated seven challengers Tuesday with about two-thirds of the vote to capture the open seat.
“I am excited to be your new MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche,” Jean said to cheering supporters.
“You know my friends, this was not a squeaker. I have to tell you I have a clear mandate from the people — over 60 per cent.”
Jean had won the nomination to run under the party banner in his hometown even though he openly campaigned to have Kenney expelled as leader.
He has said the United Conservative Party has lost its values and commitment to grassroots democracy under Kenney and that only a change in leader can reverse its poor polling numbers and deliver victory against the NDP in the spring 2023 provincial election.
The main challenger in the byelection, NDP candidate Ariana Mancini, campaigned on sending a message to a UCP government that she said badly mismanaged health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mancini also said the Kenney government has eroded the bottom lines for working families with policies that hiked income taxes, property taxes, school fees, utility bills and insurance rates.
The other candidates were Paul Hinman of the Wildrose Independence Party, Marilyn Burns of the Advantage Party of Alberta, Abdulhakim Hussein of the Alberta Liberal Party, Steven Mellott with the Independence Party of Alberta, Michelle Landsiedel with the Alberta Party and Independent candidate Brian Deheer.
The constituency came open last August after UCP backbencher Laila Goodridge stepped down to run successfully for the Conservative party in the federal election.
Jean’s nomination led to a peculiar race in which all candidates were campaigning against the premier.
Kenney, after waiting until the last day of a six-month window to call the 28-day campaign, has said little about the byelection.
He has delivered short answers to media questions about the contest while avoiding using Jean’s name. Earlier Tuesday, Kenney delivered a 15-word response when asked by reporters who he was rooting for.
“Well, obviously, the United Conservative Party,” he replied. “And I encourage people to get out and vote.”
Jean has been rallying support to defeat Kenney at the party’s leadership review on April 9 in Red Deer. Anything less than a majority vote in support of Kenney would result in a contest to pick a new leader.
It’s an in-person vote and both sides have been actively recruiting partisans to cast a yes or no for Kenney’s leadership.
Kenney himself has dispatched his chief of staff, Pam Livingston, to round up support.
He has characterized the vote as not so much a referendum on his performance but rather a proxy war waged by extremist elements looking to hijack the mainstream UCP coalition created when Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives and Jean’s Wildrose Party agreed to join forces in 2017.
Kenney and Jean have a long history going back to when they were federal Conservative MPs.
Both eventually left to enter Alberta provincial politics, with Jean taking over as head of the Wildrose and Kenney winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.
Together they founded the UCP but Jean lost the leadership of the new party to Kenney in a vote stained by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and fraud.
He eventually quit his seat but announced last November that he was coming out of retirement to run again in the byelection with the goal of ousting Kenney as party leader and premier.
The question now becomes what happens when Jean joins the UCP caucus, given that previous Kenney critics have been demoted or shown the door.
Last May, UCP members Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen were expelled from caucus after criticizing Kenney and his COVID-19 policies. Both now sit as Independents.
Last July, Leela Aheer was dropped from cabinet after criticizing Kenney for breaking COVID-19 health rules by having a patio dinner outside his temporary penthouse office.