Alison Redford gained political chops beside Nelson Mandela

Alison Redford earned her political chops from Nelson Mandela, but it was at a New Year’s Eve party in South Africa where she gained insight into his humanity.

Newly-elected Alberta PC leader and Alberta Premier Alison Redford holds a news conference in Edmonton

Newly-elected Alberta PC leader and Alberta Premier Alison Redford holds a news conference in Edmonton

EDMONTON — Alison Redford earned her political chops from Nelson Mandela, but it was at a New Year’s Eve party in South Africa where she gained insight into his humanity.

The woman who would become Alberta’s 14th premier was then a 20-something lawyer sitting poolside at a resort outside East London on the Indian Ocean in the early 1990s.

She was part of a team helping Mandela find a new way forward for a country blighted by apartheid.

They were all crazy busy, and the stakes were high.

Elections were looming that would propel the nation toward a new era of racial equality or see it hit the ditch and perhaps descend into further bloodshed.

“I went to this resort and was by myself, and I’m by the pool and the security guy, who I know, comes up to me and he’s with Mandela and he says, ’Madiba would like you to spend New Year’s Eve with him tonight.”’

Redford joined Mandela at a small dinner for 10 at a nearby hotel.

He was forever on the phone. There were heads of government to call, plans to make, problems to solve.

With him at the table was his personal nurse, a young woman from Japan. She’d been with him for over a year, but now she was moving on.

But for more than an hour that night, said Redford, the nurse was his whole world.

“The only thing he wanted was for her to have fun on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “He was getting people to come and dance with her and she wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to dance anyway.

“I’ll never forget that.”

In 1994, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa. For Redford, it was the launch point of a period of eye-opening globe-trotting for her as she created and advised on human rights and democratic systems in some of the most desperate regions of the world: Zambia, Namibia, Vietnam, Mozambique, Bosnia.

When she came back to Canada, it was decision-time for the lifelong political animal who didn’t grow up wanting to premier, but knew someday she wanted to lead.

Redford was born in Kitimat, B.C., on March 7, 1965.

Her father worked for drilling companies. The family lived in Nova Scotia and as far afield as Borneo before settling down in Calgary when Redford was 12 years old.

In high school, she was the whip-smart kid on a mission. She was elected president of the Progressive Conservative Youth of Alberta, a job that normally went to university students.

She earned her law degree at the University of Saskatchewan, then went to Ottawa to work in the offices of external affairs minister Joe Clark and prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Working for Clark, she met Mandela when he came to Canada after his release from prison in 1990. Soon after, she went to work for him.

By 2004 she was back in Canada, ready to run for public office. She took on Rob Anders for the Conservative nomination in Calgary-West and got a firsthand taste of political blood sport.

It took three rounds of voting, but she lost.

By 2008, Redford was ready to take another shot, running for Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives in the provincial election, and winning in Calgary-Elbow.

She was immediately appointed justice minister and sat at the cabinet table, agreeing with some decisions, balking at others.

When Stelmach, facing a reported caucus putsch in January 2011, announced he would step down after a leadership campaign, Redford saw her chance.

The problem was she had no hope — she was a rookie with almost no caucus support.

Most of Stelmach’s team coalesced around wildly popular former Ralph Klein cabinet minister Gary Mar. He had a fancy bus and a multimillion-dollar campaign. It was his race to lose.

Redford played her one ace in the hole — Stephen Carter, a tousle-haired, 40ish political strategist famous for his sly grin, acid tongue and taste for combat.

Carter had worked on federal Tory campaigns — where he first met Redford — and had become a hot commodity in 2010 for vaulting no-name business professor Naheed Nenshi into Calgary’s mayoral chair.

Redford and Carter would follow the Nenshi script, selling not only policies but also a person who could be liked and trusted, a working wife and mother with a daughter in school.

They used social media, ignoring traditional political vote gatherers, to reach out directly to community and business leaders.

They aimed the message at women. Carter felt they were the influence-makers.

It was the issue of a $107-million cut to education that took Redford over the top — a masterstroke that said as much about Redford’s ingenuity as it did the hardened arteries of the 40-year-old government she wanted to run.

Redford had left cabinet to run for Stelmach’s job by the time the Tories off-loaded the $107-million problem to school boards in the spring 2011-12 budget. The shortfall was the result of a sweetheart labour deal the government cut with teachers years earlier to buy peace at election time.

The problem was the school boards were the ones who had to pay the teachers, and the province hadn’t given them enough money to do it, so the school boards cut teachers.

Parents and teachers were outraged. The issue dominated headlines and editorials. Stelmach stood his ground, suggesting maybe senior teachers should just suck it up and take a pay cut.

This is nuts, thought Redford.

“It just didn’t make sense. If you had to find $107 million in a budget like the government of Alberta’s, why in the world would you take it out of education?” she said.

“These decisions would be made and they didn’t seem connected to reality, to people.”

Meanwhile, Carter and Redford were foundering. Mar was picking up steam and leadership candidates defeated in the first round were jumping on board his train.

Neither remembers over whose head the light bulb went on, but it changed everything.

It was simple. It was brilliant. It was the right thing to do. And in hindsight, it was so obvious.

Let’s just give the $107 million back.

They put that promise in a letter and delivered it to the Alberta Teachers’ Association in the time between the first and second leadership votes.

Carter said when they walked into the association’s office to hand over the missive, they knew it would change the campaign.

On the second and final ballot last fall, volunteers across the province set up phone trees to get the vote out for Redford.

The final vote count, held at an Edmonton convention centre, was to be a Mar coronation, but became a nail-biter. The clock ticked on — 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight — as Mar’s team checked and re-checked the totals before finally agreeing in the wee hours their dream had died by a whisker-thin margin.

Just weeks later, Premier Redford returned the $107 million.

To win, she said, she remembered the lessons of Mandela, who shifted tactics to capitalize on evolving situations but never compromised core values.

“What I learned from him is you need to be open to a lot of people and a lot of ideas, but you can’t be swayed indiscriminately,” she said.

“You’ve got to have a sense of the course and the path.”