Race to pick new leader of Alberta centres around endorsement

Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Doug Horner snipped the ribbon this week at the grand opening of a campaign office in Red Deer, but caucus colleague Luke Ouellette cut short the cake and balloons.

Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Doug Horner snipped the ribbon this week at the grand opening of a campaign office in Red Deer, but caucus colleague Luke Ouellette cut short the cake and balloons.

“I know we all want to hear from Doug, but I brought you in here to get to work,” Ouellette reportedly told the assembled staff who had come over from his constituency office to work the phones.

“We’ve got to get out there and sell memberships and make sure we’ve got people voting on voting day.”

Ouellette, Alberta’s minister of transportation, is one of 14 caucus members publicly supporting Horner in the six-candidate race to replace retiring Premier Ed Stelmach as Tory leader.

His support is just one piece of an endorsement puzzle that comes in many forms in leadership races and, if the case of the current premier is any guide, can be the difference between either making history or becoming history.

“If you’re going to be involved in politics, you better be involved,” said Ouellette.

“If you’re on the fence, you’re not very involved. People on the fence are really sitting there thinking, ‘I want to be on that winning team because then I’ll get a chance to be in cabinet.”’

With the first round of party voting for the new leader set for Sept. 17, most of the remaining members of the Tory caucus have thrown their support behind one of the would-be leaders. Tories hold 67 of the 83 seats in the legislature.

Gary Mar, a health minister under former premier Ralph Klein, has the support of 21 in caucus, including 12 cabinet ministers. Horner has seven cabinet members, with MLAs from the north and south, including membership-card-collecting machines like Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk and Speaker Ken Kowalski.

It was Kowalski who, after Ralph Klein finished second in the first round of balloting in 1992, beat the bushes to bring in the votes to put him over the top in the final round.

Ted Morton, the former finance minister, has 10 caucus supporters, while ex-justice minister Alison Redford and backbencher Doug Griffiths have one each.

Rick Orman, a Calgary businessman who served in cabinet two decades ago under former premier Don Getty, has no one endorsing him — an ironic twist given that Orman lost the party leadership to Klein in 1992 and blamed his failure on underestimating the power of caucus endorsements.

The support can be critical in party votes that are, ultimately, glorified bottle drives. Witness Stelmach, a longtime low-profile cabinet minister considered a longshot to defeat frontrunner Jim Dinning when Klein stepped down in 2006.

Stelmach’s machine rounded up enough votes to put him in the top three and through to the decisive second and final round of voting.

In that round, Stelmach got the endorsements of Lyle Oberg, Mark Norris and Dave Hancock — rivals for the leadership who didn’t make the cut in the first round.

They, in turn, brought their teams to his side. That, coupled with the divisive ideological feud between the other two candidates — the centrist Dinning and the right-leaning Morton — made Stelmach the popular choice as the great uniter.

“Many predicted (my victory) would never happen, that it was impossible,” said Stelmach. “But that week, between the first and second ballot, we sold more memberships by far than anyone else.

“I don’t know about pollsters who ask about name familiarity. It wasn’t about name familiarity. It’s about: did you buy a membership and are you going to vote?

“Those (current) candidates that are tracking that are going to do well and will end up in the top three.”

Support comes in many forms. Some are just prestige endorsements, such as Ralph Klein coming out in favour of Mar this week, and Getty publicly supporting Horner.

Those, too, are important, said Horner. “It’s like having references. You’ve got people who have worked with you, have seen you’re capable of leading a team and accomplishing the task.”