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B.C. Premier Christy Clark in her Vancouver office March 17, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark in her Vancouver office March 17, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Tell

Christy Clark: 'There is a lot of appetite … for a little bit of honesty' Add to ...

When Gordon Campbell announced in November that he would step down as B.C.'s premier, Christy Clark knew she wanted the job. But what about Hamish?

The former education minister and deputy premier had left politics in 2005 to spend more time with her only child, now 9, and had built an enviable life as a radio talk-show host which allowed her to do just that.

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On the advice of other busy working moms in her book club, she took a long, hard look at how she was using her family time.

"I pulled out how many hours of real quality, attentive time I spent with him, and I was really surprised at how small that number was," Ms. Clark explains in an interview this week, two days after taking the oath of office that made her the second female premier in B.C. history.

The exercise persuaded her that she could, indeed, seek the job and still be sure of having quality time with her boy.

She has joint custody of Hamish with her ex-husband, federal Liberal strategist Mark Marissen, who co-chaired Stéphane Dion's leadership bid and operates The Burrard Group, a Vancouver-based communications and government-relations agency.

But Mr. Marissen revealed Friday that he has decided to shutter his business after 13 years and seek other employment. He does not want to risk anything that could be seen as a conflict with the new Premier, with whom he has been raising Hamish "50-50, right down the middle, week-on, week off." However, he adds, "we may have to be more flexible, given her new role."

Such concerns are especially important to Ms. Clark considering that she won her party's leadership on Feb. 26 after campaigning on a "families first" platform, vowing to measure her policies against their impact on the well-being of the B.C. family. She also promised open government, job creation, a balanced budget and, above all, change - saying that, if the Liberals don't provide it, the rival New Democratic Party will.

At 45, Ms. Clark takes over a party that Mr. Campbell ran for 17 years and has governed the province since 2001. Assertive, charismatic and armed with communi- cations skills honed on talk radio, she represents a dynamic new face for the so-called "free-enterprise" Liberals (not connected to their federal namesake, they're a coalition that embraces federal Tories) who hope to rebound from a dramatic collapse in support and win a fourth term.

Simply by being so candid about her personal life, she stands in contrast with her more guarded, 63-year-old predecessor, who surprised his province by adopting a controversial harmonized sales tax (HST) not long after the 2009 election, Mr. Campbell has left politics altogether, this week resigning from a Vancouver-area riding that Ms. Clark may try to make her own.

He always seemed to be holding something back, says veteran political scientist Norman Ruff, a professor emeritus of the University of Victoria, who has watched 11 premiers come and go over the past 42 years.

With Ms. Clark, he adds, "what you see is what you get.

Born into Liberal life

The role she plays may be new, but Christina Joan Clark is no stranger to B.C. politics. Her teacher father, Jim, tried three times, without success, to win a seat as a Liberal, and she knocked on doors for him along with her three siblings. (Neither of her parents lived to see her become Premier.)

After studying French at the Sorbonne, religion at the University of Edinburgh and political science at Simon Fraser University, she worked as a researcher for the B.C. Liberal caucus, and was a western assistant to federal transport minister Doug Young when none other than Gordon Campbell changed her life.

The former Vancouver mayor, then Liberal opposition leader, recruited her as a candidate. Just 30 when elected in her hometown Port Moody in 1996, she became deputy premier and minister for education when the party came to power. Three years later, she announced that she wouldn't run again so she could focus on Hamish.

Some call Ms. Clark a populist, but Prof. Ruff is wary of the term. "It's used to explain everything in B.C. politics, but it may explain nothing. But she certainly has a populist streak … She tries to establish a direct connection with British Columbians and it is reciprocated."

Gwyn Morgan, the founder of energy giant EnCana who brought his federal Conservative pedigree to both her campaign and transition team, is equally skeptical. "Populist means you say and do whatever everybody likes rather than take the tough decisions when you need to," he says. "Christy is a person who will make the tough decisions."

Her first tough decisions came Monday when she unveiled her cabinet, demoting nine Campbell-era ministers, and trimming the body count from 23 to 17.

She fired Finance Minister Colin Hansen, a 10-year cabinet stalwart who, on Mr. Campbell's orders, brought in the HST that doomed both of their political careers. During the swearing-in ceremony, he was on the sidelines gamely describing the rewards of serving as a back- bencher but admitted he isn't sure he will run again.

Mr. Hansen's successor is the same man who, after coming second in the leadership race, boldly told reporters he had no interest in being finance minister. Now former health minister Kevin Falcon has the punishing task of trying to save the HST by persuading the public, before a referendum slated for June, that it's not so bad after all.

As well, Ms. Clark has swept away a decade-old freeze on the minimum wage imposed by the government she now leads, a move long opposed by B.C.'s business community.

Not surprisingly, the New Democrats remain skeptical. They too are looking for a new leader, and Mike Farnworth, one of five candidates on the April 17 ballot, says the new Premier's wave of popularity cannot last. "It's all about hype with Christy," he says. "It's about style, media - it's the snowball of hype without a lot backing it up."

While Ms. Clark prepares for such challenges, Mr. Marissen is helping on the home front. Although he had no formal role in her leadership campaign, he helped to round up support. Now, he says, his "main job" on behalf of the Clark administration is providing stability in Hamish's life.

He rejects the description of his ex-wife as a single parent. "She's a joint-custody parent Premier ... Yes, she's single and she's a mother, but she's not a single mother based on the connotation of what people would normally think that means."

Ms. Clark has been careful to avoid criticism of her old boss but does nothing to discourage the notion that he had become an autocrat and lost touch with both the public and his own party's grassroots.

"There is a lot of appetite … for a little bit of honesty and straight talk about where we are at, and I think that's what people expect of me," she says. "And that's a tough expectation to meet, because government as an institution works against all those things all the time."

As education minister, she had a reputation as combative, especially when it came to taking on the teachers' union. But she says she has learned a lot since leaving in 2005, thanks in large part to Hamish. More time for parenting taught her about flexibility, consultation and mediation.

As a result, "I very rarely approach a decision with my mind made up," she says. "I have enough experience now to know that you're not always right."

Queen of the airwaves

Her experience on CKNW also served to smooth some rough edges - and, of course, to raise her profile.

"It really helped during the leadership campaign - the fact that she is more well known than any of the rivals," says Mario Canseco, public affairs vice-president with Angus Reid Public Opinion in Vancouver.

Even though she was up against four sitting cabinet ministers, he adds, "we had a lot of people, particularly at the start of the race, saying, `I don't know who these people are, but I do know who Christy Clark is.'"

For more than four years, she was radio royalty, ruling the afternoon airwaves from the 21st-floor studio of Vancouver's top-rated station. Her audience was vast, as The Christy Clark Show reached not only listeners throughout the Lower Mainland but was transmitted to such B.C. Interior communities as Kelowna and Kamloops.

News director Ian Koenigsfest says that Ms. Clark began as a fill-in and quickly "developed into an outstanding talk-show host. She resonated with the listeners and was able to provoke, discuss and engage with people - that's what we want."

As well as surfing on her broadcast fame, she won over the Liberal faithful by arguing that, since escaping the "cocoon of Victoria," she - unlike the government - had been listening to British Columbians' concerns.

Now, of course, she must win over the public at large - something Rita Johnston, the first female premier, failed to do 20 years ago. The next election is set for May, 2013, but she has said she wants a new mandate sooner, perhaps this fall.

In the meanwhile, like any working parent, she is feeling her way through the balancing act of job versus "really intense, high-quality time" with Hamish, who is not yet persuaded that her new gig is a good thing.

"He didn't ask for this. I have to say I'm not sure he's as excited about me being Premier as I might be," she says.

"Because, from his perspective, it really just means that he's not sure how much time he and I are going to get to have together."

Justine Hunter and Ian Bailey are members of The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau.

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