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BC NDP Leader Adrian Dix, poses for photographs on the grounds of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria Monday December 10, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
BC NDP Leader Adrian Dix, poses for photographs on the grounds of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings in Victoria Monday December 10, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

Meet Adrian Dix, the NDP’s comeback kid in B.C. Add to ...

With media entourage in tow, Adrian Dix scrambles up an embankment by a logging road deep in the interior of British Columbia. Under a canopy of mature pine, he stops to discuss forestry. Or, rather, he listens to a silviculture expert do the talking.

This baffles his host, a grizzled former tree planter – what politician doesn’t lust for the spotlight? But like many people in B.C., he can see that the odds-on favourite to become the province’s next premier takes a very different approach to politics.

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An election call for May 14 is to come next week, with Mr. Dix seemingly poised to end 12 years of Liberal rule and return B.C. to the New Democrats.

Rival parties try in vain to portray him as “Risky Dix” – a hard-core lefty who’d make B.C. a have-not province. Even the business community is muting its criticism of the member for Vancouver-Kingsway, and polls suggest that voters trust him at least as much as incumbent Christy Clark to manage the economy.

Resurrecting a party reduced to two seats after its last taste of power has required nothing less than a transformation – much like the ones that are under way on the national stage this weekend as federal Liberals choose a new leader they hope will end their electoral tailspin and federal New Democrats decide to shed their socialist label in a bid for fiscal credibility.

But when it comes to leaving the past behind to make a stunning comeback, Adrian Dix has qualifications few can match: He has already done it once.

‘An occupational hazard’

Fourteen years ago, Mr. Dix looked like anything but a provincial leader in waiting – in fact, he didn’t even have a job. He had been fired in spectacular fashion by his boss, also his close friend and Victoria roommate of 10 years, then premier Glen Clark.

In March, 1999, the RCMP had raided Mr. Clark’s home in Vancouver while investigating a controversial casino application made by one of his friends. In a bid to save his career, the embattled NDP leader fired Mr. Dix; he hoped the sacrifice would assuage the caucus and get the party back on a solid footing with the electorate.

Why, of all his senior aides, did he choose his chief of staff?

Mr. Dix had tried to deflect conflict-of-interest accusations by producing a memo that said the premier had asked to “take no part” in the casino decision.

Although dated much earlier, the memo had in fact been written only after questions about the proposal became public. Mr. Clark was eventually charged with (and acquitted of) breach of trust, but Mr. Dix had already been let go, and wound up with a skeleton in his closet.

Looking back today, Mr. Clark admits the decision strained their friendship, but says it was “an occupational hazard” of the job.

For his part, Mr. Dix said recently that “nobody is harder on me than I am, for the mistakes I’ve made. But I have learned, and it’s made me a better person.”

Still, his political life seemed over. He left Victoria just shy of his 35th birthday, and spent the next 17 months searching for work. A man who’d been part of a powerful inner circle driven by raw politics and locked in a constant battle to win headlines was reduced to scouring the want ads in local newspapers.

 

From UBC to NDP

Mr. Dix, who turns 49 next Saturday, was born and raised in Vancouver, the son of British immigrants.

His father Ken, who retired just two years ago at 81, ran the Dix Insurance Agency in Kerrisdale, an affluent neighbourhood in Vancouver’s west end, and the family business helped to put Mr. Dix and his two siblings through university.

He studied political science at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s, where he was swept up in the Operation Solidarity protests against the Social Credit government of the day.

He met Mr. Clark when both campaigned for federal New Democrat Ian Waddell in a downtown, working-class, multicultural riding then known as Vancouver-Kingsway. Afterward he went to Ottawa to work for Mr. Waddell until Mr. Clark, elected in the provincial version of the riding, brought him back to B.C. – and the premier’s office in 1996.

Three intense years later, he was back in Vancouver looking for a fresh start – which he finally found as provincial executive director of Canadian Parents for French (CPF), a small non-profit agency that promotes French-language education.

French immersion represents a tiny fraction of the B.C. education system, but Mr. Dix, fluent since living in France at 20, spent five years travelling the province, building a CPF network and, according to association ex-president Melanie Tighe-Lovsin, having “a lasting impact.” Immersion enrolment in B.C. rose by 25 per cent.

Ms. Tighe-Lovsin says he was humble, quick to deflect any credit sent his way and resolutely upbeat. Just as he is now known for rejecting negative campaigning, “he never laid blame, never said anything negative about anybody,” she says. “He always looked for solutions.”

And at times, he provided them.

Suzanne Salter, a kindergarten teacher at Renfrew Elementary School, recalls retreating to the bathroom to hide her tears after being forced to choose a final roster for the basketball team. “These boys all wanted to play but I had to cut some ... I had way too many kids.”

Mr. Dix, an avid sports fan, heard what had happened from a friend with kids at the school, and volunteered to coach a second squad.

“I thought, ‘Here is a person at his lowest ebb, and he stepped in for these boys who had not made the A team,’” Ms. Salter says.

Yet, even to his closet friends, the idea that he would ever come back to politics – by standing for office, no less – was unthinkable.

“When he first said he was considering running in my old constituency, I was shocked,” says Mr. Clark. “I really have not seen anybody work harder than him in my life, and he’s very smart. ... But he was pretty shy and introverted, not gregarious.”

And yet he now commands not only Mr. Clark’s former riding and post as party leader, he is preparing to follow his footsteps to the premier’s office. What happened?

 

The prodigal’s return

Mr. Dix agrees that “I’m a fairly shy person.” But five years out of politics gave him a chance to reflect. “I learned new things about myself – I learned to speak in my own voice.”

To win the riding nomination, he defeated three rivals, only to find senior party officials in no hurry to embrace his candidacy. Still rebuilding after the post-Clark wipeout in 2001, leader Carole James was looking for new faces.

But after he won the seat in the 2005 election that saw his party rebound with 33 of 79 seats in the legislature, she made him a key critic – for the ministry of children and families. It was a test, she recalls: “Show me you support the direction of modernizing the NDP, in a pragmatic, practical way.”

He quickly earned a reputation as a strong critic and, to her mind, also demonstrated genuine remorse for his clumsy effort to cover up for Mr. Clark.

As well, he began to come out of his shell, especially after his 2007 marriage to Renée Saklikar, who has gone through a rebirth of her own, leaving behind a law practice to become a poet. Mr. Dix remains intensely protective of his private life, but friends describe his wife as the extrovert in the relationship, and say she has broadened his social circle.

Two years later, the party was back in turmoil. When Ms. James lost the 2009 election, the knives came out and a caucus revolt eventually forced her to step down. To her surprise – “I never would have put Adrian on the list” – Mr. Dix was the last of four contenders to enter the 2011 race to succeed her.

“Welcome to a future – a New Democrat future,” he said when announcing his candidacy, “where everyone can contribute and no one is left out.”

After winning a tight vote on the third ballot, he applied his desire for inclusiveness to his own deeply divided caucus. As a result, most of the “Baker’s Dozen” who led the revolt remain on the ballot. But only when Ms. James announced that she, too, would run again was it clear that the messy chapter had ended.

Mr. Dix credits his predecessor with teaching him how to be an effective member of the legislature: “I try to emulate her generosity. She would have made a great premier. It is my biggest disappointment that we didn’t make that happen.”

She, in return, praises him as an intense and exacting boss. “He expects people to bring their A game.”

Outside the caucus, he mounted what has been called a charm offensive, courting business leaders with repeated private meetings to brief them on his “modest” ambitions.

The ruling Liberals have inadvertently helped on this score – their February budget proposed tax hikes for high-income earners and corporations, making those previously proposed by “Risky Dix,” the NDP bogeyman, seem less scary, somehow.

And when he does seize the spotlight, he impresses even the most skeptical crowds, speaking without notes, without rambling, and now (after being labelled “dour” in the press) allowing his sense of humour to show through.

The consistent go-slow message has certainly helped to dampened the business community’s fears – based on its previous experiences with the governments of Dave Barrett, Mike Harcourt and Mr. Clark.

Mr. Clark, ironically, has provided an important entrée to the corporate crowd in his current role as president of the Jim Pattison Group, one of the country’s largest private companies. Of his former staffer, he now says: “His style and the fact that he is more cerebral and certainly less strident than me, that’s helpful.”

So, after four rocky years of provincial politics, beginning with B.C.’s botched introduction of the harmonized sales tax, business leaders are prepared for a change of government. They haven’t embraced Mr. Dix, but they have signalled they are prepared to work with him. And they are showing up for his fundraisers like never before.

Inside the party tent, meanwhile, Mr. Dix has devoted much time to dampening expectations of those eager to see him undo 12 years of Liberal rule. They get the same speech as the business community does: NDP governments of the past tried to do too much, too quickly.

How then does he plan to address issues that are fundamental to the party, such as social and economic inequality?

His response is well honed, a careful distillation of complex research that (almost) fits in a sound bite: “There are two ways to address inequality. One is the redistribution of wealth, and the other is the pre-distribution of wealth.”

The latter is what he intends to emphasize – giving people better access to post-secondary education so they can lift themselves up.

“You have to give people the power in their lives to achieve equality,” he explains. “We have to address severe poverty, child poverty, but the idea that we can redistribute wealth through government policy is not the right direction.”

It is a message that triggers few alarm bells in the board room. In fact, last week, the Business Council of B.C. played host to a conference on “shared prosperity.”

Just as Mr. Dix has changed the dialogue in B.C., having him take power next month would create some national ripples. B.C. would become the third, after Nova Scotia and Manitoba, province led by New Democrats, which is especially notable in the West with its growing influence within Confederation.

As well, he is fluently bilingual, having spent some time in France, making him well equipped to reach out to Quebeckers, including his party’s federal leader, Tom Mulcair. But Mr. Dix has already demonstrated an independent streak by openly opposing Mr. Mulcair’s policy on Quebec secession.

He is also expected to take a businesslike, rather than a partisan, approach to relations with the Conservative government in Ottawa.

The biggest bone of contention on that front is the NDP’s opposition to the controversial Northern Gateway proposal for a new pipeline to bring Alberta oil to the coast. However, the party has left the door open to the idea of tripling the output of the existing line. So there are grounds for a compromise – if Prime Minister Stephen Harper is willing to negotiate.

 

Method to his madness

Before heading into the woods outside Kamloops to discuss forestry, Mr. Dix takes a moment at the airport to change out of his suit and tie. It is also a good time to inject his insulin.

Although quite guarded about his private life – “There should be boundaries. My brother didn’t run for office” – he will discuss the fact that he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in his 20s (while preparing to run a marathon), and finds it a challenge at times to keep his blood sugar levels steady.

But why, if he has so little to say, has he flown all this way?

Because he thinks ahead. Kamloops is home to two key swing ridings, and when the campaign begins, the party will roll out a policy on investing in the province’s forest inventory.

It’s a move indicative of what distinguishes him as a leader from someone like Mr. Clark.

He and his former boss remain friends, despite that skeleton in their closet, but “we are very different” as politicians, he says. Although “instinctually brilliant” at the art of politics, Mr. Clark displayed an “urgency” to get things done, whereas “I am way more methodical. ... My approach is deliberately more long-term.”

There is no escaping the fact that, if the party does return to power, such a measured pace will be hard on those hot to unravel what the Liberals have done, says Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs, a friend since he worked with Mr. Dix for Glen Clark.

“He is passionate about the issue of inequality, but he will go slower on that issue than everyone would like to. For New Democrats, it is what gets them up in the morning.”

Yet Mr. Dix remains adamant – he saw what speed can do during his previous experience in government.

“What I learned,” he says, “was that the public has a limited capacity to absorb change.”

Justine Hunter is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in the B.C. legislature, and has covered politics in the province since 1988.

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