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Christy Clark on her way into room full of supporters after her announcement to make a run for leader the BC Liberals party in Vancouver December 8, 2010. Clark is the fifth person to run for the position of party leader following Gordon Campbell's resignation last month. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Christy Clark on her way into room full of supporters after her announcement to make a run for leader the BC Liberals party in Vancouver December 8, 2010. Clark is the fifth person to run for the position of party leader following Gordon Campbell's resignation last month. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Memories of leadership campaigns past Add to ...

When Christy Clark announced her run for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party this week, there were distinct echoes of a political campaign launched 24 years earlier.

The only true populist in the race to replace Premier Gordon Campbell, Ms. Clark has quickly acquired front-runner status, and the target on her back that comes with it. Her dazzling entry into the race made up for its rather sober start, just another of the many similarities her campaign has to one commenced years ago for the same office.

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It was June 21, 1986, when Bill Vander Zalm informed a mob of reporters that he was entering the race to replace outgoing Social Credit premier Bill Bennett. Instantly he changed the dynamic of a contest populated mostly by cabinet ministers linked to an unpopular premier. Sound familiar?

Although he had once served in the cabinet of Bill Bennett himself, including a stint as education minister, Mr. Vander Zalm's three-year absence from the provincial scene allowed him to fashion himself as the outsider untainted by the policies of the government of the day.

When he left the provincial scene in 1983, Mr. Vander Zalm said he was done with politics, at least for a while. But a year later he made an unsuccessful run at the Vancouver mayor's job (like Ms. Clark). His record as a cabinet minister was perhaps more notable for the controversy he generated than the success of any programs he initiated (also like Ms. Clark).

Still, his charisma was undeniable, and when he entered the Social Credit leadership race, he had the kind of flash and sizzle his rivals could only dream of.

His brilliant smile, juxtaposed against his thin record of accomplishments while in cabinet, prompted the immortal line from his brainy fellow Socred leadership contender Kim Campbell: "Style without substance is a dangerous thing." She had no idea how prophetic her words would be.

No one would suggest the telegenic, former education minister running for the B.C. Liberal leadership race today as the proverbial outsider is similarly without substance. To a person, contenders for the Liberal leadership regard Christy Clark as smart and as politically savvy as they come. (Although she's been dubbed the Sarah Palin of B.C. politics by some in the blogosphere). She does have fierce critics, however, who argue that once you get past the megawatt smile and some flashy but ultimately meaningless job titles while in government (see deputy premier), her resume and record of achievements during her three-year stint in cabinet is quite slim.

Still, the latest polls of British Columbians at large - and not potential delegates to the Liberal leadership convention in February - give Ms. Clark a wide lead over her fellow contenders on the question of who has the best chance of leading the party to victory in the next election. A not-insignificant factor in the equation of any Liberal delegate weighing who to vote for.

Ms. Clark is a prime example of the lure of the campaigner with folksy charm. She understands intuitively what people want to hear and knows how to tell them - just as Bill Vander Zalm once did. She has the best communication skills of any of the candidates, honed, unquestionably, by her four-year stint as a talk-radio host. She's as natural a politician as they come, who quite loves the cut and thrust of the battle. On that front she is most comparable to the combative John Baird of the federal Conservative Party.

Still, the Liberal leadership vote is a couple of months away. Much can happen before then and much will. Ms. Clark had a proclivity for controversy while in government and is likely to generate some of it during this race. Her proposal to have a free vote in the legislature on the HST has already generated negative headlines.

Her penchant for bare-knuckle partisanship was also on full display in her campaign launch. On that score, Ms. Clark is almost a throwback to another era in B.C. politics when Socreds regularly tried to scare voters off the NDP by warning them about the "socialist hoards at the gates," thirsting to assume power and raise taxes.

Any provincial election between the NDP and a Christy Clark-led Liberal Party would be a dandy - and as foul and nasty as they come. It might be difficult to hear what the candidates are saying about policy above the din of all the name calling.

But before the feisty Ms. Clark gets that chance, she has to win a leadership contest that is just heating up and could get foul and nasty itself. Standing on the sidelines taking it all in, Bill Vander Zalm can't stop smiling, knowing he played a central role in making all this happen.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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