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Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

OBITUARY

Ralph Klein, 70: The man who ruled Alberta Add to ...

Condemnation gave way to grudging admiration for “a personable mayor who delivered the straight goods in the face of furious opposition,” according to Klein biographer Don Martin in King Ralph: The Political Life and Success of Ralph Klein.

As for Mr. Love, the bums and creeps tour remained one of his favourite memories of working with his boss. “That was the moment that the real Ralph Klein emerged,” he told the Canadian Press in 2011.

Taking his “telling it like it is” message directly to the people became Mr. Klein’s trademark as premier. Whenever he had a tough situation to turn around, or an election campaign to wage, he would tool around the province with his wife Colleen in his RV, just talking to folks.

Journalist and policy analyst Rich Vivone says Mr. Klein “had the trust and popularity to do almost anything he wanted and survive,” but he lacked the ability to turn his populism into public policy. His “fiscal achievements early in his career were significant,” writes Mr. Vivone in Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar , but he “utterly failed at health reform and economic diversification” and he did “little for culture, recreation or the arts.”

Political analyst David Taras of Mount Royal University concurs. There is a huge distinction, he says, between Mr. Klein’s impact as a politican and the poverty of his public policy initiatives. “In terms of political victories, he is almost beyond comparison in Canada. He won his political battles, he crushed his opposition, he himself was good for probably 2,000 votes in every riding in the province. He was a populist, he had an intrinsic feel for where the political centre was and for the political mood of the province,” says Prof. Taras, comparing Mr. Klein’s political agility to a “cat on a hot tin roof.” He almost always “knew exactly where to land.” If he was on the wrong side of public opinion, he would do a sophisticated gymnastic manoeuvre or even a simple somersault, apologize and change direction.

But the policy side was dismal, says Prof. Taras, describing Mr. Klein as a politician without “nuance,” who couldn’t look beyond the immediate target to a long-term goal and who was a “great failure” as a visionary. So, in terms of “a long-term legacy, of being a builder and an investor in the future, all of those are wanting.”

The longer he was in office, the larger were his policy faults, says Prof. Taras. A key one was paying down the provincial debt in the midst of a booming economy in 2004, especially since “the interest charges didn’t amount to very much” by then. “All of his political capital was spent on eliminating the fiscal debt and declaring victory, but he did so at the expense of hospitals, roads, light rail transit lines, and investing in better health-care services or education.”

And those are some of the deficits his province and his party are confronting today.

Early life

Ralph Philip Klein was born on Nov. 1, 1942 in Calgary, the elder son of Philip Andrew Klein and Florence Harper. His paternal grandfather, Andrew Klein, had emigrated from Germany by way of London and New York and staked a claim near Rocky Mountain House in 1906, a year after Alberta joined Confederation. He quickly imported and married his English girlfriend. They had four children, including a son who became Ralph Klein’s father.

Philip Klein was a drifter and his wife an alcoholic. After they divorced, Ralph was raised mostly by his maternal grandparents in a working-class neighbourhood in Tuxedo Park in the northern part of the city. School bored him and, after finishing Grade 10 at Crescent Heights High School, he dropped out and joined the RCAF.

Quickly realizing he had made a serious mistake, Mr. Klein became so depressed that he qualified for a medical discharge. As a veteran he was given free tuition and a monthly stipend for vocational training at Calgary Business College. There, Mr. Klein became an avid student, excelling in accounting and commercial law.

When he graduated, the college offered him a teaching position. He married Hilda May Hepner on April 29, 1961, seven months before their son Bradley was born. They had a daughter, Angela, four years later.

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