The Alberta Liberals have chosen a path of high risk and, potentially, high reward – choosing the mercurial Raj Sherman, a former Tory, as their new leader.
Dr. Sherman won an easy victory, earning 54 per cent of 8,640 votes and securing the requisite majority on the first ballot. He defeated two MLAs, an aide to a former Liberal leader and a Calgary union leader.
“Well, It’s been a long road for all of us,” said Dr. Sherman, who earlier in the week warned “our campaign is in trouble” on Twitter, urging supporters to vote. “We were a little scared a few days ago. But we’re re-engaged, we’re reignited, we’re excited, we’re coming back.”
Wearing a red tie borrowed from a party staffer and supporter, the former Tory thanked supporters and his fellow candidates.
“It’s an honour to serve beside you,” he told three of his four rivals gathered on stage: Hugh MacDonald, Laurie Blakeman and Bruce Payne. The fifth candidate, Bill Harvey, didn’t attend the announcement Saturday.
“Tonight as a party we are launching into a new era. We must build on the momentum that five, not just one, leadership candidates build across the province,” Dr. Sherman told a crowd of about 100 people.
The victory marked the end of a controversial leadership campaign in which the official opposition party tried a new approach – allowing online voting and signing up thousands of supporters and members. There were complaints about the process. Many long-time party backers were also wary of Dr. Sherman’s newfound allegiance to the party. The two long-time MLAs he beat pledged to work with the new leader, but did little to hide their frustration.
“I would say Raj got the first ballot victory. Let’s live with it and let’s move on,” Mr. MacDonald said.
“Um, well, there’s certainly more diversity than we had yesterday, and that’s a good thing,” Ms. Blakeman added.
Where Dr. Sherman will take the party remains unclear. He identified a few key issues after his victory speech. He pledged to push for oil sands bitumen to be “upgraded,” or converted to conventional oil, in Alberta instead of shipping the raw product to the United States – a page from the NDP playbook. He said he’d repeal Bill 50, a controversial power line law that the right-wing Wildrose party has spent months complaining about. And, when asked about environmental concerns in Alberta’s energy sector, he took a pro-industry, if pragmatic, approach that would make some left-leaning Liberals cringe: “With respect to the environmental issues, or carbon and water, we have to sit down with industry and work with industry. That’s what a Raj Sherman Alberta Liberal Party will do.”
Dr. Sherman is an emergency room physician who was recruited by the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives to run in a west Edmonton riding. He won in 2008, but was kicked out of the caucus two years later after publicly lashing out against its health policy.
The acrimonious split made headlines for weeks and turned Dr. Sherman into something of a folk hero in the province, viewed as an advocate for health care – one who still works the occasional ER shift.
Still an MLA, he was courted by the four other parties but chose the official opposition Liberals in March, one month after former leader David Swann, also a physician, stepped down. Dr. Swann says he made the move to reinvigorate the party, but says it wasn’t done to lure Dr. Sherman. (He won’t say who he voted for, but acknowledged he did urge Mr. Payne to run. Mr. Payne finished fifth.) Since Dr. Sherman joined the Liberals, the party has been split – Dr. Sherman could build the party’s profile, but will shift the party to the right and comes with baggage. He has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, suffer gaffes or level allegations he can’t back up. For instance, he has stated repeatedly that he’d sit as an independent until the next election, saying it was the best way to respect the wishes of those who voted for him; on Saturday, he said he “look[ed]forward to my invitation from caucus to have me join them.”