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Alberta MLA Raj Sherman. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Alberta MLA Raj Sherman. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Outspoken MLA Raj Sherman to join Alberta Liberals Add to ...

With independent MLA and health care champion Raj Sherman now in the fold, the Alberta Liberal Party has picked itself up both a potential saviour and liability.

The Liberals made a ceremony Tuesday of selling Dr. Sherman, Alberta's self-styled health care folk hero, a party membership. He'll remain an independent MLA, but will run in the next election as a Liberal.

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A series of controversies have made health care the top issue in Alberta since last fall, and Dr. Sherman has emerged in the public eye as something of a whistleblower. Each opposition party courted his star power. His decision Tuesday is a coup and jolt of energy for the official opposition Liberals, a party looking to redefine itself to capitalize on a vote-split on the political right.

However, the unpredictable Dr. Sherman is a maverick who comes with baggage. For instance, he blindsided Liberals Tuesday by also announcing he'd seek the party leadership.

He talked Tuesday about government "screwing" seniors, and apologized for using the term. He lashed out at a local newspaper columnist. A day earlier, he apologized for calling his former party the "Gestapo," the Nazi secret police.

All this after he made explosive allegations that 250 lung cancer patients died on a waiting list, and that the government covered it up, but provided no information to support the claim. (A health-quality inquiry has now been struck up.)

"He's mercurial, there's no question," said Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who is also seeking the leadership.

As such, the Liberal Party is "supportive, but cautious" of Dr. Sherman, according to one source, but is hitching its wagon to him nonetheless, six months after he was kicked out of the government caucus.

Dr. Sherman was courted by other parties but chose the Liberals at the request of his family - a daughter in university and a father in palliative care.

"Why the Liberals? Because my family unanimously said [so]" the 45-year-old said.

Outgoing Liberal leader and physician David Swann has made health his party's top issue. He eagerly sought Dr. Sherman to bolster his party's position on the file.

"This is a big win for us. He's an icon right now," party president Erick Ambtman said.

Dr. Sherman is now under fire for remaining in political limbo. He's effectively a Liberal, and may even sit in on caucus meetings. But by formally sitting as an Independent, his office receives extra research funding. He wouldn't commit Tuesday to joining the caucus even if he won the Liberal leadership - though party members said he'd be required to.

When another Independent made a similar move last year to hold onto research funding, Dr. Swann was against it; now he says it's Dr. Sherman's choice.

"Raj has to do what Raj has to do," Dr. Swann said.

A room full of supporters joined Dr. Sherman Tuesday for his announcement at a senior's centre in his Edmonton riding, where despite questions about his explosive claims and blunders he remains popular.

"I'm not a member of the Conservatives, but I voted for the Conservatives in the last election, for Raj," said nurse Barb Rowe, 66. "I will certainly be voting for Raj, as a person, regardless of which party he's in, because I think he's a good, honest, decent man."

Dr. Sherman's decision is an endorsement of the Liberals but will also be seen as a rejection of the upstart Alberta Party, which had been hoping to lure away Liberal supporters and MLAs.

It also affirms what many Liberals had already signalled: Health care is the issue on which they think they can make electoral gains. The Tories have been mired in controversy on the file and the right-wing Wildrose Alliance supports privately provided, publicly funded care.

The Liberals will fight the New Democrats to be seen as a champion of health care. New Democrat leader Brian Mason called the Liberal health record "spotty," adding it was Dr. Sherman's "ego" that led him to join the Liberals so he could run for the leadership.

The Liberals hope to pull away from Mr. Mason's party and snuff out the Alberta Party in order to add significantly to the nine seats, including Dr. Sherman's, they now control.

But, to do that, they'll need to try and keep a handle on their new-found folk hero, which the Progressive Conservatives weren't able to do.

"He will do what he will do," Dr. Swann shrugged. "He's a totally independent person, as you've seen in the past few months."

 

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