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Alberta Progressive Conservative Alison Redford celebrates becoming leader of the party and the new premier following the second ballot in the party's leadership race in Edmonton, Alta., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Alberta Progressive Conservative Alison Redford celebrates becoming leader of the party and the new premier following the second ballot in the party's leadership race in Edmonton, Alta., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta to get first female premier Add to ...

Alison Redford has overcome long odds to become Alberta’s new premier – the first woman to hold the post.

Her unlikely marathon victory came early Sunday morning, tossing the province’s Progressive Conservative party establishment on its head.

It was as close as they come.

The three-way party leadership race was cut to two when no one had a majority after voting Saturday. The third-place candidate, former deputy premier Doug Horner, was dropped and his supporters’ second choices from the preferential ballot were counted towards the remaining candidates. Those votes overwhelmingly went to Ms. Redford, allowing the first-term MLA to overtake frontrunner Gary Mar, who actually had more first-choice votes.

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She finished with 37,104 votes, or 51.1 per cent, just ahead of Mr. Mar’s 35,491 votes. She did it despite entering the first ballot with only one fellow MLA backing her, having little or no name recognition outside her hometown Calgary and being a first-term MLA.

“Today, Alberta voted for change,” Ms. Redford told supporters at an Edmonton convention centre just before 2 a.m. local time Sunday morning, as she pledged an ambitious agenda that includes hiring more teachers and boosting healthcare spending, all while watching the bottom line. “Make no mistake – we are going to do things differently.”

Her campaign manager, Stephen Carter, also led Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely ascent to become Calgary’s mayor. Both Ms. Redford and Mr. Nenshi won with a distinctly centrist vision and by casting themselves as agents for change.

“It’s the miracle on the prairies. Nobody would have picked her,” PC party president Bill Smith said.

Ms. Redford, however, shrugged off the significance of the changing face of Alberta politics. “I actually think the province changed some time ago, and politics is catching up with it,” she said.

It took more than six hours for the party to count its 78,000 votes. Delays were caused by unspecified voting irregularities in two ridings, but Mr. Mar conceded.

“The people of Alberta have made their wishes known, and I respect their decision,” he said. “I am encouraging the candidates from this ballot and the first ballot to get behind our new leader. Alison Redford will need all of our help in the months ahead.”

The election of Ms. Redford – a 46-year-old bilingual human rights lawyer firmly on the party’s left flank – caps an eight-month campaign triggered by the resignation of embattled premier Ed Stelmach. Ms. Redford more than doubled her vote total from a first-ballot contest two weeks earlier.

“I know I’m leaving this province in very good hands,” Mr. Stelmach told party faithful.

However, his party faces a long road after a divisive leadership race – Mr. Mar left the conference hall during Ms. Redford’s speech, and none of the current cabinet backed her. “Looks like we have some work to do,” her campaign manager said. Others said the party would rally behind the leader, even if nearly every MLA opposed her.

“There’s obviously a lot of work that has to be done now to bring the different factions of the party together, but I think what you’ll see in Alison is a woman of courage, a woman of vision, and obviously of great skill. And she’ll do it,” said Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who stayed neutral in the race.

Mr. Horner believes his supporters bought into Ms. Redford’s message of change, her focus on public health care and her commitment to education funding. “We’re very similar,” said Mr. Horner, who stayed long after the crowds had left the hall. He’d earlier told the crowd to rally behind Ms. Redford. “This province has a tremendous future, and now we have a tremendous leader,” he said.

Ms. Redford’s campaign was based on promising a series of expensive programs, including topping up salaries of non-profit sector workers; introducing family care clinics as a costly pillar of what is already Canada’s most expensive health system; immediately restoring $100-million in education cuts; and expanding payments to the severely disabled. And yet, she drew support from many on the party’s right flank after the first ballot reduced the field to three just two weeks ago.

“I think people are starting to realize her resume,” said MLA Dave Rodney, who began backing Ms. Redford after his preferred candidate, right-wing stalwart Ted Morton, missed the cut for the final ballot. Mr. Rodney dismissed any notion Ms. Redford is too liberal for the party.

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