Brian Jean and Jason Kenney – together trying to unite Alberta conservatives while running against each other for the leadership of a proposed new party – have their first challenger: a rookie politician rooted in Calgary's corporate world.
Doug Schweitzer on Thursday announced plans to run for the leadership of the United Conservative Party, a right-leaning vehicle that does not yet exist. He is the first person to publicly square off against Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean – UCP's two key proponents. Mr. Jean leads the Wildrose Party; Mr. Kenney heads the provincial Progressive Conservative Party.
Mr. Schweitzer, a restructuring lawyer in Dentons's Calgary office, is staking ground near the middle of Alberta's conservative spectrum.
"We need to get our [provincial] finances in order and we need to offer Albertans tax relief," he said in an interview prior to his leadership announcement. "Conservatives like to focus on the economy, but at the same time we can't forget about the social issues. If somebody can't find child care, that matters. If somebody – if their parents are struggling to find seniors' care, that matters."
Mr. Schweitzer described himself as "fiscally conservative, socially moderate." He opposes Alberta's carbon taxes and supports gay-straight alliances in the province's schools, for example. The 38-year-old declined to detail other policy positions, but said he will roll out a platform in the coming weeks.
The leadership hopeful supported Kevin O'Leary's bid to head the federal Conservative Party of Canada. Mr. O'Leary, a polarizing candidate with no political experience, dropped out before the leadership election.
The trio of UCP candidates maintains that the province's conservatives must unite in order to defeat the governing New Democratic Party in the next election, expected in 2019. They all want to repeal the government's carbon legislation.
Mr. Schweitzer is not a household name in Alberta. He mulled a leadership bid for the PCs last year, but sat on the sidelines as Mr. Kenney campaigned for a mandate to try to unite with the Wildrose. Mr. Schweitzer, however, comes with backroom political experience. He ran former premier Jim Prentice's provincial PC leadership campaign in 2014. Further, he served as the chief executive of Manitoba's PCs between 2008 and 2009.
The lawyer-turned-politician intends to fund his leadership campaign through a non-profit organization prior to UCP officially dropping the writ in a leadership race. Alberta governs neither fundraising nor spending outside official election periods. Mr. Kenney, in his bid to secure the PC leadership, deployed an American-style political action committee to fund his efforts, promising to comply with Elections Alberta's rules regarding official campaigns even though he was not legally obliged to do so. He has not yet made good on this transparency promise, but his team expects to do so by July 18. Mr. Kenney easily won the provincial PC leadership election in March.
Mr. Schweitzer, who is taking a leave of absence from his position at his global law firm, would not say whether he will provide financial disclosure outside the official election period. Instead, the future candidate said his campaign will comply with provincial laws.
Wildrose's Mr. Jean and the PC's Mr. Kenney earlier this month signed a deal designed to meld their two parties together under one banner. But while three people have now publicly declared plans to run for the leadership of the UCP, the entity is not a sure thing.
Half of Alberta's PC members and 75 per cent of Wildrose cardholders must favour the UCP proposal in order for the merger to become official. The respective referendums are scheduled for late July. Representatives from both the Wildrose and PC parties will negotiate the terms of the leadership race this summer, according to the unity agreement.
UCP, according to the unification proposal, will elect its first leader in October. While Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney are enthusiastically pitching the unity plan, some members of their respective parties are wary of joining hands with each other. The Wildrose, with widespread rural support, leans further right than the PC Party.
Mr. Kenney served as a federal Conservative cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper. He does not have a seat in Alberta's legislature. Mr. Jean leads Alberta's Official Opposition and previously sat in Parliament's back benches under Mr. Harper. Mr. Schweitzer, meanwhile, is distancing himself from federal politics.
"We can't allow Ottawa-style politics to infect our new party," he said in a statement Wednesday. "The NDP's only chance of re-election is if we give in to anger, divisiveness and hyper-partisanship. We should be an inclusive party with a positive vision for the future."