The decision by popular former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel to join the Alberta Party leadership contest this week gives the small provincial party a credibility boost heading toward the 2019 election and puts more political pressure on both the opposition United Conservative Party and the governing NDP.
The Alberta Party won just 2.3 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election, but there are hopes by supporters that it can be used as a "centrist" vehicle for Alberta voters who don't like what's on offer from either the UCP or the NDP. Mr. Mandel served briefly as a cabinet minister in Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservative government, and his entry into the Alberta Party leadership race highlights a split on the province's centre-right that hasn't entirely been reconciled by last year's merger between the PCs and the Wildrose. Some former PCs haven't been able to stomach the combination that created the UCP, or the leadership of Jason Kenney – who they view as too socially and fiscally conservative.
"I don't feel comfortable there," Mr. Mandel said in an interview on Wednesday.
But if elected as Alberta Party leader next month, Mr. Mandel also presents a significant political challenge for Premier Rachel Notley and her Edmonton power base, where the New Democrats currently hold all 19 legislature seats. Mr. Mandel was mayor of Alberta's capital city between 2004 and 2013, is remembered for the negotiations that saw the gleaming new Rogers Place and Ice District constructed and has a built-in network of political supporters and expertise.
"Our current political leaders have tried so hard to make this a polarized province," he said as he formally unveiled his leadership plans in an announcement in Edmonton on Wednesday.
"This is about the true potential of standing at the centre."
Mr. Mandel was appointed Alberta health minister in September, 2014, by Mr. Prentice, and a month later was elected as an MLA in an Edmonton by-election. But he sat in the legislature for only seven months before the dynastic PC party was booted from office by Ms. Notley's New Democrats. Mr. Mandel, aged 72, had been appointed Concordia University of Edmonton's chancellor last year – leading some to believe he had stepped away from public office for good.
With the Monday deadline for Alberta Party leadership entrants looming, Mr. Mandel joins Calgary MLA Rick Fraser, 45, and TransCanada Corp. lawyer Kara Levis, 35, as the main contenders in the leadership race that will culminate on Feb. 27.
Ms. Levis was the first to announce she would run, putting her name forward in December. Mr. Fraser – a former Progressive Conservative who decided to sit as an independent following the successful Wildrose and PC unity votes – announced this week that he would also seek the Alberta Party leadership. His joining the Alberta Party brings the caucus number to three – a distant third after the 54-person NDP caucus and the 27 MLAs in the UCP.
Mr. Mandel's announcement on Wednesday followed a week of speculation where he fired up a Twitter account he hadn't used for nearly three years, and began posting iconic photos of the province upside down – his way of communicating the worry that some Albertans have for the economic future of the oil-focused province. "Alberta is currently upside down, the same as Edmonton was when I first ran for mayor."
He also addressed the issue of his age, adding that he is surrounded by young supporters, and that he is not "ready for the sidelines and to be put out to pasture."
But the political attacks from the NDP started even before Mr. Mandel made his formal announcement, with the governing party posting a tweet Wednesday morning criticizing his role as health minister when the Prentice government suggested in 2014 it could delay the building of a new cancer centre in Calgary because of low oil prices. However, Mr. Mandel's 40-year-old daughter Rachel died from lymphoma just two months ago. The NDP quickly deleted and apologized to Mr. Mandel for the tweet – saying given the context, the tweet was "insensitive."
With Mr. Mandel and Mr. Fraser on board, the Alberta Party's biggest challenge might be the perception that its new incarnation is simply a reboot of the old PCs, who were jettisoned from office in 2015 after 44 years in power. The Alberta Party itself has also gone through a recent period of turmoil, with former leader and party stalwart Greg Clark announcing last November he would step down in order to kick off a contest to bring attention and money to the party.
In an interview, Mr. Clark said the party is now attracting people who previously supported a wide range of parties, including the NDP and Wildrose. He noted Ms. Levis is a federal Liberal.
"That's what the Alberta Party is meant to be. We have invited people in to join the party who share our values," Mr. Clark said.