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Michael Lee becomes a contender in BC Liberal leadership race

With the deadline for signing up new members now passed, the BC Liberal leadership race has entered a new phase. And a candidate many considered an also-ran when it all began last fall has emerged as a genuine threat to win the whole thing.

Michael Lee.

Mr. Lee's backroom has been quietly boasting for a few days now about signing up the most new members. My conversations with those in the other camps would suggest it's not an idle brag – the soft-spoken MLA's team has done a remarkable job of getting people to line up behind their candidate. In fact, I've heard he's signed up more new members than the other four Liberal MLAs in the race. (This excludes Conservative MP and former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.)

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According to people I've talked to, the MLA from Vancouver-Langara is in a position to win the key ridings of Surrey (in Ms. Watts's backyard) and Richmond. While his strength resides in the South Asian and Chinese communities, he's done well throughout Metro Vancouver and other parts of the province. There is a chance, I'm told, he could even defeat Mike de Jong and Andrew Wilkinson in their own ridings, although I'm sure both those men would take a bet on that.

Also, it's one thing to sign up new members, it's another to get them to vote. In the past, new members have not shown the same dedication to cast a ballot come leadership weekend as existing members. We'll see if that changes. Nonetheless, Mr. Lee's achievement marks a significant development in the race.

Now his job is to convince others – those for whom he is not the first choice – to consider him as a second or third option. In a ranked-ballot vote, that will be crucial. But certainly, Liberals will now be looking at him in a way they haven't before – as a genuine possibility as leader.

It's difficult to say who, exactly, is sitting in first right now. Some believe it's Dianne Watts – despite what has been a fairly disastrous campaign. She has name recognition and star power. That counts for a lot in these things. In the fall, she had the freedom to travel the province, meeting new and old Liberals, making her case for the top job, while the other five candidates, all MLAs, were stuck in the legislature.

If she is in first, how much of a lead does she have? There is certainly an anyone-but-Dianne sentiment among her opponents. Consequently, her room to grow beyond the first ballot is not likely the same as someone such as Todd Stone or Mike de Jong – or Michael Lee. There is rumoured to be a deal between a couple of the candidates in which they have pledged to get their supporters to make the other their second choice. But ultimately they can't guarantee anything.

From what I've heard, the two candidates who fared the worst in signing up new members were Mr. Wilkinson and Sam Sullivan.

But new members are one thing. There is also the existing membership base which comprises roughly half of the 60,000 paid supporters the party now says it has. It is among this group that Mr. Stone and Mr. de Jong have an advantage over Mr. Lee, who is a relative newcomer to the party. (First elected in 2017.) So obviously, there are still avenues to victory for others besides Ms. Watt and Mr. Lee.

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Also, Mr. Lee still remains somewhat of an unknown commodity among many Liberals, although the leadership debates and a fairly strong social-media presence throughout the campaign has helped erase some of the bewilderment that once greeted the mention of his name. For a party that has been accused of being out of touch with modern-day British Columbia, Mr. Lee's Chinese heritage can only be seen as a plus.

The spotlight is not something for which he yearns, yet he appears to be getting increasingly more comfortable in it. He hasn't blown anyone away with his ideas, but then neither has any of the other candidates in what has generally been a listless affair.

The race has entered a critical chapter. It will now be up to Mr. Lee and the others to convince members that he – or she – is the best able to wrestle back control of the province from the NDP.

At one time, the idea Michael Lee might be that person seemed completely far-fetched. Not any more.

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