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MLA Ben Stewart steps aside so Clark can run in by-election

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark during a media availability in Vancouver May 15, 2013 after her party won in the BC provincial election.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Voters in Westside-Kelowna re-elected a local winemaker, Ben Stewart, by a wide margin in last month's provincial election. Next month, they will have a chance to elect Premier Christy Clark, who is parachuting into the riding for a by-election that is expected to be called next week.

Mr. Stewart offered up his seat to allow Ms. Clark a second chance to take control of her government after her B.C. Liberal Party's surprise victory on May 14.

Ms. Clark managed to make the election about expanding the province's resource economy, but lost her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey on an undercurrent of environmental concerns. She has opted to aim for a safer riding this time: Mr. Stewart finished more than 27 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.

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The New Democratic Party, still reeling from its election defeat, is promising to mount a strong campaign with a local candidate, but Ms. Clark will have the advantage. She could be back in the legislature by late July to bring in and pass the balanced budget that she promised before the summer is out.

For Mr. Stewart, a successful businessman with deep roots in Kelowna, the benefits are less clear. Having served just one term, he is not eligible for a pension. But he has the thanks of Ms. Clark, who hopes to become the third premier to represent the Okanagan community that she described on Wednesday as "the cradle of free enterprise in Canada."

Ms. Clark said several MLAs offered their seats, but Westside-Kelowna is rich in symbolism. She wants to be known as the modern builder of British Columbia, and this riding was once home to Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett and his son, premier Bill Bennett. Ms. Clark frequently invokes the Bennetts, crediting them with opening up the province's economy, as she wants to do with her ambitious plans for a liquefied natural gas sector that she promises will result in a "debt-free B.C."

At a news conference with Ms. Clark at his Quails' Gate winery, Mr. Stewart called his party's election victory "remarkable" and said his political aspirations are not as important as the party's needs.

"It's a great honour that our riding has the opportunity to be represented by Premier Clark," he said, promising to help her campaign.

Ms. Clark, who lives in Vancouver-Fairview, said she intends to maintain a second residence in the riding. The Premier has governed B.C. for two years, after taking over from Gordon Campbell, but the May election was her first opportunity to win a mandate from the voters.

After thanking Mr. Stewart for his service, she pivoted to the themes that will shape the government in the months to come, promising to deliver on the "values that mean we want to build a strong economy, a growing economy for a secure tomorrow, one with jobs for families all across the province, no matter where you live."

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Brad Bennett, the grandson of W.A.C. Bennett, was at the announcement. He accompanied Ms. Clark throughout the four-week election campaign, helping her craft the messages that resonated especially well in the Interior ridings. A Kelowna native, Mr. Bennett sits on the board of Quails' Gate. In an interview, he said he's not surprised Mr. Stewart felt a duty to step aside, given that Ms. Clark was denied a seat after pulling her party back from the brink.

Mr. Bennett expects Ms. Clark to be well-received in the riding, although he cautioned that B.C. voters can deliver surprises.

While she launches her campaign, Ms. Clark is also assembling a cabinet to frame her economic development agenda. The cabinet, which will be unveiled on Friday, is expected to include a new portfolio for natural gas.

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