The Alberta Liberals have chosen a path of high risk and, potentially, high reward – choosing the mercurial Raj Sherman, a former Tory, as their new leader.
Dr. Sherman won an easy victory, earning 54 per cent of 8,640 votes and securing the requisite majority on the first ballot. He defeated two MLAs, an aide to a former Liberal leader and a Calgary union leader.
"Well, It's been a long road for all of us," said Dr. Sherman, who earlier in the week warned "our campaign is in trouble" on Twitter, urging supporters to vote. "We were a little scared a few days ago. But we're re-engaged, we're reignited, we're excited, we're coming back."
Wearing a red tie borrowed from a party staffer and supporter, the former Tory thanked supporters and his fellow candidates.
"It's an honour to serve beside you," he told three of his four rivals gathered on stage: Hugh MacDonald, Laurie Blakeman and Bruce Payne. The fifth candidate, Bill Harvey, didn't attend the announcement Saturday.
"Tonight as a party we are launching into a new era. We must build on the momentum that five, not just one, leadership candidates build across the province," Dr. Sherman told a crowd of about 100 people.
The victory marked the end of a controversial leadership campaign in which the official opposition party tried a new approach – allowing online voting and signing up thousands of supporters and members. There were complaints about the process. Many long-time party backers were also wary of Dr. Sherman's newfound allegiance to the party. The two long-time MLAs he beat pledged to work with the new leader, but did little to hide their frustration.
"I would say Raj got the first ballot victory. Let's live with it and let's move on," Mr. MacDonald said.
"Um, well, there's certainly more diversity than we had yesterday, and that's a good thing," Ms. Blakeman added.
Where Dr. Sherman will take the party remains unclear. He identified a few key issues after his victory speech. He pledged to push for oil sands bitumen to be "upgraded," or converted to conventional oil, in Alberta instead of shipping the raw product to the United States – a page from the NDP playbook. He said he'd repeal Bill 50, a controversial power line law that the right-wing Wildrose party has spent months complaining about. And, when asked about environmental concerns in Alberta's energy sector, he took a pro-industry, if pragmatic, approach that would make some left-leaning Liberals cringe: "With respect to the environmental issues, or carbon and water, we have to sit down with industry and work with industry. That's what a Raj Sherman Alberta Liberal Party will do."
Dr. Sherman is an emergency room physician who was recruited by the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives to run in a west Edmonton riding. He won in 2008, but was kicked out of the caucus two years later after publicly lashing out against its health policy.
The acrimonious split made headlines for weeks and turned Dr. Sherman into something of a folk hero in the province, viewed as an advocate for health care – one who still works the occasional ER shift.
Still an MLA, he was courted by the four other parties but chose the official opposition Liberals in March, one month after former leader David Swann, also a physician, stepped down. Dr. Swann says he made the move to reinvigorate the party, but says it wasn't done to lure Dr. Sherman. (He won't say who he voted for, but acknowledged he did urge Mr. Payne to run. Mr. Payne finished fifth.) Since Dr. Sherman joined the Liberals, the party has been split – Dr. Sherman could build the party's profile, but will shift the party to the right and comes with baggage. He has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, suffer gaffes or level allegations he can't back up. For instance, he has stated repeatedly that he'd sit as an independent until the next election, saying it was the best way to respect the wishes of those who voted for him; on Saturday, he said he "look[ed]forward to my invitation from caucus to have me join them."
Some Tories privately hoped he'd win the reins of the official opposition, and opposition parties were quick to question the choice. "Mark my words, Raj Sherman is built for speed, not distance. This will end badly for the Liberals," NDP campaign stalwart Lou Arab wrote on Twitter.
Precedent, indeed, doesn't bode well for the party. The Liberals a decade ago chose a high-profile former Tory to take the helm – Nancy MacBeth, a former PC cabinet minister who finished second to Ralph Klein in the race to become PC leader. Liberals hoped she'd be the push they needed to knock off Mr. Klein. It didn't work, and by the end of her tenure the party had few seats and heavy debt. Now, party members have made a similar choice in Dr. Sherman, though they play down the similarities between the cases.
"We're in a totally different situation here," Dr. Swann said.
The party's in better shape than the one Ms. MacBeth inherited. It's finally debt-free (though has no significant war chest) and is facing a new opportunity because of the emergence of the right-wing Wildrose party, which is expected to split the conservative vote. Liberals hope that, with a right-leaning leader like Dr. Sherman, they can be viewed as a centrist party and capitalize on the right-wing vote-split to boost their seat total. However, polls show the party is weak and, in one result, behind the NDP.
Little of this was on the minds, however, of a small group of party supporters who gathered at the University of Alberta Saturday to hear the voting results. And Dr. Sherman said it was time for the party to move forward together.
"The first order of business for us is to get our candidates ready. Right now, you know, the PC party's got millions of dollars in the bank. They have a 40-year track record [having ruled since 1971] It won't be easy. We have a lot of work to do. We have to put this party in election mode," Dr. Sherman said. Later, he offered a message to his former caucus colleagues: "I'd like to tell them: Hey guys, the Alberta Liberal party's coming back and I look forward to a very exciting election, a very competitive election."
The PCs hold the first ballot of their own race on Sept. 17. Three of the top candidates – Gary Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner – are firmly on the party's progressive wing and would compete for the same centrist votes the Liberals are courting. An election is expected in the fall or spring, but needn't be called before 2013. PC candidate debates have regularly drawn larger crowds than what the Liberals drew on Saturday for the race's results.
The changes made by the party's young executive – none over age 40 – boosted party membership ranks to about 28,985, about 10 times the number they started the year with. Just over a third of those voted.
Meanwhile, that rapid surge in support is what fuelled controversy. Some of the new names on the list (most of whom were signed up by Dr. Sherman, who used "demon dial" automated phone systems) couldn't be confirmed. Others weren't properly processed by party staff. It all left two candidates, Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Harvey, complaining publicly that the entire process was flawed.
"I would never advise any political party to conduct a leadership like we just did," Mr. MacDonald said Saturday, sounding calm but firm after Dr. Sherman's victory speech. "So many of our people who were signed up as $5 members to the party and were glad to do it – they never got to vote because they didn't have PIN numbers." PINs were required for phone or Internet voting.
However, the party's executive director said the errors weren't significant. The party noted that former British Columbia chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld oversaw the process. Mr. MacDonald also argued that, given the overwhelming win, any flaws likely didn't affect the outcome.
"There's no question in my mind – the process was fundamentally sound," executive director Corey Hogan said. "There was a lot of sabre-rattling, but not a single candidate's camp ever provided a single list of people they want struck from any list. People who wanted to vote were able to vote."
In a speech shortly before the results were announced, the party's outgoing leader – who will stay on as an MLA – urged members to rally behind its new leader despite the controversy.
"We're proud of this new process," Dr. Swann said, adding: "Now is the time for a united Alberta Liberal party. ... Everyone in this room has one job – stand up united in support of that leader. At this time in our history, we can't afford division."
Dr. Sherman got 4,684 "points", or 54 per cent. Mr. MacDonald finished second with 2,239, or 26 per cent. Ms. Blakeman had 854 points, Mr. Harvey 626 and Mr. Payne 197.
The 8,600 counted "points" came from 8,640 total votes. The party caps the number of votes a candidate can receive in a riding at 500. The cap was hit in only one riding – Edmonton Goldbar, Mr. MacDonald's home riding. In that riding, Mr. MacDonald was then awarded 500 "points" (despite having, presumably, 540 votes) and the other four candidates' totals were proportionally lowered. The weighted voting system (which one federal Liberal MP has said should be considered elsewhere) was designed to encourage the candidates to fan out across the province in search of support, instead of simply focusing on their home ridings and the major cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
"While I think it's fair to say the weighing didn't have much effect on the actual counting, I think it had a lot of effect on how the contest was run," said Mr. Hogan, the executive director. "The candidates certainly got out there. They were in the four corners. The 2008 leadership contest didn't see them as far-flung."
The 8,640 votes cast were nearly double the amount cast in the 2008 race that vaulted Dr. Swann to power. By comparison, nearly 150,000 votes were cast in the 2006 PC leadership race.
Mr. MacDonald and Ms. Blakeman both said they'll run again for the party. Mr. Payne said he hoped to run as a candidate, and Dr. Sherman said he'd invite Mr. Harvey – a social conservative and libertarian who is at odds with many of the party's current policies – to run as a candidate.
The party also revealed its young president, Erick Ambtman, has resigned to pursue a new job opportunity that will require him to be non-partisan. It's up to Dr. Sherman whether the executive director, Mr. Hogan, will stay on.