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Heading for the exit, Stelmach gets his legacy project

Ed Stelmach speaks to the Rotary Club in Edmonton on Jan. 31, 2011, a week after announcing he was stepping down as Alberta premier.

John Ulan/John Ulan/The Canadian Press

As Alberta Premier Alison Redford continues to clean house and prepare for an election, former premier Ed Stelmach remains a loyal foot soldier – but isn't loving his near-retired life.

"You know, that political instinct is still there: You'd like to get at it," he says with a smile.

But he's out of that game now. Mr. Stelmach served as premier until Oct. 1 last year, and has since kept a strictly low profile, seen rarely in the Legislature (where he must make token appearances to keep being paid as an MLA) or at party events.

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On Friday, though, he and his wife, Marie, were back in the public spotlight – one they never quite grew accustomed to – for the opening of an $87-million, 32-bed hospital in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., the largest community in the riding that sent Mr. Stelmach to Edmonton five times. The hospital replaces a 45-year old health centre one-third the size in the booming community.

The event was both a photo-op – a key the size of a guitar was handed over – and a chance for Mr. Stelmach to tie off an initiative years in the making in front of a crowd filled with his counterparts and colleagues. It was a goodbye.

For the soft spoken premier, the modest hospital is a legacy project. He lost much of his political capital by pouring cash (while running a deficit) into infrastructure largely ignored by his predecessor, Ralph Klein. Projects like the hospital were both a crowning achievement and Achilles heel for the 60-year-old farmer.

He made a point Friday of thanking those who stood by him while he did it. "The purpose this morning, for me, is to say thanks, say thank you to so many individuals that had the pleasure of working through some very difficult times," he told the crowd.

A provincial election is expected next month, and it will be the first time since 1993 that Mr. Stelmach's name isn't on the ballot. Known as Steady Eddie, he stepped down in January of 2011, amid a caucus revolt and a surging opposition, led by the right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party, which has since targeted his own riding.

Mr. Stelmach, whose 2006 ascent to party leader was driven by the rural vote, has never publicly said who he backed in the leadership race to replace him, but several close to him said it wasn't Ms. Redford, a Calgary lawyer. Nonetheless, Mr. Stelmach said Friday his successor is the only party leader qualified for the complex, high-profile years that lie ahead for the wealthy province.

"This is a $40-billion corporation, the province of Alberta, and we need solid leadership. We're spending so much time on fluff, but we've got to ensure we have some long-term policies in place to not only continue to grow, but to manage it," he said. "... It's not all that different than the 2008 campaign. Remember, we had all kinds of stuff flying about and we came through very will [winning 72 of 83 seats] At the end of the day, it's: Who do you trust? Who do you choose as the CEO of a $40-billion operation?"

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Asked if Ms. Redford was is his choice, he replied: "Oh, definitely."

He has toed the party line despite Ms. Redford's government overhaul; she has turfed many of the people he had come to rely on. For instance, former treasury board chair and finance minister Lloyd Snelgrove – as close an ally of Mr. Stelmach as anyone – is now an independent MLA. Several veteran ministers aren't running again and others have been relegated to the backbench.

Mr. Stelmach nonetheless remains loyal to the party but says he has no plans to re-enter politics. He spoke last week at a Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference in Houston about Alberta's energy future.

"Alberta is going to garner a lot of attention because of our economic well-being. You're going to be seeing Saskatchewan and Alberta work together, but there's no doubt the economic growth is here in the west and it's going to bring about some challenges," he said Friday.

Back in his home riding, though, even Wildrose candidate Shannon Stubbs agreed Mr. Stelmach – for all the turmoil he faced in his final months as premier – will leave a legacy.

"I think most people in the constituency, particularly in the rural areas, will remembered Ed as a local guy who rose to become premier," she said. Her party saw its polling numbers soar under his tenure and now hopes to knock Ms. Redford from power. Wildrose will need rural ridings like this, where the party has already campaigned for months, if it has any hope. With controversies over power lines and soaring power bills, Mr. Stelmach may be stepping away at the right time, though he's confident his party will hold his seat.

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"We've got our work cut out for us." Ms. Stubbs acknowledged. "It'll be the first competitive election in a long, long time."

Here in Fort Saskatchewan, with a hospital and a giant key, the Stelmach era is over – he is, once again, simply Ed.

"I hope all of you take a bit of time to enjoy the day," Health Minister Fred Horne told Friday's crowd. "And to really reflect on what you've achieved, and to take the time to thank Ed and Marie."

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