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Rich Coleman’s backing of de Jong could turn tide in BC Liberal race

Rich Coleman, the interim BC Liberal leader, has gone to great lengths to remain impartial throughout his party's leadership race. No more.

In the coming days, the long-time, respected party stalwart will step forward to proclaim his support for Mike de Jong, The Globe and Mail has learned.

While Mr. Coleman's is only one voice, and one vote, it is a significant one. The six-term MLA from Langley holds almost legendary status among established party members. By my count, he's held six different ministries during his time in government, although some of them combined several different portfolios. At one time or another, he's been responsible for every Crown corporation. Throughout, he's gained a reputation as Mr. Fix-it, sent in to straighten out portfolios made a mess of by the previous occupant.

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Many thought Mr. Coleman would refrain from endorsing anyone, maintaining a Swiss-like neutrality as interim leader.

A few of the candidates sought his public backing, only to be told he wasn't endorsing anyone – at the moment. More recently, he decided to give his long-time colleague, Mr. de Jong, his support.

Mr. de Jong planned to unveil his star recruit in the next week or so, providing some much-needed momentum to a campaign many believe has stalled.

"We go back 20 years," said Mr. Coleman, reached in Cuba where he is on holidays. "He's put in a lot of hard work for the party. When I asked him to take the house leader's job [in Opposition], he didn't hesitate. He's held some pretty tough ministries, including health and finance.

"He deserves a shot."

While it usually would be overstating things to suggest a single endorsement could upset the dynamics of the race, in this one it may. Having a party legend back you means something. And this is why.

With the deadline for recruiting new members now passed, there are roughly 60,000 paid-in-full, card-carrying Liberals in B.C. About half of those are ones who were recently signed up.

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The rest are diehard Liberals.

Under the more complicated new rules, voting takes more of a commitment; it's not as simple or open to abuse as it's been in the past – in one instance, a cat allegedly was signed up to vote.

Consequently, many believe it's better to have the support of older members than newer ones; the party faithful are more likely to vote than those signed up in a flurry by candidates. And someone such as Rich Coleman is going to have a greater influence over long-time, established members than new ones.

A senior backroom official working for another candidate said Mr. Coleman's endorsement of Mr. de Jong is significant, especially under a voting system where members have to rank their choices.

Where Mr. de Jong may not be a lot of people's first choice, he may now be their second or third as a result of Mr. Coleman's backing.

"I think this thing could go three ballots and possibly four," Mr. Coleman told me. "I think it's very competitive. I think it's anyone's ball game at this point."

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Any instant analysis of the situation would suggest that former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts might be hurt the most by Mr. Coleman's move.

It's accepted that her team has signed up a lot of new members, second only to Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee. She is certainly not as strong with long-time members; yet, their support is going to be necessary if, as Mr. Coleman suggests, this leadership vote goes to a second, third or fourth ballot.

Established members who might have been inclined to put Ms. Watts in second or third place on their ballot, may now put her behind Mr. de Jong, given the sway Mr. Coleman has. We'll see.

Some Liberals have speculated to me privately that Mr. Coleman did not want to see an outsider such as Ms. Watts take over the leadership of the party, believing it should be someone who has fought in the trenches through good times and bad.

When I put it to Mr. Coleman that he might be doing this to hurt Ms. Watts, he denied it.

"Oh, heavens no," he said over the phone. "It has nothing to do with that at all. I've known Dianne a long time and she's great. In this case, it's simply me deciding to come out in support of someone I've known a long time. Mike's paid his dues in a major way, has done a really good job and deserves a chance.

"I don't think anyone knows who's going to win this thing and that's exciting."

Justin Trudeau congratulates by-election winners (The Canadian Press)
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