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Wildrose leader Brian Jean celebrates the yes vote during the Unity Vote at the Wildrose Special General Meeting in Red Deer in 2017. The former Wildrose leader won a by-election in Fort McMurray on March 15, 2022.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Brian Jean, the co-founder of the governing United Conservative Party, is back in the Alberta legislature, setting up a showdown with his fellow founder turned political foe, Premier Jason Kenney.

The former UCP legislature member and a federal Conservative member of Parliament defeated seven challengers Tuesday with about two-thirds of the vote.

“I am excited to be your new MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche,” Jean said to cheering supporters.

“This was not a squeaker. I have to tell you I have a clear mandate from the people – over 60 per cent.”

Jean had won the nomination to run under the party banner in his hometown even though he openly campaigned to have Kenney expelled as leader.

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He said the United Conservative Party has lost its values and commitment to grassroots democracy under Kenney and that only a change in leader can reverse poor polling numbers and deliver victory against the NDP in the spring 2023 provincial election.

Jean, in an interview, said he will spend Wednesday cleaning up campaign signs and thanking supporters, then head to the legislature Thursday.

He said his focus now is on renewing the party by turfing Kenney in the party’s scheduled leadership review in Red Deer on April 9.

There are already about 7,000 members signed up to cast ballots. The cutoff is March 19.

“I’m asking people to buy memberships, just four days away,” said Jean.

“The members will decide Jason Kenney’s fate. But, like me, I think a majority of the UCP members going to Red Deer want to renew the UCP and make it a party that better listens to and serves Albertans.

“Right now, that’s not the UCP.”

Anything less than a majority vote in support of Kenney would result in a contest to pick a new leader.

It’s an in-person vote and both sides have been actively recruiting partisans to cast a yes or no for Kenney’s leadership.

The premier has characterized the vote as not so much a referendum on his performance but rather a proxy war waged by extremist elements looking to hijack the mainstream UCP coalition created when Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives and Jean’s Wildrose Party agreed to join forces in 2017.

The main challenger in the by-election, NDP candidate Ariana Mancini, finished second but well behind Jean, garnering less than 20 per cent of the vote.

“Families told me about their bills stacking up higher and higher every month, and that they want a government that’s focused on families, not a government that fights amongst themselves,” said Mancini in a statement.

“Folks in Fort McMurray have had enough of the drama and the infighting in the UCP.”

Paul Hinman, leader of the Wildrose Independence Party, came in third at just over 10 per cent of votes.

The constituency came open last August after UCP backbencher Laila Goodridge stepped down to run successfully for the Conservatives in the federal election.

Jean’s nomination led to a peculiar race in which all candidates were campaigning against the premier.

Kenney, after waiting until the last day of a six-month window to call the 28-day campaign, has said little about the by-election.

He has delivered short answers to media questions about the contest while avoiding using Jean’s name. Earlier Tuesday, Kenney delivered short response when asked by reporters who he was rooting for.

“Well, obviously, the United Conservative Party,” he replied.

After Jean’s win, Kenney tweeted: “Congratulations to Brian Jean and the UCP team ... Thank-you to all of the candidates & their volunteers for their commitment to democracy, and to local voters for participating in the electoral process.”

Political scientist Lori Williams said it was not surprising Jean was victorious.

“[Jean] has won five federal and provincial elections and is seen as a community leader, one of the folks that advocated during and after the [2016] Fort McMurray wildfires,” said Williams with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

But she said the lopsided by-election win is noteworthy as it also reflects discontent with Kenney, adding the focus will move to what the win means for the movement against Kenney.

“Brian Jean’s candidacy is all about defeating Jason Kenney as leader of the United Conservative Party,” said Williams.

“You can’t separate the two.”

Kenney and Jean have a long history going back to when they were federal Conservative MPs.

Both eventually left to enter Alberta provincial politics, with Jean taking over as head of the Wildrose and Kenney winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

Together they founded the UCP but Jean lost the leadership of the new party to Kenney in a vote stained by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and fraud.

He eventually quit his seat, but announced last November that he was coming out of retirement to run in the by-election.

The question now becomes what happens when Jean joins the UCP caucus, given that previous Kenney critics have been demoted or shown the door.

Last May, UCP members Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen were expelled from caucus after criticizing Kenney and his COVID-19 policies. Both now sit as Independents.

Last July, Leela Aheer was dropped from cabinet after criticizing Kenney for breaking COVID-19 health rules by having a patio dinner outside his temporary penthouse office.

Barnes congratulated Jean on Twitter late Tuesday: “Looking forward to you representing the voters of the riding in Edmonton!”

Aheer also added well wishes on Twitter: “Congratulations Brian. We are lucky to have you!”

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