Stephen Mandel, past his best-before date but still politically sexy to media, declares Alberta Party leadership bid

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PHOTOS: Stephen Mandel makes his Alberta Party leadership campaign announcement yesterday in Edmonton (Photo: Twitter). Below: Mr. Mandel back in the day with premier Jim Prentice, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, former Alberta Party leader Greg Clark, and United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.

Stephen Mandel’s political strategists would like you to think he’s just the man to restore the Progressive Conservative Dynasty to Alberta while finally getting the transitory and insignificant Alberta Party onto the province’s political radar.

Anything’s possible, but you have to ask if the former Edmonton mayor, conservative fund-raising heavyweight and PC cabinet minister who announced yesterday he will seek the Alberta Party leadership isn’t well past his sell-by date.

At 72, Mr. Mandel is literally as old as you can possibly be and still be officially called a Baby Boomer. (If you don’t believe me, you can look it up.) He’ll be almost 74 by the time the next Alberta provincial election is likely to roll around. That would make him measurably older than was Ronald Reagan when first elected president of the United States, and we all know how that turned out.

It’s neither churlish nor ageist to suggest this is a legitimate concern to voters. No matter what you’ve read lately, 70 is not just “middle aged,” and 72 isn’t the new 40. (Full disclosure: the author of these comments will within days be 66.) Voters will take this into consideration, and not lightly.

Mr. Mandel is not quite as long in the tooth politically speaking. He’s held public office since 2001, when he was first elected to Edmonton City Council. He became mayor in 2004 and served in that job until he had the wit to quit while he was still a winner, just before Halloween 2013.

His provincial political career … not so much.

Mr. Mandel was appointed health minister by PC premier Jim Prentice in 2014, although he didn’t yet hold a seat in the Legislature. His performance in that role was not a box office success. He was elected in a pre-Halloween by-election in the Edmonton-Whitemud riding in 2014, but sent packing along with most of the rest of the PC government by the same voters half a year later.

Mr. Mandel was pretty popular as mayor in Edmonton, but whether that translates into provincial political support is not clear, notwithstanding the warm reception his anodyne and platitudinous campaign announcement at a downtown Edmonton community facility got from local media yesterday.

The prevailing media narrative is that enough of his municipal popularity remains to make him a threat to the NDP government of Rachel Notley in in its Edmonton stronghold. That could be, but it’s also quite possible voters really did have enough of him when they slammed the door shut on the PC Era on May 5, 2015.

Notwithstanding the presence of three Alberta Party MLAs in Calgary – two of them recent floor-crossers, one from the NDP and one from the UCP – it would seem doubtful Mr. Mandel’s record as mayor of Edmonton would resonate much with voters in the former Cowtown, which is widely thought likely to be the key electoral battleground in the 2019 general election.

It’s also unclear how Mr. Mandel’s leadership, or for that matter the leadership of Calgary-South East MLA and former PC and UCP member Rick Fraser, will be received by the original Liberal-leaning Alberta Party supporters who elected former leader Greg Clark in 2015.

Mr. Clark was pushed out, or something, on Nov. 10, 2017. Mr. Fraser quit the UCP in late September, sat as an Independent and announced Tuesday he is seeking the party’s leadership.

As mayor, Mr. Mandel had a reputation for policies progressive enough to be welcomed by progressives but mild enough in their progressiveness not to infuriate the usual suspects on the not-so-progressive right. So the conventional wisdom is he can bring the same balancing act to provincial politics. Of course, it remains to be seen if that would satisfy Alberta’s many progressive voters now that they’ve had the experience of a government a little closer to the real thing.

Just the same, media commentators were probably right to say Mr. Mandel’s candidacy gives a credibility boost to the hitherto not very credible Alberta Party. The party has never managed to get on the political radar in any of its incarnations (far right fringe, disaffected Liberal, and now, apparently, Progressive Conservative 2.0) except as a political foo fighter, a fleeting radar blip confirmed by dreamlike visual sightings.

Even if warm memories of Mr. Mandel’s cautious civic policies linger, that is not to say he would personally be seen that way. Face it, as anyone who observed the man in action knows, he is not a warm and fuzzy guy. Volcanic, as someone described him, is probably the right word.

A mercurial nature may or may not matter much to voters, but certainly the revelation – coincidentally also yesterday – of the policy mix being considered by Opposition Leader Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party may stiffen the spines of wavering NDP supporters, in Edmonton and elsewhere.

To wit: A quick return to the favour-the-rich flat tax, a privatization push in public health care, and equal taxpayer funding of private schools run by the ultra wealthy and Mr. Kenney’s friends in extremist religious circles.

They’re just policy proposals, a UCP spokesperson insisted, but I think we all, right and left, get the reality of that claim. This is a strategic roadmap that was supposed to remain hidden in the nowadays-smoke-free rooms where political schemes are hatched, accidentally and unexpectedly subjected to a little illumination.

Well, if U.S. President Donald Trump pulls the plug on the North American Free Trade Agreement, as we were informed yesterday Canada’s negotiators are increasingly persuaded he’s about to do, at least Mr. Kenney’s plan to destroy public health care in Alberta won’t have to be shoved down the throats of Canadians in other provinces.

Categories Alberta Politics