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

Posted on January 11, 2018, 1:28 am
8 mins

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.

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

  1. David

    January 11th, 2018

    While I think highly of former Mayor Mandel and he is the closest to a big name the Alberta Party has been able to attract and I would not underestimate him, he does face a number of serious limitations.

    First of all, it has been a while since he has been the mayor of Edmonton and political capital and organizations do tend to dissipate quickly, especially after the person retires for several years.

    Second, while he appears to still be fairly energetic, I am sure it will not be lost on voters he is a generation or two older than the other party leaders. Political life and campaigns are much more grueling than a tennis or golf game and when you are leading a small, struggling party you need to put even more energy into it.

    Third, his geographic appeal may be fairly limited. I would understand if most Calgary voters shrug and say “Stephen who” and I am not sure he will register that much in rural Alberta either. It will be quite hard to raise his profile in these places without being an elected MLA.

    Fourth, a better time for someone like Mandel to run for leader was probably when the PC’s still existed. Of course, Kenney made sure to kill it off and now most of previous PC MLA’s who did not get defeated in the last election are in his fold. The Alberta Party is at this point not much of a political vehicle. It is like bringing riding lawn mower to a drag race. Yes, you might be able to soup it up a bit, but the only thing it has been consistent in over the years has been disappointment.

    Retired Alberta big city Mayors have a mixed record when it comes to reviving struggling parties. Years ago, Rod Sykes who was a fairly popular retired Calgary Mayor took over Social Credit when it had 4 MLA’s elected (by the way that’s more than the Alberta Party has managed so far), but he was not able to revive it and he left a few years later. Mr. Sykes who was 50ish at the time is still around today, Social Credit is not.

    I wonder if Mr. Mandel, who may have participated in the departure of the former Alberta Party leader or the takeover of the Alberta Party by former PC’s, is running just because no one else with a high profile is. Perhaps he felt an obligation to do so or he and Mr. Fraser (the only elected MLA in this race) drew the short straws. As Mr. Fraser said, “it is time to put up or shut up”.

    Despite all these limitations, Mandel does finally add some excitement to this race and Kenney should not underestimate or dismiss a conservative who was actually a successful business person before becoming a successful politician, which is more than Kenney can claim.

    Reply
  2. J.E. Molnar

    January 11th, 2018

    Mandel, who’s tarred as a maladroit conservative representing 44 years of Tory-style plutocracy, likely would not appeal to most mainstream progressive voters who do not relish a return to “back-to-the-future” conservatism.

    As for Jason Kenney and the UCP, the release of their Kleinesque boilerplate platform is so “back-to-the future” conservative that you almost expect Ralph Klein to show up in a Delorean DMC-12. This UCP political dogma is well past its best-before-date of 1993. Smart, progressive voters will easily plug into their endgame. I’m starting to feel better and better about the NDP’s chances to repeat in 2019 with every passing day.

    Reply
  3. January 11th, 2018

    If elected leader, Stephen Mandel might have a problem securing a seat. I think he is pretty much obligated to run in Edmonton-Whitemud. The optics of running in a more Alberta Party friendly constituency in Calgary would be brutal, but Edmonton-Whitemud would be a difficult challenge. In 2015 Mr. Mandel lost to Bob Turner by a significant margin: 32% vs 57%, and E-W voters cannot be relied upon to vote the way they are supposed to, as Don Getty found out in 1989.

    At the very least Stephen Mandel would have to spend so much time campaigning for his own seat he wouldn’t really be able to campaign for his party throughout the province.

    Here is an interesting hypothetical: What if the Alberta Party wins, say, a dozen seats, but Mandel loses his seat. Do they risk one of their seats in a by-election to install Mr. Mandel?

    I liked Stephen Mandel as mayor, but from a political strategy perspective I think he would be a poor choice.

    Reply
  4. January 11th, 2018

    Something I have wondered about since it first became apparent that the Alberta Party might become a political force in the next election, is which way they would lean if they held the balance of power in a minority government. Given the ill will that many of the AP members have toward Jason Kenney, and Rachel Notley’s claim that she wants to govern like Peter Lougheed did, I think they might be more inclined to work with the NDP.

    Reply
  5. January 11th, 2018

    Did I read the Herald story right? What I think I read was that public, separate, charter, private and home schools would all get the same funding. Public, separate and charter already get equal funding, so that is no big deal, and private school is part of UCP ideology, but home schooling?? Does that mean parents of home schooled children would get the same grant schools get? Alberta’s per-pupil grant is somewhere in the ball park of $6k. So, they are going to offer some high school drop-out with 3 kids $18,000 to keep their kids at home? Yeah, that could work I guess.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 11th, 2018

      Here is the actual wording: “The United Conservative Party believes the Government of Alberta should: … 1) ensure equal per-student funding regardless of school choice – public, separate, charter, home, or private.” DJC

      Reply
      • January 12th, 2018

        Yeah, I read that, David, but I guess 8 years in elementary school weren’t enough, because I still don’t get it. Where would the home school per pupil grant go? If not to the parents I guess it would go to the organization that facilitates the home schooling like that organization in Derwent that was in the news a few months ago. Both are scary, really.

        Reply
    • Northern Loon

      January 11th, 2018

      To be completely cynical this could also work in the UCP’s (future) favour by increasing their population base as there would certainly be an incentive to having larger families and therefore greater state funded income for these families. So the party that doesn’t like social engineering will be engaging in social engineering.

      Reply
  6. David Harrigan

    January 11th, 2018

    Never been a fan of Mr. Mandel; neither as mayor or Minister of Health. But contrary to your claim, suggesting that his age should be a concern is the very definition of ageism.

    Reply
  7. Jerrymacgp

    January 12th, 2018

    So, just a quibble about demographics: Mr Mandel, born 18 July, 1945 (BTW, two days after the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert), does not qualify for the cohort known as “baby boomers”. According to another related Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post%E2%80%93World_War_II_baby_boom, “In Canada, the baby boom is usually defined as occurring from 1947 to 1966, with over 400,000 babies born yearly. Canadian soldiers were repatriated later than American servicemen, and Canada’s birthrate did not start to rise until 1947. Most Canadian demographers prefer to use the later date of 1966 as the boom’s end year in that country. The later end than the US (baby-boom generation: babies born from 1946 to 1964; see preceding paragraphs) is ascribed to a later adoption of birth control pills.”

    That said, I agree with David H., above, that age shouldn’t really be a factor. However, relevance is. The Alberta Party has always been far more popular amongst the commentariat and the punditocracy than with voters. They are trying to till the same electoral ground as the Alberta Liberals, a narrow strip of soil between the entirely moderate, centrist, Notley-led NDP and the new United Conservative Party’s still undefined (at least until their Policy Convention in May) policy patch, Mr Kenney’s rhetorical outbursts notwithstanding. If politics were a logical exercise, either the Liberals or the AP would fold, or they would merge, since there really isn’t enough room in that narrow strip of soil for both of them… but of course, politics isn’t logical, so that won’t happen.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 12th, 2018

      Jerry: Usually I agree with you about everything, even when I said something else first. But you have to admit that if one place says the Baby Boom generation started in 1945, and another says it started in 1947, the statement “Mr. Mandel is literally as old as you can possibly be and still be officially called a Baby Boomer” remains true. DJC

      Reply

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