The serious challenges facing Stephen Mandel and the Alberta Party

The leadership race represented a major gamble by the Alberta Party. And now it, and its new leader Stephen Mandel, face the daunting tasks of fundraising, party building and attracting candidates.

'Mandel should savour his victory, because now the hard work begins'

New leader of the Alberta Party Stephen Mandel is congratulated by the crowd after the vote in Edmonton on Tuesday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

This was originally published on Feb. 28.

Stephen Mandel is the new leader of the Alberta Party.

He won 66 per cent of the vote, easily defeating Kara Levis (18 per cent) and Rick Fraser (16 per cent).

The leadership race had represented a major gamble by the Alberta Party. And now it, and its new leader, face the daunting tasks of fundraising, party building and attracting candidates.

This will require a lot of strategic decision making and quick action leading up to the next provincial election just over a year from now.

Spinning wheels

Back in November 2017, Greg Clark resigned as leader.

Clark had been the face of the party, and had won its first seat in the 2015 election — defeating Progressive Conservative Cabinet Minister Gordon Dirks in Calgary-Elbow. But while Clark was seen as likeable and a very effective MLA, he was also seen by many to be underperforming as Alberta Party leader.

The party was not growing in terms of membership and fundraising. More importantly, the party was polling in the single digits and did not seem to be gaining political traction.

Rachel Notley's NDP government, and Jason Kenney's successful effort to merge the PC and Wildrose parties into the new United Conservative Party, were eating up the province's political oxygen. The left and the right were squeezing the self-proclaimed centrist Alberta Party.

Despite picking up a NDP floor-crosser (Karen McPherson), and initiating talks with disaffected former PC MLAs, executive members and volunteers, the Alberta Party was spinning its wheels. 

It faced a choice.

A big gamble

The party could continue down Clark's path of slow incremental change, or it could try something dramatic to spur interest in itself. It's been reported that the party's Board of Directors encouraged Clark to resign and hold a leadership race.

Typically, such races are able to attract new members and create a media buzz. But there were dangers. What if they could not attract high profile candidates? What if nobody cared about the race? What if nobody joined the party? What if they had ruined one of their chief assets in Greg Clark? 

At first it appeared that the gamble had backfired when potential leadership candidates Ryan Jesperson, (a prominent Edmonton radio host), and Chima Nkemdirim (Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's former chief of staff), declined to run.

But then the party was saved from embarrassment when former federal Liberal Party volunteer Kara Levis, former PC MLA Rick Fraser, and former Edmonton Mayor Mandel all entered the race.

Stephen Mandel, left, Kara Levis and Rick Fraser were in the running to become the next leader of the Alberta Party. (CBC/Kara Levis campaign/Rick Fraser campaign)

It was a quiet campaign with few policy differences between the candidates. All were focused on selling memberships to win. With Mandel being the most successful.

Serious challenges

In the immediate aftermath of Mandel's victory, it is safe to say that the gamble was a partial, but not a complete, success.

A competitive race was held with candidates from both Calgary and Edmonton. New members joined the party. In fact, the Alberta Party's membership surged by over 500 per cent. But, in raw numbers, it is still at 6,543 members with only 4,613 voting in last night's election.

While this is four times the number of people who elected David Kahn as Liberal Party leader in June 2017, it pales in comparison to the over 58,200 people who voted in the UPC race that elected Jason Kenney as leader in October 2017.

The leadership race increased the party's number of MLAs from two to three when Fraser joined the party. Although it is likely that he would have still joined if Clark had remained as leader.

Former Alberta Party leader Greg Clark. (CBC)

Mandel gives them an experienced leader. After all he was a popular three-term mayor of Edmonton. Mandel's victory also gives the party a stronger beachhead in Edmonton as opposed to being a Calgary-centric party.

But the Alberta Party still faces some serious challenges.

It lacks functioning constituency associations in many parts of the province, and is especially absent from rural Alberta. It still only has three MLAs; denying them official party status in the legislature. It badly trails the NDP and UCP in fundraising. And the 2019 provincial election is only about fifteen months away.

This, and despite Mandel's many political gifts, he comes with some baggage.

First, while he was a popular mayor, he was also a member of Jim Prentice's cabinet who lost his own seat in 2015. Which Mandel will voters remember come 2019?

Further to this point, the Alberta Party is in danger of being filled with ex-PC members who did not feel welcome in the UCP. It would be hugely ironic if the Alberta Party of Greg Clark, who campaigned so hard against PC Cabinet minister Dirks in 2015, was suddenly filled with old PCers looking to reclaim their lost glory.

Mandel also lacks a seat in the legislature — meaning he will be absent from the highly anticipated verbal battle between Notley and Kenney. Unlike after Kenney's victory in the UCP leadership race, there is no safe Alberta Party seat that somebody is willing to vacant for the leader.

The hard work begins

Mandel should savour his victory, because now the hard work begins.

And not the hard work of preparing for the 2019 election as Notley and Kenney are doing, but rather the hard work of party building. Creating riding associations, adding even more members (post-leadership race), fundraising, attracting candidates.

Jason Kenney famously spent over a year travelling to all 87 Alberta constituencies in a blue pickup truck.

Alberta Conservative MP Jason Kenney arrives at a press conference as he begins the Unite Alberta Truck Tour in Edmonton in August 2016. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Is Mandel willing to the same? Or is he just going to focus on identifying a handful of ridings in Calgary and Edmonton to be competitive in? This strategic decision will tell us lots about the expectations that the Alberta Party has for 2019.

Do they really want to offer Albertans a centrist option in a polarizing political debate between the NDP and UCP? Or do they just want to win a few more seats in Calgary and Edmonton?

Mandel's actions in the weeks to come will tell us more about the future direction of the Alberta Party.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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