Ralph Klein's remarkable political life

Ralph Klein was a blunt but popular man who fiercely defended the interests of his home province of Alberta. His tenure as premier in four consecutive majority governments helped to reshape the province. Simply put, his impact on Alberta was huge and lasting.

Career included long stint as Calgary mayor and 14 years as premier

Ralph Klein 1942-2013

11 years ago
Duration 3:41
Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who died early Friday, was a dominant and outspoken figure in Canadian politics. Carloyn Dunn reports

Ralph Klein was a blunt but popular man who fiercely defended the interests of his home province of Alberta. His tenure as premier in four consecutive majority governments helped to reshape the province.  Simply put, his impact on Alberta was huge and lasting.

As mayor of Calgary, he was best known for bringing the 1988 Winter Olympics to the city, while his career in provincial politics was marked by a series of battles with Liberal Ottawa and a decade-long fight to get Alberta spending under control through wild surges of bust and boom.

In the process, he pushed the provincial Conservative party to a more populist stance and created what was called the low-tax, low-regulation "Alberta advantage," which culminated in 2005 when the province became the only Canadian government to be entirely debt-free. 

Klein resigned as premier in 2006 after his party gave him only a lukewarm endorsement during a leadership review. He had fallen out of the public spotlight as his health worsened. 

His political career began in 1980 when, as a local TV reporter who had been covering Calgary city hall for the better part of a decade, he made an improbable bid for mayor. 

He won in an upset that set the stage for two subsequent wins — in 1982 and 1986 — and a nearly decade-long reign as mayor. He moved into provincial politics in the 1989 general election and succeeded Don Getty as premier three years later. The Conservative dynasty that Peter Lougheed had built looked to be running out of steam at that point. But Klein's common touch was such that he righted the ship in the 1993 provincial election and never looked back.

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The early years

Born on Nov. 1, 1942, to Philip Klein, a one-time wrestler and road contractor, and Florence Gray, a waitress, Ralph was raised in Calgary primarily by his mother, stepfather and maternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was six.

He dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before completing his high school diploma and attending Calgary Business College. He became principal of the college and also worked in public relations before joining the CFCN newsroom in 1969.

Fired up by a city plan to tear down several blocks of a historic neighbourhood to make way for a civic centre, Klein surprised fellow journalists in 1980 when he turned his fervent opposition to the project — and the city's apparent disregard for residents affected by it — into the basis of a mayoral campaign.

Campaigning on a shoestring budget against two established candidates, including the favoured incumbent, Ross Alger, Klein and his long-shot bid attracted what he would later call "the greatest bunch of vagabonds, misfits and beautiful people."

Klein won with 47 per cent of the popular vote, beating Alger by 16,000 votes.

As mayor, Klein oversaw Calgary's winning bid to host the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, which turned a profit and left the city with world-class venues where Olympic athletes still train. He also pushed for development of a light rail transit system to the city's south end. 

The early part of Klein's tenure as mayor was a boom time for Calgary. Klein raised the ire of central Canada when he took a swipe at "bums" and "creeps" flooding into city looking to cash in on its good fortunes. He and others also blamed the influx of job seekers from other parts of Canada for the city's rising crime rate.

It was not the only time Klein's verbal bluntness landed him in trouble. As an MLA in 1990, he referred to Edmonton as "a fine city with too many socialists and mosquitoes" adding, "at least you can spray the mosquitoes."

Tearful news conference

In 2001, he made headlines for another trait for which he was almost as well-known as his bons mots: his drinking.

Ralph Klein gets a hug from his wife, Colleen, during a party in Calgary celebrating Klein's 10 years as premier on Dec. 12, 2002. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Klein's fondness for alcohol was no secret, from his days holding court at Calgary's legendary and now defunct St. Louis Hotel and Bar behind City Hall to his admission years later that he sometimes drank during office hours to help get over severe hangovers. 

In December 2001, Klein showed up at an Edmonton homeless shelter on his way home from a party and ended up in a heated argument with a homeless man. Shelter workers said Klein threw a handful of money on the floor before his driver hustled him out. 

Two days after the story became public, Klein held a teary news conference to apologize for the incident and said he would quit drinking.

When Klein made the jump into provincial politics under the Tory banner in 1989, he surprised many who assumed he was a Liberal supporter. After then-premier Getty resigned, the party elected Klein as leader in 1992.

In the months before he called an election, Klein worked to put as much distance between himself and the old leader as possible. He reduced the number of cabinet ministers from 26 to 17, cut more than 2,500 of the province's 32,000 civil service jobs and ended pensions for MLAs elected since 1989. 

During the campaign, he ditched the party's traditional colours and played up "Ralph's team," winning over the electorate with impromptu stops at diners and coffee shops. On June 15, 1993, Klein led the Conservatives to another majority.

Bust and boom

Under Klein's premiership, the Tories successfully tackled Alberta's debt, which began to soar in early 1990s when the oil and gas industry suffered the effects of a global recession.  But by 2005, Alberta was the only debt-free province, having erased the $23 billion in red ink that was on the provincial books when Klein took office.

As a kind of reward, Klein announced every Alberta resident would receive a $400 dividend cheque — which some dubbed "Ralph Bucks.''

But the cuts that allowed Klein to eliminate the province's debt came at a price. His government slashed the civil service and drastically reduced spending on health care and social services. Many also blamed Klein's government for allowing development of Alberta's oilsands to grow unchecked.

The oilsands were one of several issues on which Klein did not see eye to eye with other provinces. Klein clashed with his provincial and federal counterparts, notably in 2000 when he threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause to block legal recognition of same-sex marriage following a court decision in Ontario. In 2005, same-sex unions were adopted in Alberta after Klein gave up the fight.

Following the 2004 Alberta election, Klein announced he would not run again, but he ended up leaving politics sooner than anticipated.

In March 2006, Klein offered to step down as leader in October 2007 and remain premier until a new leader was chosen early in 2008. But at a party convention two weeks later, the Tories gave him an approval rating of only 55 per cent. That prompted a disappointed Klein to move up his resignation. He was replaced by Ed Stelmach in December 2006.

After leaving politics, Klein took up advisory and academic posts. In 2008, he was awarded France's Legion of Honour for fostering ties between Alberta and France, which invests heavily in the province's oilsands. Four years later, Klein was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. 

Klein was married twice, first to Hilda May Hepner, with whom he had two children, and in 1972 to Colleen Hamilton, with whom he had a daughter. His family also included Hamilton's two children from a previous relationship.

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