Alberta Liberals see opening as leadership race set to launch

With only one MLA and a low public profile, the Alberta Liberal Party will launch its leadership contest this week with hopes of re-igniting interest in the struggling political entity.

One-MLA party hopes to stake out middle ground in polarized political landscape

Interim Liberal leader David Swann, fifth from left, and the new party executive team. (Alberta Liberal Party)

With only one MLA and a low public profile, the Alberta Liberal Party will launch its leadership contest this week hoping to re-ignite lost interest in the struggling political entity. 

Overshadowed by an aggressive political contest playing out within the Progressive Conservative party, Alberta Liberals will try to attract candidates and interest in what has so far been a muted presence since the May 2015 provincial election, which saw the party win only one seat.

Since then, the party has rebuilt its ranks with a new young executive and eliminated debt, according to Liberal president Karen Sevcik.

"We see a real opportunity right now coming on the horizon with the polarization of politics in Alberta," said Sevcik.

The former Liberal party candidate in Edmonton-Glenora says voters are looking for an alternative to the left-of-centre NDP government and what she calls the social conservative brand of politics from the Wildrose and PC parties.

Alberta Liberal party president Karen Sevcik says polarized politics in the province creates middle ground opening for her party. (Alberta Liberal Party)

"There's an opportunity right now in the middle of that political spectrum for a kind of common sense, pragmatic solution to some of the challenges we're facing right now," said Sevcik. "We think there's some room, there's opportunity, there's change, and when there's change, there's opportunity."

On Sunday at the Edmonton Glenora Club, the party will formally launch its leadership campaign and lay out the process and guidelines for the contest, which will be determined through an online ballot in May.

Unlike the last leadership race where any member of the public could register to vote, this time voters will have to pay $10 to become a party member, Sevcik said.

"If you want to participate, you have to put $10 down on the barrelhead and we're going to enter your name as a member in our database, said Sevcik. "That's how we're going to try to control the voting." 

Interest in race

The leadership position has been vacant since January 2015, when then-leader Raj Sherman stepped down citing personal reasons four months before the provincial election.

Since then, the lone Liberal MLA and former leader from Calgary-Mountain View, David Swann, has been acting as interim leader.

By next week Sevcik said she expects one or two leadership candidates to surface and more on the ballot when voting begins May 26.

"We have been talking to four or five people right now who have been asking questions and are in different phases of the process," said Sevcik.

One of those names is reported to be outgoing St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse. After 13 years in the job, Crouse has declared he won't run again and is considering future options, including provincial politics.

Outgoing mayor of St. Albert, Nolan Crouse, will announce this week if he will enter provincial politics (City of St. Albert)

Crouse told CBC he will announce his intentions next week, adding he feels there is an opportunity for a strong middle ground in Alberta politics.

"I'm probably about as centrist as there is," said Crouse. "So I believe what I would bring, should I choose to get involved, a sense of a moderate view of politics, moderate ideology, full inclusiveness of all genders, of all languages, of rural urban.That kind of voice is really what I believe."

University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody worked with the late Liberal leader Laurence Decore, a former Edmonton mayor, in the party's heyday, when the Liberals were the official opposition after winning 32 of 83 seats in the 1993 election.

But the Liberal party fortunes fizzled when they faced the Conservatives for a second time led by Ralph Klein in the 1997 election, winning only 18 seats.

Lightbody said he thinks Liberals will always have a key presence in Alberta elections. But the vote collapse in 2015 will make it hard for the party climb back, he admitted. Any Liberal who is really interested in public policy will work with the federal Liberal party, or has already migrated to the NDP, Lightbody suggested.

"The gladiators won't (defect) because they work on this 24-7, but just the ordinary folks, the casual Liberals at the ballot box, will go New Democrat," said Lightbody.

Sevcik says at this point, there's no pressure or assumption Swann will step aside to allow the new leader to run for his seat in a by-election.

"David is so well respected in Calgary-Mountain View right now, and has worked so hard for this party, he deserves to have a chance to finish out his term the way he wants," she said.

Online voting for the new leader will take place May 26 to June 3, with the winner announced at the party's annual general meeting in Calgary June 4, 2017.