Alberta Votes

Alberta Liberals look to rebuild after disappointing election

The party lacks a party president and a permanent leader. They were only able to run candidates in 56 of 87 ridings. Of the five Liberals elected in 2012, only two stood for re-election. Only David Swann won back his set.

Former Liberal leader Raj Sherman admits he paid less attention to grassroots

Liberal leader David Swann speaks to supporters in Calgary on Tuesday night. (CBC )

A long-time Alberta Liberal organizer admits the party has hit its lowest point after winning only four per cent of the vote and electing only one candidate to the legislature.

"We, at this point, have hit rock bottom," said Karen Sevcik, who ran for the Liberals in Edmonton-Glenora. "The base we are at right now are our core supporters."

The party lacks a party president and a permanent leader. They were only able to run candidates in 56 of 87 ridings. Of the five Liberals elected in 2012, only two stood for re-election. 

The NDP sweep in Edmonton brought down Laurie Blakeman, who had been the Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Centre since 1997.

David Swann, the party's interim leader, was re-elected in Calgary-Mountain View. He will sit as the only Liberal in the legislature.

After the results became clear, Swann tried to be optimistic about the end of 44 years of  Progressive Conservative governments.

"Alberta you have spoken," he told cheering supporters in Calgary. "You voted for change and frankly it's about time."

Sadly for Swann, the change Albertans chose was the NDP. The Liberals were unable to take advantage of voter discontent, which frustrated Sevick while she was campaigning. 

"I was disappointed that my party wasn't strong enough, or was able to show them we could do it too," she said. "It was hard to convince them because they saw the sea of orange signs that I had seen walking around their neighbourhoods."

Spotlight syndrome

The Liberal campaign was managed by Raj Sherman, who stepped down as party leader in January.

When asked about challenges he faced going into the campaign, Sherman  admitted his own resignation was one of them. At the time, he expected the election wouldn't take place until 2016.

Laurie Blakeman lost the seat she held for 18 years in Edmonton Centre. (CBC)
"I will take full — I don't know if I should use the word — blame or credit," he said before thanking Swann for stepping up as interim leader.

Things weren't always so dire for the Liberals. In 1993, the party won 32 of 83 seats in the legislature. The PCs, led for the first time by Ralph Klein, won the remaining 51.

The late Laurence Decore was Liberal leader and had built the party to where it could pose a serious challenge to the governing Tories.

However, Decore's electoral success proved fleeting. The party elected only 18 MLAs in 1997 and the numbers kept dropping in subsequent elections.

Alex MacDonald was chief of staff when Decore was leader of the Official Opposition.

MacDonald said Decore was successful because he concentrated on developing the grassroots of the party, something he thinks the Liberals have neglected in recent years.

After he was elected leader in September 2011, Sherman convinced MacDonald to return to the party as his special adviser.

However, MacDonald quit after 16 months. He said he couldn't convince Sherman, who was a Conservative MLA before jumping to the Liberals,  to focus on appealing to centre-left voters instead of so-called Red Tories. And he said Sherman wasn't interested in rebuilding the party at the constituency level.

Instead, MacDonald said Sherman fell victim to what he calls the "the spotlight syndrome" where a leader focuses on getting news coverage and performance in question period.

""You can't win an election on media coverage," MacDonald said. "You have to go out to the grassroots. That's what [former Wildrose leader] Danielle Smith did."

Sevcik, who worked on campaigns for former Liberal leader Kevin Taft, former deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, and former MLA Howard Sapers, agreed with MacDonald's assessment about Sherman. .

"That's not where his strengths were," she said, alluding to rebuilding at the grassroots level.

"And unfortunately, because he was a Conservative, the people who got him elected the first time were not Liberals. So when he won the leadership of the party for the Alberta Liberals, he didn't come with anybody, he didn't come with a team of people."

Sherman conceded that he could have done a better job reaching out to the grassroots

"You know that criticism is valid and I accept that responsibility," he said. "There just weren't enough hours in the day...the government was doing a lot of bad things to people. We have to serve our constituents and we have to hold [the government] accountable."

Sherman suggested he is leaving the party in good shape. The debt has been repaid and there's money in the bank. "And we've got time to rebuild," he added.

Liberal AGM

Liberals will gather in Edmonton at the end of May to discuss what happens next.

The first order of business is electing a party president to replace Shelley Wark-Martyn, who stepped down to run as a candidate.  The party also needs to choose a new leader.

MacDonald said the party needs to find a charismatic individual in their late 30s or early 40s who is willing to spend the seven or eight years required to make personal connections and build from the ground up.

What's needed is "a good Liberal leader with the right kind of bold policy" to make the party attractive again, he said. 

As for Sevick, she is contemplating a run for party president. She said the Liberals have to end their talks of merging with other parties.

MacDonald agrees. He noted if the NDP hadn't rejected merger overtures from Swann, they wouldn't be forming the government today.

"They stood on principle ... and look where they are," he said.

"They were right. If they merged with us, this wouldn't have happened."


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