VICTORIA, B.C. - British Columbia's activist attorney general, who defied more than a decade of legal opinion to charge polygamist leaders and initiated an inquiry into RCMP use of Tasers, has been defeated in this month's election following a recount.
Wally Oppal, one of Premier Gordon Campbell's most recognizable and trusted ministers, lost his suburban Vancouver seat to an Indepedent, apparently over divisive local issues.
Elections B.C. said a recount of ballots cast in the May 12 provincial election and a count of 918 absentee ballots gives Vicki Huntington, a former municipal councillor with ties to the federal Conservatives, a 32-vote victory over Oppal, who won the seat on election night by two votes.
Elections BC spokesman Kenn Faris said the narrow victory by Huntington will trigger an automatic judicial recount. The date for the recount will be announced sometime this week, he said.
Veteran Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff said Oppal's loss leaves a huge hole for Campbell to fill.
Oppal, a former judge first elected in 2005, brought presence, flare and personal charm to Campbell's government, which is often considered staid and dry, he said.
"Oppal was someone of stature beyond the party label," said Ruff.
Oppal frequently travelled to Ottawa to lobby the Stephen Harper Conservatives to toughen laws to fight crime, especially gang violence in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.
Ruff said Oppal's defeat is a stinging loss for both Oppal and Campbell.
Campbell asked Oppal to run in the Delta South riding, where Oppal now lives, after winning in 2005 in the safe Vancouver-Fraserview riding where he grew up.
Campbell asked Oppal to make room for star Liberal candidate Kash Heed, a former police chief, who was making his first run at provincial politics.
Heed won Vancouver-Fraserview and is being touted for a cabinet post, but Oppal's loss is a heavy price, Ruff said.
"It's also a personal blow to the premier, not to mention Mr. Oppal, in that he persuaded him to move to make way for the police chief to enter the legislature and presumably into the cabinet.," said Ruff.
"Mr. Oppal moved ridings to accommodate the premier, with disastrous consequences."
Oppal is known for his regular, off-the-cuff comments in the media about everything from local rock concerts to gangsters with guns, but has also earned the nickname "Stonewally" for his ability to provide non-answers to Opposition questions in the legislature.
Prior to the May election, Oppal was under constant Opposition attack to provide information about the sale of former Crown railway BC Rail, an on-going court case connected to the deal, and allegations that Campbell's former campaign co-chairman had a hand in the 2003 sale of the railway.
Oppal was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
If her lead holds following the judicial recount, Huntington will become the first Independent elected to the B.C. legislature since 1949 when James Mowat won the Vancouver Island riding of Alberni.
Despite Oppal's high-profile and his popularity with the media, he faced an unexpectedly tough fight in Delta South, where residents were angry about an expansion of B.C. Hydro lines and expansion of the nearby coal port. A planned highway through the riding also caused concern.
While the Campbell Liberals lost Oppal's seat in Delta South, they picked up a seat in the Interior, where Liberal candidate Donna Barnett has been declared the winner in the Cariboo-Chilcotin riding after a recount.
Barnett, a former six-term mayor of 100 Mile House defeated incumbent New Democrat Charlie Wyse by 88 votes after losing on May 12 by 23 votes.
Wyse can apply to the Supreme Court of B.C. for a judicial recount within six days if he can demonstrate votes were not properly counted or ballots were not correctly accepted or rejected.
The standings in the B.C. legislature are now 49 Liberals, 35 New Democrats and one Independent.