EDMONTON – Alison Redford, set to become the first female premier of Alberta, downplayed the gender issue Sunday, saying party voters marked Xs not for an X chromosome, but for a broader desire for change.
“A little bit of what happened yesterday was that our politics caught up with who we are,” Redford told a late morning news conference, about nine hours after she was declared the winner in the bleary wee post-midnight hours at a northside convention centre.
“(Alberta) is demographically diverse, (with the) number of people in our province who are new to our province who have decided to build their lives here and their future here.”
She will be the 14th premier when sworn in as the first female leader of Alberta. The date for the swearing-in has not been set, but Redford said, “I’d rather do it sooner rather than later.”
Premier Ed Stelmach has already tendered his resignation effective Oct. 1.
The 46-year-old rookie legislature member, representing former premier Ralph Klein’s old riding of Calgary Elbow, delivered a stunning come-from-behind victory to defeat the heavy favourite, Gary Mar.
Redford joins B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador and Eva Aariak of Nunavut as one of four female premiers in Canada.
Redford said her team had a congratulatory call from Clark but that the two leaders hadn’t yet had the chance to speak to each other.
The victory, she admitted, was bittersweet given that she had to deal with the sudden death of her 71-year-old mother Helen four days before the party vote.
“Someone said to me today, ‘Is there anyone you want to call this morning (to share in the victory)?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, my Mom.’
“But I can’t. And that’s OK.
“We’ll think about her this week, and then we’ll move on to what’s next in life. What do we say, we’ll cry for a long time but we won’t cry all the time.”
Redford’s victory was shocking given she had the support of just a handful of caucus members and none of the heavy hitters in cabinet. Many of them are male and most of them supported Mar.
“How do you think they’re going to respond to being led by a woman?” a reporter asked her.
“I know a lot of them, and I never actually had the sense that was something that impacted their decision on what they thought of me as a leader.
“But you weren’t the boss then,” chimed in another journalist.
“Well it’s part of change, right? And that’s a good thing. To be able to set an example and to be able to say, ‘This is a way of doing it.’ And I have very high expectations of my caucus colleagues.”
She also delivered a message to those who don’t want to get onside and will instead leave the party or leave politics.
“That’s a healthy thing for a party,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing to have some change.”
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent congratulations.
“I look forward to working with Premier-Designate Redford on issues that matter to Albertans and all Canadians, including the challenges posed by the current global economic climate,” said Harper in a news release.
Alberta opposition NDP Leader Brian Mason said while his party has a lot of concerns with Tory policies, it was refreshing to see a woman in the premier’s chair.
“I want to say that even though I want her job, I’m kind of stoked that a woman won,” said Mason.
“It’s about time.”
However, Mason said his party will push Redford to follow through on campaign promises to overturn $107 million in education cuts and to hold a full, independent inquiry into allegations Alberta doctors have been coerecd by bureaucrats to keep quiet about avoidable deaths in the system.
Redford’s win capped an eight-month campaign that began in January when Stelmach —reportedly facing a caucus rebellion led by fiscal hawks unhappy with his deficit budgets — announced he was stepping down.
Six candidates ran for his job but the front runner was Mar. The 49-year-old former health minister under Klein quit his job as Alberta’s representative to Washington to run. He had a large war chest and the support of more than half the Tory caucus.
Redford ran an unorthodox campaign, running in essence against Stelmach’s decisions on the education cuts and his refusal to call for a full health inquiry.
With few MLAs to help beat the bushes to find party members to buy a membership and vote, Redford turned to campaign strategist Stephen Carter.
Carter had won renown a year earlier for catapulting an obscure business professor, Naheed Nenshi, into Calgary’s mayoral chair by focusing on Nenshi’s personality and values and spreading that message through social media.
Carter engineered the same victory for Redford.
In the first round of balloting on Sept. 17, Mar collected the most votes, but failed to win a majority.
As per party rules, the bottom three candidates dropped off the ballot and Mar, Redford, and former deputy premier Doug Horner beat the bushes for votes again heading into the second preferential ballot Saturday.
The numbers showed that in the last two weeks Redford maintained her support in Calgary and made gains against Mar elsewhere, particularly in Edmonton.
Her cause was helped by a bravura performance on a provincewide TV debate, held a day after her mother died. Despite her grief, Redford forcefully delivered points, hammering Mar on credibility issues of trust over Mar’s decision to defer a six-figure legislature payout only to later quietly cash it in.
When the numbers came in Saturday, Mar again failed to collect enough votes to get a majority.
The third-place Horner dropped off the ballot, as per rules, and the second-choice candidate on his ballots were redistributed accordingly, giving Redford a squeaker 51 per cent win.
The final total was 37,104 for Redford and 35,491 for Mar.
Redford now faces the challenge of the rival right-wing Wildrose party.
Under Stelmach, three Tory members of the legislature have crossed the floor to join the Wildrose, saying Stelmach’s top-down administration had abandoned the tenets of fiscal conservatism.
Recent polls suggest the Wildrose is taking a bite out of the Tories bedrock support in the rural regions, though it’s unclear if the party has the ability to end the Tories’ 40 consecutive years in power.
Redford ruled out a fall election but says there will be one in the next 12 months.
Before then she agreed she must also re-engage the party faithful.
Only 78,176 votes were cast Saturday for a two-week total of 137,715.
That’s just 57 per cent of the 241,690 who voted in the two rounds of the 2006 leadership campaign that put Stelmach in the premier’s chair.