Why B.C. Liberals might lean on Michael Lee to be their next leader after Christy Clark

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      By now, it should be clear to everyone that the B.C. Liberals have a tarnished brand.

      For the past several years, New Democrats, various bloggers, and some nongovernmental organizations have repeatedly hinted or blatantly stated that the government under B.C. Liberal control had a corruption problem.

      And in politics, there's no stigma harder to remove than that.

      It wasn't an accident that the New York Times focused on B.C.'s loosey-goosy election-financing rules.

      Or that two lawyers took the B.C. government and the B.C. Liberal party to court over political ads.

      Or that an Ottawa-based group called Democracy Watch filed several court actions over the effect that party fundraising was having on key decision-makers, including Christy Clark.

      Every time you turned around, corruption allegations were being tossed over everything from public housing projects to real-estate regulation to B.C. Hydro's Site C Dam to tax breaks for corporate donors.

      The sheer number of special prosecutors appointed during Clark's term in office became a story.

      It's left the party with a shortage of political capital. There's little left in the tank.

      Any cabinet minister associated with the previous B.C. Liberal regime is stained by the "c" word. It was used most often and most capably over the past two years by Attorney General David Eby.

      It greased the skids for John Horgan to become premier.

      While in opposition, Attorney General David Eby left many British Columbians with the belief that corruption had become a really big problem in their province.

      The same charge brought down the last Socred government, the last NDP government, and Paul Martin's federal Liberal government. It finished off Hillary Clinton and quite likely could do in Donald Trump.

      So what does a damaged brand do? Sometimes it changes its name.

      The Social Credit coalition reformulated as the B.C. Liberals under Gordon Campbell.

      In other instances, it finds a new leader who's perceived to be squeaky clean.

      Who is waiting in the wings?

      The B.C. Liberals have a few MLAs who weren't part of the Clark's cabinet before the election.

      Two who might have a chance in a leadership race are Darryl Plecas (Abbotsford South) and Jordan Sturdy (West Vancouver–Sea to Sky).

      If either were to emerge victorious, he might partially restore the battered party brand.

      Former cabinet ministers like Todd Stone, Andrew Wilkinson, Michele Stilwell, or Mary Polak might also be tempted to seek the top job.

      I suspect they would have about as much success in a general election as former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm's successor, Rita Johnston. They're too closely associated with the Clark regime.

      Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Falcon hasn't indicated a great deal of interest in returning to politics.

      He would also be stained by his association with past B.C. Liberal governments.

      Then there's the right-wing political gadfly Jordan Bateman, who's perhaps the best communicator of them all in provincial politics. The former Canadian Taxpayers Federation mouthpiece is now working for the ardently anti-union Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C.

      Bateman is too right wing for urban and suburban voters who prefer their politics more middle of the road.

      Photos like this remind the public of former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon's deep ties to former B.C. Liberal governments.
      Stephen Hui

      Two newcomers to caucus with a provincial profile are Ellis Ross (Skeena) and Jas Johal (Richmond-Queensborough). They don't have deep roots in the party.

      That's why I'm going to out on a limb and suggest that the potential future leadership candidate to watch is Michael Lee. He's the new B.C. Liberal MLA for Vancouver-Langara and would be popular with Vancouver's business community.

      The staid former corporate lawyer is not exactly dripping with charisma. But that might be a welcome relief for B.C. Liberals exhausted by the high-wattage antics of Premier Photo-op.

      With his cerebral nature and low-key style, Lee is the antithesis of Clark and might bring former B.C. Liberal voters back into the tent. And he doesn't have the political baggage of Vancouver-Quilchena's MLA, Wilkinson, who comes across as too highbrow for many voters.

      Before the men and women in the press gallery start guffawing with laughter, they should remember this: a three-times-elected premier, Bill Bennett, was a far more dreadful public speaker than Lee when he became leader of the Social Credit party.

      And Bill Bennett didn't have nearly as much backroom political experience as Lee before moving into the top party job.

      Lee has deep connections

      Consider Lee's political curriculum vitae:

      * first vice president and first president of Chinese ancestry of the UBC Alma Mater Society while studying political science;

      * former youth organizer for the Progressive Conservatives and member of one its riding executives;

      * employed by former justice minister (and later, prime minister) Kim Campbell for three-and-a-half years, working with her in Vancouver and Ottawa;

      * friend and political supporter of Chinese Canadian political heavyweight Tung Chan, helping Chan get elected to Vancouver city council in 1990;

      * chair of former councillor Peter Ladner's campaign in 2002;

      * former membership chair of the B.C.Liberal party.

      Michael Lee is a rookie to caucus, but he has been in the political trenches for 30 years.
      B.C. Liberals

      Then there are Lee's extensive community activities.

      They include being a past chair of Arts Umbrella, and a board member of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver Foundation, UBC Alumni Association, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., Justice Education Society of B.C., Sustainable Cities International, and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.

      He focused on environmental regulations in obtaining a master's degree in political science. And Lee attended the University of Victoria law school.

      The public might not be that familiar with Lee. But you can be sure that thousands of B.C. Liberals have met him over the years.

      More importantly for the party, he has an opportunity to help the B.C. Liberals appeal to well-educated urban and suburban voters who preferred B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver over Clark.

      Lee could also help the party raise a great deal of money from individual contributors after the NDP government cuts off corporate and union donations.

      In a previous column, I suggested that the B.C. Liberals really have to do something out of the box to rebrand themselves.

      One way might be to elect an Indigenous person, such as lawyer Doug White, as their next leader.

      It would destabilize the Greens and put the NDP on the defensive in several ridings.

      But that might be too radical for the B.C. Liberals, which is the preferred party of B.C.'s climate-change-downplaying right wingers.

      As a former B.C. Liberal party membership chair, Lee would know where to look for support in a leadership race.
      Andrew Wilkinson

      Lee would be a less radical alternative. And he would appeal to centrist voters in constituencies like Burnaby North, Vancouver–Point Grey, Oak Bay–Gordon Head, and Vancouver-Fairview.

      These are areas captured by Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals but which have been frittered away by the party under Clark. Had she won any one of those seats, she would be premier today.

      Lee is not going to set the house on fire with his oratory. Sometimes, you might not even notice him working a room.

      But anyone who has been a membership chair of a major political party is going to know where to concentrate his efforts in a leadership campaign. And that gives him an enormous edge over other newcomers to the B.C. Liberal caucus.

      Even if Lee didn't win the leadership, he would still be a formidable candidate—and could easily end up playing the role of kingmaker at a party convention.