5 candidates to watch in the as-yet undeclared B.C. Liberal leadership race

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      Nobody has officially declared that they're running for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal party.

      But privately, party members are telling me that four MLAs and one MP are preparing campaigns to replace Christy Clark, who stepped down earlier this month.

      There's no obvious frontrunner, which will make this contest more fun to watch from the sidelines. And there's no indication yet that the interim leader, Rich Coleman, or the former finance minister, Mike de Jong, are going to seek the top job.

      Here are the possible contenders in alphabetical order, along with their strengths and weaknesses:

      Mike Bernier was education minister in the last government.

      Mike Bernier (MLA Peace River South)

      The former education minister is best known in Vancouver for firing the local school board and for trying to force the district to sell the Kingsgate Mall. It's not going to serve him well in B.C.'s largest city, but it might win him some support in other areas of the province.

      First elected in 2013, Bernier was previously a two-term mayor of Dawson Creek and a one-term city councillor. According to his biography, he worked for 20 years in the natural gas industry.

      Strengths: A folksy public speaker, Bernier would be popular in the 250 area code of mainland B.C. where there's a large number of party members. He might come across to them as the most likable leadership candidate.

      Weaknesses: The B.C. Liberal government's record of funding education was pretty dismal in comparison to other provinces. Bernier's government was also blown out of the Supreme Court of Canada for its approach to negotiating with teachers. As a former education minister, he will have to wear this if he leads his party into a general election.

      Plus, he's a huge supporter of the natural gas industry just as forest-fire-weary voters are becoming increasingly conscious about climate change. Many won't buy claims anymore that natural gas is a bridge to a cleaner future, particularly if Andrew Weaver remains leader of the B.C. Greens.

      Michael Lee was the first person of Chinese ancestry to be elected president of the UBC Alma Mater Society.

      Michael Lee (MLA Vancouver-Langara)

      The Straight was the first to mention in print the possibility of the former corporate lawyer and rookie MLA becoming the next B.C. Liberal leader. A long-time party member, Lee worked for former justice minister and prime minister Kim Campbell many years ago.

      Lee is the antithesis of Clark with his low-key demeanour. He's served on a bunch of nonprofit boards and chaired Peter Ladner's first campaign for Vancouver city council. This makes him remarkably well-connected.

      Strengths: He will appeal to centrist B.C. Liberals hoping for the party to perform better in Metro Vancouver. Lee is also not stained by the B.C. Liberal record and he would probably hold his own discussing various public policies during leadership debates.

      Weaknesses: Lee doesn't set the house on fire with his speeches. Party members might feel he's too boring to defeat a happy warrior like Premier John Horgan.

      Plus, his inexperience as an elected politician might lead the media to treat his candidacy less seriously than the others. And one of his biggest problems is that most party members live outside of the Lower Mainland.

      Todd Stone was joined by Christy Clark at the opening of the Evergreen Line.

      Todd Stone (MLA Kamloops-South Thompson)

      The former high-tech executive was appointed transportation and infrastructure minister immediately after being elected as an MLA. And transportation policies in the Lower Mainland led directly to the downfall of the B.C. Liberal government.

      But Stone still represents a new generation. He's from a mid-size B.C. city that's making a transition from a resource-based economy to one more reliant on other goods and services. Given the number of party members residing outside of the Lower Mainland, he'll probably be among the frontrunners.

      Strengths: Stone was born in 1972, which means he'll likely be the youngest candidate in the race. He could be the preferred candidate of libertarian young tech workers, which are growing in number. He's also articulate and he'll look the best on TV, which counts for a lot in politics these days.

      Weaknesses: Stone was the frontman on the George Massey Tunnel Replacement Project, the plebiscite defeating much-needed transit and transportation improvements, and even the politically suicidal move to bring ride-sharing to the Lower Mainland by the end of this year. 

      While these policies might have all made sense to a guy who regularly drives the Coquihalla and is comfortable programming his smartphone, they alienated local mayors. Ride-sharing also ticks off South Asian voters in constituencies that swing back and forth between the NDP and B.C. Liberals. This record as transportation minister raises questions whether he has sufficient political intuition to become premier.

      Dianne Watts has long advocated for light rail in Surrey.

      Dianne Watts (Conservative MP South Surrey-White Rock)

      Watts is the former mayor of Surrey and likely has the highest name recognition of any of the potential candidates listed here. Since sidling up to Stephen Harper and becoming a Conservative MP, she's fallen off the radar somewhat.

      Her tenure as mayor was marked by massive public investments to turn Surrey City Centre into the region's second major downtown. So far, the results have been mixed, though the growth of the SFU campus, the creation of a new KPU campus and new library, and the promotion of a high-tech zone called Innovation Boulevard will probably pay decent dividends over the long term.

      Watts has a certain magnetism when she enters a room full of supporters. But it's an open question whether she has sufficient public-policy depth or an understanding of the nuances of the province to defeat a politician as intelligent as Horgan. Watts's campaign flyer about terrorism during the last federal election campaign might make some B.C. Liberals question her intellect.

      Strengths: Watts will have a fully formed political machine geared up from day one of the campaign. She'll be seen as a new face on the provincial scene. And she may be able to mobilize the politically influential South Asian community to come on-side with her because she wasn't associated with the disastrous ride-sharing idea promoted so eagerly by Stone and former cabinet minister Peter Fassbender.

      Weaknesses: Watts is a federal Conservative, which will alienate federal Liberals within the party, of which there are many. She's not going to win over former B.C. Liberal voters who switched allegiance to the B.C. Greens because of Clark's environmental record. And she's not likely to help the party make a breakthrough on Vancouver Island, where the B.C. Liberals were nearly shut out this year.

      Andrew Wilkinson is one of only three B.C. Liberal MLAs representing constituencies on the Burrard Peninsula.

      Andrew Wilkinson (MLA Vancouver-Quilchena)

      The former minister of advanced education managed to avoid controversy even as the former finance minister, de Jong, was treating postsecondary institutions and students with a great deal of disdain. Wilkinson is a former corporate litigator with a medical degree, which makes him far more educated than his former party leader.

      But will his upper-crust, downtown Vancouver sensibility be political poison in the 250 area code?

      Strengths: If Wilkinson can keep his chippy side in check, he can be a strong debater. As leader, he has potential to raise lots of money. And he's not tied to the federal Conservatives, unlike Watts. He's also brighter than some of the others named above.

      Weaknesses: It's hard to see how Wilkinson, a Rhodes scholar, is going to appeal to blue-collar workers, who've become a key part of the B.C. Liberal base under Clark's leadership. We've had boring premiers before and one of them, Bill Bennett, won three terms in office.

      But in this modern age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, it's hard to imagine someone with Wilkinson's charisma deficit ever igniting passion among the masses. Plus, he hurt himself with environmentally inclined free enterprisers by thrashing the City of Vancouver's efforts to make the city 100 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2050. It's not smart if you want to appeal to younger urban voters.