Christy Clark hacks in B.C. Liberal race create a pathway for candidate with business experience

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      On some days, it seems like the entire former B.C. Liberal cabinet is running to replace Christy Clark as their party leader.

      The latest retread to enter the race is Mike de Jong. He's the austerity-minded former finance minister who presided over whopping surpluses as B.C. endured atrocious levels of child poverty. 

      Other former cabinet ministers in the race or expected to enter include Mike Bernier, Todd Stone, Andrew Wilkinson, and Sam Sullivan.

      Former Surrey mayor and Stephen Harper acolyte Dianne Watts announced her candidacy over the weekend.

      Rookie MLA and former corporate lawyer Michael Lee is also expected to go for the party's top job. Terrace businesswoman, Lucy Sager, has already declared that she's running.

      It's reminiscent of the Social Credit leadership contest to replace former premier Bill Bennett in 1986. Back then, there were a dozen candidates dreaming of succeeding him.

      With so many candidates in the race, it's unlikely that any will rack up enough support to have a chance of winning the race on the first ballot. It's tempting to refer to them as Snow White (Dianne Watts) and the seven dwarves.

      It creates a pathway for a new candidate with extensive experience in business and politics to emerge as a shining knight to rescue the beleaguered party.

      Former finance minister Mike de Jong is making his second run for the B.C. Liberal leadership after coming fourth in 2011.

      This is where the political comeback of Ben Stewart gets interesting.

      The Quails' Gate winery cofounder was elected to a single full term in the legislature in 2009, representing Westside-Kelowna. From 2010 to 2013, he held several cabinet posts under Gordon Campbell and Clark: minister of citizens' services and multiculturalism, minister of agriculture, minister of community and rural development, and minister of citizens' services and open government.

      Stewart resigned his Westside-Kelowna seat after the 2013 election so Clark could win a by-election and get into the legislature.

      That same year, Clark appointed him as B.C.'s special representative in Asia, a job he kept until the end of last year.

      Now that Clark has resigned, Stewart wants his seat back and should easily cruise to victory in a by-election.

      Stewart has long been a wine industry kingpin in the Okanagan.

      One of Stewart's great political advantages in a leadership race is that he wasn't part of the government from 2013 to 2017. Therefore, he could be marketed as a fresh face with considerable business acumen.

      Ben Stewart (right) was one of many B.C. Liberals who joined the annual Chinese New Year parade in Vancouver in 2010.
      Stephen Hui

      The B.C. Liberal government is facing trade threats from many foreign governments, as well as an official complaint by the United States, after Clark introduced new rules favouring B.C. wines in grocery stores.

      It's not out of the question that the Trudeau government could treat the B.C. wine industry as a bargaining chip in its NAFTA renegotiations with the United States and Mexico. It could be sacrificed in return for a better deal for the auto industry.

      Stewart knows the wine industry well and would likely receive backing from fellow vintners hoping that he would stand up for them in the face of serious pressure.

      The billionaire grocery barons might also like a wine-industry entrepreneur as premier, given their interest in selling B.C. wines on their stores' shelves.

      Keep in mind that Kelowna was the political base for B.C.'s two longest-lasting premiers of the postwar era, W.A.C. Bennett and Bill Bennett.

      Most B.C. Liberal party members live east of Hope, from where there are likely to be only two competitive candidates: Bernier and Stone. There's no one in the race from the Okanagan, which has long been a hotbed of B.C. Liberal support.

      This seems a little odd unless the establishment in Kelowna has already settled on Stewart as their first choice.

      It's worth noting that the B.C. Liberals have introduced rules making it tougher to do mass sign-ups in urban and suburban communities.

      This was accomplished by barring prepaid credit card payments for new memberships, as well as by outlawing using cash to buy memberships.

      A preferential ballot means whoever is the second or third choice could come up the middle. And a weighted voting system gives each of the 87 constituencies equal power in selecting the new leader.

      These measures could assist candidates from areas outside the Lower Mainland. That includes Stewart, should he decide to enter the race.