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Off to the races

Katy Merrifield – who knows something about party leadership campaigns – assesses the declared and rumoured BC Liberal campaigns thus far.

This week, former finance minister and perceived front-runner Kevin Falcon formally announced his bid to lead the BC Liberal Party. He joins fellow announced candidates Ellis Ross, Gavin Dew, and Michael Lee in the fight for the party’s top job.

The leadership vote isn’t until next February and there are still several heavily rumoured yet undeclared candidates in the wings. But Falcon’s entrance marks an unofficial start to the race, given his prominence in the party and by association, the expectations surrounding his candidacy from supporters and detractors alike.

A 12-year veteran of government, Falcon served several roles including minister of state for deregulation, minister of transportation, health, finance and deputy premier. He came in a close second place to Christy Clark in the party’s 2011 leadership race, and left politics for the private sector in 2012 to spend more time with his family.

I would describe Falcon’s reputation in the party as no-nonsense, someone who gets things done who does not mince words. He’s a formidable opponent with name recognition many other candidates can only dream of. He also has 12 years of public commentary that I’m sure an eager and inspired NDP researcher is documenting in full.

Let’s recap who the candidates are, how they launched, and who’s waiting in the wings. First up, the announced:

Ellis Ross, MLA for Skeena. A former Chief of the Haisla First Nation with a unique, straightforward and at times remarkably honest communications style. Contemptuous of identity politics and a passionate defender of responsible resource development, Ross has the most fascinating narrative of the bunch.

He launched in February by accident through an interview with his local paper. Since then has amassed a team, set up a website, and launched the slogan “Forward. Together.” He’s focused on promoting economic development, job creation, and building for today and tomorrow.

Gavin Dew, millennial entrepreneur and organizer. A young professional committed to giving under-40s a seat at the political table while advocating for families in general, Dew is the youngest candidate in the race and has unapologetically declared the BC Liberals need to do more to attract centrist voters who have drifted to the Greens and NDP.

He had a well-timed launch, contrasted with Horgan’s dismissive comments that millennials risked “blowing it for the rest of us” on pandemic restrictions. Strong visuals of people and families accompany everything Dew announces, and his “Believe in a Better BC” slogan is a deliberate reconstruction of the NDP’s successful 2017 election slogan, sending the message that he wants to win those voters back.

Kevin Falcon, former deputy premier and senior cabinet minister under premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark. Since leaving politics Falcon has served as an executive at Anthem Capital and raised two daughters, 11 and 8, with his wife Jessica.

His launch was a multi-step process over the weekend under the banner “ready, set, go” culminating in a formal, podium-style announcement flanked by his family and impressive co-chairs Dianne Watts and Puneet Sandhar. With front page coverage and a message of “opportunity, hard-work and compassion,” it can be reasonably assumed that as of today, Kevin is the one to beat.

Who’s in the wings?

Michael Lee, MLA for Vancouver-Langara. He finished a close third in the 2017 leadership race. Lee warrants an asterisk in this category, having signalled he’s definitely running, after releasing a six-second teaser video on Monday with the slogan “ready to run.”

Renee Merrifield, MLA for Kelowna-Mission. A successful entrepreneur, newcomer to provincial politics and the current BC Liberal critic for Heath, she would be the sole female running for the top spot. And no, we are not related.

Val Litwin, former President and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce. A strong candidate that can claim outsider status, Litwin will have significant credibility advocating for job creators BC moves from pandemic response to economic recovery.

Aaron Gunn, millennial conservative commentator. Polarizing to some and already an antagonist to the NDP, Gunn will attempt to convert his massive social media following into paid and voting BC Liberal memberships, should he enter the fray.

With the perceived front-runner officially in the race now, I expect we will see the rest of the candidates launch before the middle of June. Then the fun really begins.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.