Departing St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse's principal problem as a candidate to lead the Alberta Liberal Party -- and as the party's leader, in the event he gets the job -- will be to find a way to differentiate between the policy proposals of the governing NDP and those of his own party.
This won't be that easy. Dyed-in-the-wool political partisans are one thing, but what Liberal voters, NDP voters and the left-of-centre portion of mushy and moveable electoral middle all want right now is pretty much within the same general policy range.
Why would voters who essentially support the NDP policy approach -- even if they don't particularly love the NDP -- risk voting for a party like the Liberals, who are unlikely to offer anything except a cast-iron guarantee they can't form the next government?
Crouse needs to answer this question to succeed.
At the same time, Alberta's already pretty far-right conservative parties -- whether or not they manage to merge before the next general election -- are moving even further to the right, which is not likely to be comfortable territory for Alberta Liberals to occupy.
So Crouse, who announced he is running to lead the Liberals yesterday morning on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River Valley overlooking downtown Edmonton and Alberta’s lovely Legislative Building, has his work cut out. It won't be easy to persuade voters that the Liberals are viable as anything except a spoiler that can split the centre-left vote and guarantee a destructive market fundamentalist government led by Jason Kenney, Brian Jean or some other conservative contender.
To succeed, therefore, Crouse is going to have to find and articulate several polices different enough from Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats to woo voters who might otherwise vote NDP, and yet not so different that he doesn't appear to be just another conservative, as does Alberta Party Leader and sole MLA Greg Clark nowadays.
This, of course, is exactly the role Conservatives hope the Liberals will play -- but the question is, notwithstanding Crouse's undeniable political talents, will it play in Ponoka, let alone in any of the province's big cities?
At the moment, the Liberals only have one MLA -- former leader, current interim leader and likely soon-to-be-retired leader David Swann. It seems highly improbable Swann, popular in his own Calgary-Mountain View riding, will run again.
Crouse's announcement, by the way, wasn’t exactly a surprise. He's been dropping hints about this for weeks, even months, possibly even years. In mid-January, he published a statement on his personal website saying, "the opportunity to serve Albertans in a volunteer capacity such as the Liberal Party Leader is one opportunity that I am seriously considering." He added: "I will update Albertans in the near future." Well, now he has.
When he unexpectedly revealed two months ago he wouldn't be seeking a fourth term as mayor of the upscale bedroom suburb northwest of Edmonton, he said he would not be running for the Liberal leadership. But that was then and this is now, and a politician's allowed to change his mind. It's telling that at the time he was queried about this ambition by reporters.
As mayor of the city of 65,000, Crouse has been an enthusiastic retail politician, attending literally hundreds of community events over the past decade. Before being mayor, he served one term as city councillor. A former timber and energy industry executive, company owner and successful junior hockey coach with an MBA, Crouse has been chair of the Capital Regional Board since 2012.
St. Albert has grown and mostly prospered through his tenure as mayor, and continues to attract newcomers. The principal knock against Crouse by his often-bitter opponents has been the city's higher-than-average property taxes, a situation that does not rest solely in his hands, obviously. But he has also been criticized over the years for a range of local controversies that included being accused of voting on a matter from which he should have recused himself and suggestions he improperly submitted mileage claims to the Capital Region Board.
In the last municipal election campaign Crouse was subjected to a vicious campaign of anonymous trolling by persons unknown, which he overcame with relative ease.
Crouse says he will complete his term as mayor and, if he wins, volunteer full-time for the Liberals after the next municipal election in October.
So far, Crouse is the only candidate to announce his intention to seek the Liberal leadership. The party, obviously, needs a contest to generate some interest and bring in new members. Nominations close on March 31.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.