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Hugh MacDonald, four-term Edmonton MLA and scourge of Tory governments, quietly resurfaces

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Hugh MacDonald shortly before his retirement announcement, at the 2011 Edmonton Labour Council Labour Day BBQ (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

With an election in the wind, it's always worth remembering there's life after politics.

Consider Hugh MacDonald, once renowned as Alberta's hardest-working MLA.

The former Alberta Liberal Party stalwart served four terms as MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar and certainly would have been elected to a fifth had he chosen to run again in 2012.

From the day he was elected in March 1997, voters in Gold Bar loved MacDonald, who was raised on the Liberal-red soil of Prince Edward Island and retained more than a trace of his Down Home accent.

They loved him with good reason. In opposition, "Hughie" was a scourge of the government. He was sincerely offended by dishonesty and self-interest in high places. He was much more likely to be found evenings digging through government files in the legislature library than going to lobbyists' cocktail parties. And he knew how to present a story in a way journalists were bound to respond to with plenty of ink or its digital equivalent.

Just because it was always a Conservative government during his long service in the legislature doesn't mean he wouldn't have held a government of another stripe to the same high standards.

MacDonald had succeeded Liberal Bettie Hewes as MLA. Between the two of them, Edmonton-Gold Bar was a Liberal stronghold from 1986 until MacDonald retired in 2012. Working-class voters in the riding overwhelmingly supported the Liberals provincially while determinedly sending Canadian Alliance and Conservative MPs to Ottawa. Go figure.

In the fall of 2011, Dr. David Swann announced he planned to retire as the Alberta Liberals' leader. Both MacDonald and Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, another long-serving Liberal, ran for the party's leadership.

The Liberals were in dire straits, and either of these two experienced political warhorses would have held the party together and perhaps even Made Alberta's Liberals Great Again.

Alas, something else happened. Who knows what they were thinking? But the party's board decided to allow a leadership vote that did not require participants to be members, and those voters chose emergency room physician Dr. Raj Sherman, the mercurial former Tory cabinet member and MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark who was always near the centre of Alberta's then seemingly perpetual health-care crisis.

Whatever the Liberals imagined the result of this strategy would be, very few of Sherman's fair-weather supporters stuck around after they'd done their worst for the party.

Sherman is a topic for another day. Let's just say he was a catastrophe. With Tory premier Alison Redford, who served in the same time frame, they constituted the Tribulation Twins of Alberta politics, destroying one venerable party and wounding another, perhaps mortally. If the Alberta Liberals survive next year's expected general election with even a single MLA, it won't be thanks to Sherman's short-lived and counterproductive effort to resuscitate the party.

Certainly, had MacDonald been chosen leader -- as either he or Blakeman certainly would have been if only party members had been permitted to vote -- the Liberals would be in far better health today, their supposedly damaged brand notwithstanding.

What might have happened in 2019 with MacDonald at the helm will forever be one of history's hypotheticals. But it's not hard to imagine scenarios in which the Liberals, for many years Alberta's default Opposition party, could have done quite well.

Instead, MacDonald and Blakeman were beaten handily by Sherman. Blakeman stuck around for a spell, eventually running as a Liberal with an Alberta Party endorsement only to lose her seat to the NDP's David Shepherd in the 2015 election that brought Premier Rachel Notley's NDP to power.

MacDonald opted for a dignified retirement. On Sept. 27, 2011, he announced he planned to depart.

A few days before he pulled the plug, I wrote, "MacDonald could be gloomy, and he often disagreed with his own party's leadership, but he always stuck fast to the colours, true Grit that he was. His voice … will be missed by Albertans, whether they know it or not."

As for the then governing Tories, in whose arrogant and entitled side he was a constant thorn, I wrote: "He'll be missed like a toothache." A lifelong trade unionist, I speculated he might return to the oilpatch, or work for his beloved Boilermakers.

After that, MacDonald all but disappeared. There were occasional sightings in Edmonton -- wearing a long ponytail, no less, it was said. Then nothing.

As it turns out, MacDonald neither retired nor went anywhere. Now 63, he's very quietly resurfaced as the Secretary Treasurer of Lodge 146 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, which supplies boilermakers to the mines of the oilsands and petro-chemical plants, pulp mills, power generation facilities and fabrication shops throughout Alberta.

He has worked as a union representative for the Boilermakers from the time he left the legislature, toiling anonymously representing and organizing workers at job sites around the province.

Last May, he raised his head a little. He ran for the Lodge 146 Secretary Treasurer's job and was elected a month later. Since then, he's officially what a lot of journalists would call a "union boss," but which in MacDonald's case most certainly means a "union members' servant."

Would he ever run again for the legislature? "No," he told me recently.

Would he ever consider running for the NDP in Edmonton? "Gosh no!"

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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