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For a mild-mannered guy, Stephen Khan's farewell to the PC leadership race was remarkably blunt

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Stephen Khan

What's remarkable about Stephen Khan's farewell to the Progressive Conservative leadership race -- and almost certainly from the Progressive Conservative Party as well -- is the passion of his fierce critique of both the state of the party and fellow candidate Jason Kenney.

Khan is a Progressive Conservative and there will be no Progressive Conservative Party if Kenney wins the leadership race, he told me bluntly yesterday. "He has been clear. He doesn't want to be the leader of the PC Party. He wants to form a 'unity' party."

'I have as much interest in joining the Wildrose 2.0 Party as you do."

Given the way Kenney's well-financed steamroller campaign has rolled out, flattening every Tory who tries to stand in his way, it seems highly unlikely he won't win on the first ballot on March 18 in Calgary. Everyone who pays attention to Alberta politics now knows this.

But this isn't just about one candidate's likely victory. It's about how that victory is being achieved.

Khan will be the third candidate driven out of the leadership race by Kenney's tactics and the unsavoury activities of his angry social conservative supporters. Khan will almost certainly be the second one who leaves rather than be part of an organization run by Kenney, a former Calgary MP and high-profile member of Stephen Harper's federal Conservative cabinet.

Khan, who used to be my PC MLA in St. Albert, always struck me as pretty mild-mannered for a professional politician.

Premier Alison Redford put him in her cabinet as a fresh-faced new Advanced Education minister back in the spring of 2012. Having decided to make big cuts to post-secondary budgets because of what she called the "Bitumen Bubble," Redford pulled him out again at the start of February 2013. She replaced him with another St. Albert resident, then deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk.

Khan was hurt by his sudden dismissal, at a time he was on holiday with his family, but he dealt with it with quiet dignity.

At the time, the general consensus was that Khan just wasn't tough enough to deliver the big cuts Redford planned to hand universities and colleges. Given his performance in the past few days, though, we may need to reassess that assessment.

Premier Jim Prentice put Khan back in cabinet, as minister responsible for Service Alberta. He was defeated by New Democrat Marie Renaud in May 2015. So he surprised a lot of people -- your blogger included -- when he entered the Tory leadership contest this year.

Last Thursday, he dramatically pulled out, commenting bitterly on the state of the party in a letter to his supporters that was posted on his campaign website.

"I entered this leadership race because there has been an obvious leadership vacuum in our party since May 2015 and I believed that we could do politics better than we have in the past," he wrote. "Albertans were telling me that they wanted a leader and a party that reflected values that were important to them. Modern Conservative values: maintaining fiscal responsibility while embracing modern and progressive social values." (Emphasis added.)

"I was confident that this race would be one of ideas and hope for Alberta's future and I expected it to be a well-run and principled campaign," Khan went on. "Instead, it has devolved into vitriol, anger and division. As such, I can no longer participate in this race in good conscience, nor ask my family, volunteers and supporters to do the same on my behalf."

"We have seen the reputation of the PC Party damaged so badly over the course of this campaign that our credibility may be beyond repair. More concerning, we have seen volunteers, organizers, leadership candidates, members of the Board of Directors, our party President and even some PC caucus members harassed and threatened." (Emphasis added again.)

"It is clear that there is no room in this race for competing ideas and we have seen more anger and division in the last three months than in the half-century legacy of this party," he said.

Since then, Khan has not been shy about pointing the finger at where he believes the problem lies. He told Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons that he thinks Kenney has been trying to sabotage the PC Party, ignoring its rules and not caring if he destroys its reputation. After all, he wants to create something new that is closer to the Wildrose Party.

Calling the Kenney campaign both intelligent and diabolical, Khan told Simons he and his supporters have been the recipients of a stream of racist and Islamaphobic emails from "new" party members -- read, Wildrosers from that far-right party's alt-right fringe. He was even accused of being a jihadi!

If this sounds familiar, it should. These were pretty much the same complaints made by Calgary-North West MLA Sandra Jansen before she dropped out of the leadership race, the caucus and the party, and then crossed the floor to join the NDP. Except, of course, she was assailed for her gender, instead of her race and family's religion.

Khan told the St. Albert Gazette there's "something" about the Kenney campaign that attracts bigots and extremists. "You don’t see the ultra-conservative right supporting any of the renewal candidates," he observed.

Khan gave his support to Richard Starke, the veterinarian from Vermilion who represents the Vermilion-Lloydminster riding in the Legislature. As it happens, Starke joined Redford's cabinet the day Khan departed.

Khan says he isn't necessarily done with politics, which raises some intriguing future possibilities. But it sure sounds as if he's done with being a Tory.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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