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B.C. Liberals opt for veteran over fresh face in leadership race

B.C. Liberal Party members went right to the brink of endorsing a fresh new face in the leadership spot Saturday, then switched gears and picked a party veteran.
Andrew Wilkinson
Andrew Wilkinson was elected leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party in Vancouver on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018.

Les Leyne mugshot genericB.C. Liberal Party members went right to the brink of endorsing a fresh new face in the leadership spot Saturday, then switched gears and picked a party veteran.

Andrew Wilkinson, formerly a cabinet minister, party president and key adviser to former premier Gordon Campbell, out-distanced Dianne Watts on the fifth count.

Watts and another relative newcomer, rookie MLA Michael Lee, led through three counts, showing that the members were keen for renewal.

But when it came down to the former Surrey mayor versus the establishment figure, Wilkinson edged her out, winning 53 per cent of the points allocated evenly through all the ridings.

Todd Stone, another former cabinet minister considered a front-runner, surprised many with a dismal showing. He was in the middle of the six-person pack on the first count, but then slipped back and fell off after the third count. He overreached during the campaign when he hired a data-analysis firm to create a membership tracking system that blew up in his face.

Wilkinson had 13 caucus members in his camp, while Watts couldn’t muster a single one.

The new B.C. Liberal leader, who reminds some people of the one who won three elections — Campbell — stressed that he knows how to get under Premier John Horgan’s skin.

At one all-candidates’ meeting, he was proud to say: “John Horgan doesn’t like me much.”

Moments after the win, he said he was ready to go up against the NDP immediately, in the legislature and in the upcoming referendum on proportional representation, which he called a payoff to the Green Party.

“My task is to make sure we hold the NDP to account with smart, incisive questions that will make their skin crawl.”

His win clears away months of uncertainty during which the sullen, downcast caucus came to grips with winning the election by a handful of votes, then losing a confidence vote, losing power and losing their leader.

The resentment at being bounced out of office after 16 years contributed to a nasty leadership campaign featuring lots of sniping at Watts. But nearly all hands took the stage after the win, including Watts, and Wilkinson said restoring unity is Job 1.

He noted the leadership count was done in the same room where Liberals celebrated their two biggest wins, in 2001 and 2013.

It was no accident they played We Are Family during the break in the counts. Wilkinson said he wanted the caucus to absorb the fact: “We must be together.”

Former Cowichan Liberal candidate Steve Housser said Wilkinson is smart, reasonably aggressive and went out of his way to help the party in Cowichan and other parts of the Island, where he has family connections.

Vancouver Island’s lone Liberal MLA, Michelle Stilwell (Parksville-Qualicum), was delighted after the results, saying Wilkinson is exactly what the party and the caucus need.

A rejuvenated Opposition will likely win the Kelowna West byelection on Feb. 14, putting them one tantalizing seat ahead of the NDP, but still behind the NDP-Green total.

They’ll have lots of points of attack when the house sits. But the fate of the party that dominated B.C. for years is largely in the hands of the NDP government. If it avoids political disasters, the next election could be almost as close as the last one. And if the NDP succeeds in changing the voting system, everything will be up in the air.