Christy Clark to seek Kelowna seat in byelection; Ben Stewart resigning

Premier Christy Clark is parachuting into Kelowna, the home of the Bennett political dynasty and the “cradle of free enterprise,” to try to regain a seat in the B.C. legislature.

Citizens’ Services and Open Government Minister Ben Stewart said Wednesday that he is vacating his Westside-Kelowna riding to give Clark a shot at winning in a byelection.

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“I want to ensure the premier has a chance to deliver not just on our vision, but on some of the real things we need to do for British Columbia to make sure we move ahead,” an emotional Stewart said.

Clark led her B.C. Liberal party to a stunning majority victory in the May 14 provincial election, but lost her own seat in Vancouver-Point Grey to the NDP’s David Eby.

Clark said she was humbled by Stewart’s selflessness. “He’s not a man who did it because he needed to be asked, he did it because he has character.”

Westside-Kelowna is seen as a relatively safe seat for the Liberals and a potentially easy win for Clark.

Stewart won re-election with 58.4 per cent of the vote, outpacing his NDP challenger by two votes to one.

The choice to run in the Okanagan Valley is also symbolic for Clark. A previous version of the South Okanagan riding was held by former premier W.A.C. Bennett for more than 20 years, and then by his son Bill Bennett, who was also premier.

Clark repeatedly compared herself to the Bennetts during the election campaign, saying her pursuit of liquefied natural gas jobs and revenue was similar to W.A.C. Bennett’s push to harness the province’s natural resources and aggressively pursue hydroelectric dams.

Her campaign promise to eliminate B.C.’s debt within 15 years and crack down on government spending may also mirror W.A.C. Bennett’s debt-elimination push — he once famously shot a flaming arrow to set ablaze a barge representing B.C.’s debt — and also Bill Bennett’s government restraint program.

“Kelowna is a natural political home for me on the values that I believe in,” said Clark. “This is the cradle of free enterprise. This is a community that has been represented by two premiers before and it’s a community that's been represented by a man of great character for the last four years. Amongst all the offers I received from MLAs, this one felt like the most natural.”

Brad Bennett, the son of Bill and grandson of W.A.C., joined Clark for much of her campaign tour around the province, also linking his family’s political legacy to Clark’s economic vision.

Wednesday’s byelection news conference was held at Quail’s Gate Winery, which Stewart owns and of which Brad Bennett is chairman.

Clark lives in Metro Vancouver, but there is no law saying she must be a resident of the Kelowna riding in order to become MLA. Nonetheless, she said she’ll find a residence in the area.

Stewart, first elected in 2009, hasn’t served long enough to earn an MLA pension. Nor is he eligible for a 15 month “transitional allowance” of his MLA salary because he is resigning. He is, however, quite wealthy through land and business holdings.

The byelection campaign should officially begin within the next week, said Clark. That could mean a mid-July vote, and the potential for Clark to return to the legislature during a planned summer session.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said his party will select a candidate and fight Clark in the byelection.

B.C. Green Leader Jane Sterk said her party won’t run a candidate, because the premier deserves to be in the legislature.

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