After four years as a trio of middle-aged white guys, Team Okanagan is going coed.
But the newest member of the triumvirate of local Liberal political representatives is no regular MLA.
Christy Clark may be the new Westside-Kelowna MLA, but also happens to be the premier of B.C.
And, as such, not only are the dynamics of the group about to change, so too are the expectations of what it can now get done.
“The dynamics of the team will definitely change,” said Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson, who sits in Clark’s cabinet as Forests and Natural Resource Minister.
“But I think we—(Kelowna-Lake Country MLA) Norm (Letnick), myself and now Christy—will work very effectively together.”
Clark, he said, now knows the local issues, has a copy of the joint priority list he, Letnick and former Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart put together two years ago for needed infrastructure here and even addressed several key local issues on the byelection campaign trail.
On Wednesday night in her victory speech, Clark talked of her desire to improve Westside Road, get a health centre built on the Westside, fix flooding problems on McDougall Creek in West Kelowna, start planning for a second crossing of Okanagan Lake, build on the foundation of skills training improvements already underway at Okanagan College and UBCO, encourage a thriving tech sector here and support local agriculture.
“People elected me because they feel I can deliver for Westside-Kelowna,” said a beaming Clark to cheers. “And I’m going to deliver.”
On Wednesday night, Letnick, Clark’s parliamentary secretary for intergovernmental affairs, said he expects how he and Thomson work with Clark in relation to riding issues will develop over time, just as it did between Thomson, Stewart and himself.
He welcomed Clark to Team Okanagan, saying having her represent a Central Okanagan riding can only be good news for the entire area.
The premier has made no secret of the fact she feels as a local MLA, it’s her job to get things done for her riding, even though she is also premier of the entire province.
Citing the examples of two former Kelowna-area based premiers, W.A.C. Bennett and his son Bill Bennett—who is now one of Clark’s constituents—Clark said neither man shied away from working to improve their home ridings.
Both men, she said, were men of vision and that included a vision for the entire province.
While obviously planned in advance with the belief that Clark had the byelection in hand, the premier immediately proved true to her word and hit the ground running in her new riding Thursday morning.
Less than 18 hours after accepting victory, she gathered reporters on Westside Road to announce more money for Westside Road improvements. An additional $1 million will be spent this sumer on paving and patching work on what BCAA has dubbed the worst road in the province two years in a row.
“It’s time this road was as safe as it is scenic,” said Clark.
Clark won her way onto Team Okanagan with a resounding victory in Wednesday’s byelection.
And she put an exclamation mark on her win by taking nearly 63 per cent of the vote, even better than the 58 per cent Stewart took in last month’s provincial election.
Stewart stepped down to let Clark run here after she lost her VancouverPoint-Grey seat to the NDP’s David Eby in the provincial election.
That occurred despite the fact she led her party to a surprise come-from-behind win to give the Liberals their fourth consecutive majority government.
While the byelection win sends Clark back into the B.C. Legislature, she said Thursday it may not have come in time for her to actually sit in the current session, which only has two weeks left.
Clark remains unsure of when the byelection writ will be returned or when she will be sworn in as MLA.
As well, Clark is committed to attend a premiers’ meeting at the end of the month, so she may have to wait a while longer before having the chance to officially re-enter the legislative chamber in Victoria.
But she said in the meantime, she has plenty on her plate to keep her busy.
On Wednesday night, addressing the throng who turned out to cheer her and celebrate her victory, Clark expressed her gratitude to campaign workers, supporters, those who voted for her and especially to Stewart, who she said worked tirelessly on her campaign.
But she also had a message for those who did not vote for her in the byelection.
“I intend to work hard to get your vote in four years time when I run here again,” she said to loud cheers.
Clark had already committed to running in the riding again the 2017 provincial election, and Letnick welcomed that commitment.
Much was made during the campaign by her NDP challenger Carole Gordon about Clark not living in the riding and not being up on local issues.
But the premier, while she feels comfortable with her knowledge of local issues, conceded new ones come up all the time in any riding.
Westside-Kelowna would not different. She said now she has been elected, she plans to buy a condo here and set up a second residence.
Clark said she had not done so before the vote because to do so earlier would have been presumptuous.
“I plan to be here a lot,” she told reporters.
After being in campaign mode for most of the last six months, Clark recognizes it’s now time to get back to governing.
And she believes the people of B.C. and Westside-Kelowna voted for optimism and hope in the provincial election and the byelection, so that that’s what she plans to give them.
“Like I always say, you don’t win elections if you don’t stand for something,” said Clark, adding her well-worn campaign line: “I believe in growing the economy, not government.”
That will be the key to providing both the Westside-Kelowna and rest of the province with what it needs in the future in terms of infrastructure and services.
Criticized by some of her opponents in the byelection campaign for growing B.C.’s debt at the same time as running on a platform claiming she wants to reduce the debt, the premier said her government has reduced the rate of public spending but there are some infrastructure projects that still need to be done.
Comparing it to owning a house and being on a budget, she said sometimes you have to cut back on your spending but you still need to maintain your home.
On Thursday, she said that was the case with the new spending announced for Westside Road.
Work, she said, needs to be done on the road to make it safer.
Area regional district director Jim Edgson welcomed the new money but said it is important that smaller improvement projects continue while the government looks at how it will pay for the larger, more expensive safety fixes the road needs.
That work, he predicted, could take four to five years to plan and overall the road could cost in the tens of millions of dollar to fix.
But, on the day after Clark did the expected and won the Westside-Kelowna byelection, it was all smiles at the road announcement, despite that fact it was not the large scale improvement many area residents have been asking for.
Clark said in the last five years, $10.3 million has been spent on the road to improve it, with $6.5 million of that coming in the last year alone.
Clark deflected questions about if all that work would have been done had there not been a provincial election and then a byelection happening here.
She credited Stewart, as the local MLA, with getting most of the money for the road during his four years in office.
“Sure I helped push it along, but Ben was the one who did the work,” she said.
For Stewart, who won praise from the premier for stepping down so Clark could run in an area she calls the “cradle of free enterprise,” there appears to be a continued role as advisor to Clark, if he wants it.
The premier said while he would not be paid, nor has he asked to be paid, she plans to continue using his knowledge and expertise for as long as he is willing to help her.
On election night, when asked about her campaign’s use of Stewart—he was front and centre throughout—she credited the size of her win, in part, to the popularity of her political predecessor.
“It just shows how strong Christy Clark and Ben Stewart can be together,” she said, flashing what one of her byelection challengers dubbed her familiar “fairy tale” smile.
That smile seemed like a permanent fixture Wednesday night—as it has been through much of the campaign—as she basked in the glory of victory in her new political home.
“Thank you Westside-Kelowna,” she said. “Thank you for welcoming me with open arms and open hearts.”