Team Okanagan has an opening for a new member.
But Kelowna-Mission Liberal MLA Steve Thomson and Kelowna-Lake Country Liberal MLA Norm Letnick hope to replace their outgoing Westside-Kelowna colleague Ben Stewart with an even bigger political player, Premier Christy Clark.
Stewart, fresh off a dominating provincial election win May 14 in which he took 58 per cent of the vote in Westside-Kelowna, announced Wednesday he is stepping aside so Clark, who lost her Vancouver-Point Grey seat in the election, can run here in a byelection.
“It’s an important decision for the province, an important decision for the constituency of Westside-Kelowna and an important decision for myself,” said an emotional Stewart.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Clark under sunny but wind-swept skies at his Quail’s Gate Winery in West Kelowna Wednesday, Stewart said stepping aside for Clark did not mean he would step away from politics. He vowed to help Clark win in the riding that he has represented since 2009.
Given the ease with which he won re-election in last month’s general election, Clark’s bid for the seat is not expected to be a difficult one. Stewart’s margin of victory was the fourth highest of any Liberal elected on May 14.
As expected, Clark had nothing but praise for Stewart, saying she was “humbled” by his offer to give up his seat, a gesture she said represented the values he stands for—putting the interests of the province first.
“His will be big shoes to fill but I will do my best to fill them,” said Clark.
And turning to Stewart, she added: “It would be an honour to have the chance to fill your shoes here in Westside-Kelowna.”
Stewart, along with Thomson and Letnick, was elected to the B.C. Legislature for the first time in 2009. They dubbed themselves Team Okanagan because of their close working relationship. All three men said they had individually offered to give up their seats so Clark could run in their respective ridings. But Clark took Stewart’s offer.
She said she chose Westside-Kelowna because it is “the cradle of free enterprise in Canada” and had been part of the ridings of two former B.C. premiers, Social Credit leaders WAC Bennett and his son Bill Bennett. Bill Bennett, who lives in the Westside-Kelowna riding, was not at the news conference Wednesday but his son Brad was. Brad Bennett served as an advisor to Clark during the election campaign and rode the Liberal campaign bus with her every day during the 28-day campaign.
Both Clark and Stewart said no inducement was offered, or made, to get Stewart to step aside. He said the offer came from him and was not requested.
Clark said no date has been set for the byelection but she expects it will be called within a week, with Westside-Kelowna voters heading back to the polls in mid-July.
The premier, who lives in Vancouver but said she plans to establish a second residence in the riding, lost her seat in Vancouver-Point Grey to NDP challenger David Eby in the provincial election. She had beaten Eby in a by-election in that riding two years earlier after she was elected leader of the B.C. Liberal Party and became premier following Gordon Campbell’s resignation.
Clark led the B.C. Liberals to a surprise victory in last month’s provincial election, entering the campaign 20 points behind the NDP in virtually every public opinion poll. But, in a stunning turnaround, when all the votes were counted, the Liberals won 49 of the 85 seats in the Legislature to form a majority government.
Clark said despite her role as premier, she plans to be in the riding a great deal both during the byelection campaign and, if elected, during the next four years.
“I’m going to be up here as often as I can,” she said. “We’re certainly going to be having a lot of cabinet meetings and caucus meetings up in Kelowna I can predict now. I’ll certainly have a secondary residence here, so I’ll be up here quite a bit. The thing is, as premier you’re travelling a lot, but I’ll be here as much as I possibly can.”
She added Stewart, co-owner of Quail’s Gate Winery, isn’t going anywhere.
“Ben is going to be here, by my side, making sure that I’m able to pick up all the files he’s been working so hard on.”
She said her choice of Westside-Kelowna also won the endorsement of her 11-year-old son. “I told him about this, this morning, and he’s thrilled. He said: ‘Wow Mom, that’s a really good choice.’”
As for being elected here, Clark said she plans to campaign the same way she did across the province last month.
“I am going to door-knock. I’m going to talk to as many people as I possibly can. I’m going to make sure that I really get a chance to listen to people, talk to them about the issues that are important to them, and make sure that I can reflect those local issues.”
She said if elected here, she will have a special responsibility to look after the needs of her new constituents. “I’m going to spend every minute I can making sure I know what those issues are.”
On Friday, Clark will unveil her new cabinet. Stewart was minister of citizen services in the last B.C. cabinet.