Ralph Klein, former Alberta premier, dies at 70
Published Friday, March 29, 2013 3:56PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, March 30, 2013 7:33AM EDT
Ralph Klein, the television reporter-turned politician who became a national figure during his 14 years as Alberta premier, died Friday in his hometown of Calgary. He was 70.
On behalf of Klein’s family, Alberta Health Services issued a statement saying he died surrounded by family and close friends at a Calgary continuing care centre.
Klein was diagnosed with dementia in the spring of 2011 and hospitalized several months later. He also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, more recently, pneumonia.
Klein’s wife, Colleen, thanked the public for their support.
“The nature of his illness made it very difficult to express his thoughts these past years which I know was a real challenge for him, but Ralph very much knew and appreciated the well wishes and warm messages he received,” she said.
Following news of Klein’s death, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lamented the loss of a “unique and significant leader.”
“While Ralph’s beliefs about the role of government and fiscal responsibility were once considered radical, it is perhaps his greatest legacy that these ideas are now widely embraced across the political spectrum,” Harper said in a statement.
He called Klein a man “equally at home in the Petroleum Club as he was in the St. Louis Hotel. A man who said what he believed and did what he said.”
In a recent interview with CTV’s Power Play, Alberta Premier Alison Redford said Klein had a natural likeability that drew people to him.
“People are very fond of him. They are very attached to his legacy,” she said. “For me, it was always about his connection with people.”
“He always was a straight talker,” she said, adding that when she finds herself in front of reporters, she often thinks “What would Ralph say?”
Known as “King Ralph,” the straight-talking but sometimes polarizing Klein managed to create a lasting political career that spanned decades and two levels of government.
Klein became Alberta’s premier in 1992, slashing the provincial budget and balancing the books through a series of deep public cuts – dubbed the “The Klein Revolution”-- that made him the envy of conservatives across the country.
As oil and gas fortunes rose in the province through the 1990s, Klein’s government was able to pay off more than $23 billion in provincial debt by 2004, putting Alberta in the black for the first time in years.
Klein’s rise in prominence is often attributed to his folksy public persona, razor wit and no-nonsense political style that he cultivated during his time as a television reporter throughout the 1970s at Calgary’s CTV affiliate, CFCN.
Klein first entered politics in 1980 with a surprise victory as mayor of Calgary at the age of 37. It wasn’t long before he made headlines, blaming the city’s rising crime rate on “creeps” and “bums” from eastern Canada who were only there for the jobs.
But the voters loved his style, re-electing him in 1983 and again in 1986 with some of the largest victories in Calgary history.
Current Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called Klein a “true born-and-raised Calgarian” and said that he played a huge role in helping to shape the city from 1980 to 1989.
“Ralph Klein taught us, as Calgarians, that we don’t need to put on airs. We don’t need to pretend we’re something we are not in order to be a truly great city in this world,” Nenshi said in a statement Friday. “His legacy surrounds us, and he will be sorely missed.”
Klein made the move to provincial politics in 1989, becoming minister of the environment under Premier Don Getty. Three years later, when Getty stepped down, Klein was a natural replacement.
He is widely credited with reviving the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, when it seemed to be losing its grip on power.
Throughout his premiership, Klein rarely backed down from a battle: in 2000, he went to war with the federal government over the controversial Health Care Protection Act. Known as Bill 11, the legislation came under fire by critics who claimed that it could lead to two-tier healthcare.
He also faced his personal struggles.
In 2001, Klein infamously threw money at people in an Edmonton homeless shelter, telling them to get jobs. After that, he publicly admitted that he had a drinking problem and vowed to address it.
Near the end of his tenure as premier in 2006, Klein was criticized for making a crude remark about then-Liberal MP Belinda Stronach. Klein refused to apologize, simply saying a “roast is a roast is a roast.”
But for all his controversies, Klein was a natural politician who was able to connect with voters, and enjoyed massive popularity in his home province during much of his tenure. In 2001 his party won 74 of 83 seats, winning nearly two out of every three votes.
Klein faced additional controversy near the end of his career, when he became a proponent of privatized health care in an effort to fight growing costs.
As well, Alberta’s infrastructure began to suffer as Canadians from coast-to-coast flocked to the oil-rich province for jobs, scooping up rental housing and clogging roads.
Before his retirement, Klein admitted that he never had a plan to accommodate new Albertans, as infrastructure development had been sacrificed to pay off the debt.
Klein retired in 2006 with a 55-per-cent vote of confidence at a leadership review. In the prime of his premiership, he routinely received confidence votes around 90 per cent.
In the months leading up to his death, Klein made very few public appearances. In the spring of 2011, it was revealed that he had been diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia. The condition made it difficult for Klein to recall names and even, sometimes, speak.
Last November, Klein was inducted into the Order of Canada. Too ill to attend the ceremony, Klein’s wife, Colleen, accepted the medal on his behalf.
Klein leaves behind Colleen, three children and two step children.
With files from The Canadian Press