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The People’s Premier: Ralph Klein 1942 - 2013
Published Friday, March 29, 2013 1:53PM MDT
Last Updated Saturday, March 30, 2013 5:36PM MDT
One of Alberta’s most beloved and colourful political characters has died in a Calgary care facility.
Ralph Klein, 70, passed away on Friday morning, his family reported.
“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. I want to thank everyone for their support and especially of the caregivers who helped us throughout. It has all made a tremendous difference,” said Colleen Klein in a release on Friday.
For a man who ran much of his first campaign out of a bar, he left his mark on this city and our province.
“He was the anti-politician in many ways. He ran as an underdog and continued to promise to do things that no one thought was possible,” said Don Martin, host of Power Play. “In many ways he was one of the early triumphs of personality over any other promise he made because that was Ralph, he was all personality.”
Klein was born and raised in Calgary and after dropping out of high school, he spent time in the reserves, then public relations.
It was his job as a city hall reporter for CFCN News that thrust him into the public eye.
After ten years on the beat, Klein decided to stop covering the mayor and go after his job instead.
He didn't even tell his newsroom his was running and his employers found out at the same time and in the same way as the rest of Calgary, from the newspaper.
Even though he had no political experience, Klein was soon the mayor of Alberta's largest city.
During his time as Mayor, he led Calgary through the ’88 Winter Olympics and oversaw the launch of the LRT.
Three terms and a little over a decade later, he was named Alberta’s Premier.
His time in the legislature was polarizing as he laid off thousands of government workers, shut down hospitals, and alienated many environmentalists. At the same time, he kept his promise to wipe out the debt and his style resonated with many voters.
He enjoyed landslide victories at the polls and won over thousands of Albertans by doling out "Ralph Bucks". The $400 rebate cheques were sent to every Albertan when oil revenues were high, even though economists criticized the stunt.
“No analyst would have said that anybody could manage what he did and get away with it, that he managed to retain that kind of popularity that he did it in spite of some of the horrible gaffs,” said Lori Williams , MRU Political Analyst.
Mayor Klein's refusal to mince words brought him a boat-load of controversy as he blamed "eastern bums and creeps" for moving to Calgary and causing crime.
He stood his ground when mad cow disease threatened the province’s beef industry.
When international borders closed to Alberta beef, Premier Klein lamented that ranchers should just "shoot, shovel, and shut up".
Most of his comments were chalked up to "Ralph just being Ralph" and he weathered the criticism.
That changed in 2001, when an intoxicated Klein accosted a homeless man at an Edmonton shelter, telling him to get a job. The public was less forgiving this time and Klein publically vowed to stop drinking.
Ralph Klein's time in office was also coming to an end and his party lost 11 seats in the 2004 election.
A subsequent confidence vote by the party gave him just 55 percent support which he said was not enough to stay on the job.
“It was a tragic way to end it. Classic case of going one term too long, he could've walked out after three and everyone would've said hallelujah Ralph Klein, you’re the greatest thing, instead he hung around and the party started to turn on him,” said Martin.
After leaving office, Klein took on roles at a university, a law firm, and a conservative think tank.
Ralph Klein received many honours through the years. He has a park and a political riding named after him and was awarded the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2010.
He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2012 but was too ill to accept in person so his wife Colleen accepted the award from the Governor General in a special ceremony in Calgary.
Over the past few years, Klein’s health deteriorated with the onset of dementia and COPD and he was moved to a care facility.
Ralph Klein is survived by his wife Colleen, three children and two step-children.
There is no word yet on when a public memorial will be held.