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Christy Clark: A Look Back

We revisit Frances Bula's article from the spring of 2012. Christy Clark was a year into office, and nobody knew what would become of her
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Christy Clark's Rough Seas
Christy Clark's Rough Seas Ellen Weinstein

We revisit Frances Bula's article from the spring of 2012. Christy Clark was a year into office, and nobody knew what would become of her

Her days are scripted to the minute, though not-thankfully-this early-morning practice period. From behind the Plexiglas of a near-empty hockey rink, Christy Clark is free of distraction for a whole hour and a half, able to focus on her 10-year-old son in his yellow jersey, fighting to defend his goal from shot after shot. B.C.'s 35th premier even gets 10 minutes to put on makeup in the community centre's charmless bathroom-makeup that will have to last through a training-facility tour, an announcement about liquid-natural-gas pipelines, prep time with Korean business contacts for an upcoming trade mission, lunch on Main Street with Filipino community leaders, and a briefing in cabinet offices about the euro zone mess and what it means for B.C. When you're a female politician assessed hourly on your ability to salvage what the Victoria news pack has dubbed Her Troubled Government, makeup is important. It has to be understated enough to deflect jabs that you look like you're auditioning for Dancing With the Stars, but not so modest that on television you look washed out and weak.

At 8 a.m., the sprint begins. Clark's two RCMP escorts report for duty, and after several rounds of "Hamish, come on! I have to get to work," everyone piles into the generic minivan that's her official vehicle to drop him off at school (with a reminder that he's staying at his dad's tonight), then a huddle with executive assistant Gabe Garfinkel over the pink folder with the day's details, then a call to her team in Victoria to refine strategy ("That is such a dumb narrative. He's such a good ally for us, going forward"). Then it's runners off, beige high heels on (those extra four inches keep her from feeling overwhelmed in media scrums), and-ta-da!-Christy Clark is on.

Leaders parachuted into faltering political parties face unique challenges. Ask Kim Campbell, who-trying to reinvent her party in the wake of Brian Mulroney-bolstered the Conservatives' popularity to unseen levels, then led them to electoral annihilation in 1993. Or Rita Johnston, in 1991, another first-time female leader who was unable to rehabilitate the party in the wake of a charismatic rule-bender (this time, Bill Vander Zalm). Or Ujjal Dosanjh in 2001, Paul Martin in 2006, Gordon Brown in 2010. Then again, you could look to Vander Zalm himself, who successfully reinvented the Socred party in 1986 after Bill Bennett's long and confrontational reign. Or Ralph Klein, who revived the Alberta Tories in 1993. Or Glen Clark, who whipped a demoralized NDP past the post for an unprecedented second-term win in 1996.

A new boss can choose between two routes, says Glen, now a top executive in the Pattison empire. He or she can mount a surprise attack. Glen Clark won the leadership of his party in February (as did Christy), and within four months he'd reversed much of predecessor Mike Harcourt's negative coverage and scandals, sailed through a few of his own making, announced that he was freezing tuition fees and Hydro rates, called a provincial election, and won it. The second route is to take it slow. "There is no right answer," he says. "There are lots of examples of leaders waiting and letting people get to know them."

At first Christy Clark's team looked like it would follow Glen Clark's blitzkrieg example. On March 14, 2011, her first day in power, she raised the minimum wage (something the previous Liberal caucus had been dead set against).

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