Why Jim Prentice is unfamiliar to average Alberta voters

They were rocked when their premier wanted a penthouse suite for an office, and staggered by the misuse of government planes and the awarding of six-figure severance payouts to outgoing staff.

No wonder Alberta’s Tories are anxious for Saturday’s leadership vote. After being battered, bruised and beleaguered for months, the time has come for someone to wipe away the memories of ex-premier Alison Redford while reconnecting with Albertans in time for the 2016 provincial election.

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The man expected to take up that challenge is a fly-fishing Calgary lawyer, banker and former federal cabinet minister whose deep ties to the Progressive Conservatives can play either way. Jim Prentice is either the Tory veteran with the right experience to maintain his party’s 43-year stranglehold on Alberta. Or he’s simply more of the same, the man who as a federal minister once took a private plane from Calgary to Fort MacLeod rather than drive it in two hours, according to expense reports acquired by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

The problem is that, while he has an undeniably impressive résumé, Mr. Prentice is notably reserved and not well known to average Albertans.

“His greatest strength is his greatest weakness. He’s the established candidate. He’s won the loyalty of downtown Calgary,” said David Taras, a provincial government adviser and professor of communication studies at Mount Royal University. “But to the blue-collar people in small-town Alberta he may seem a distant figure. They wonder, ‘How does he relate to me?’ I don’t think he is that guy [who cares only about big business], but it’s a problem for him.”

On his political travels, Mr. Prentice, 58, played up his down-home roots instead of touting his national and international experience. He visited towns and “places that I didn’t know had community halls.” He talked about working in a Southern Alberta coal mine to pay for his university education. His dad, Eric Prentice, was a pro hockey player who had a five-game career with the 1943-44 Toronto Maple Leafs when he was barely 17. (His uncle Dean Prentice played 22 years in the NHL.)

The NDP stated its opinion of Mr. Prentice months ago, dubbing him Diamond Jim – though, unlike Ms. Redford, he hasn’t asked that a palatial Sky Palace be built for the premier next to the legislature building. Others have taken notes during Mr. Prentice’s speeches and called him shy on details.

“He hasn’t indicated a clearcut policy change,” said Stephen Carter, the political strategist who helped Ms. Redford get elected, then served as her chief of staff for six months before walking away with a $130,000 severance. “Term limits [for MLAs and premiers]? It was such a bad idea he had to come off it. Besides, who cares about term limits? It’s about what he’s going to do for health care, for education, for human services.”

Leadership hopefuls Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver have tried to stand in the way of Mr. Prentice’s planned ascension. Mr. Lukaszuk served as Ms. Redford’s deputy premier and is himself facing a spending scandal tied to a $20,000 cellphone bill. Mr. McIver has served as the minister of transportation, minister of infrastructure, and lost Calgary’s 2010 mayoral race to Naheed Nenshi. Ken Hughes, another Calgary MLA, dropped out of the leadership race in May to support Mr. Prentice.

Prentice supporters believe he has identified the top priorities – fiscal responsibility, the end of entitlement, being a leader in health care, education and environmental issues – and is best positioned to beat back the challenge from the right-wing Wildrose Party. Specifically, Mr. Prentice wants a smaller cabinet, will not push for a sales tax and wants to open “a saving’s account for future generations.” He also wants to end “sole source contracts for outside consultants.”

There isn’t much new in any of that, but Mr. Prentice believes he’s been “pretty clear on the priorities – good governance and reconnecting with the people. If I’m successful, the public will see a single-minded focus … some details to follow.”

In Alberta, some of the province’s most powerful corporate players have lined up behind Mr. Prentice, documents show. Rick George, Suncor Energy Inc.’s former chief executive; Brian Ferguson, CEO of Cenovus Energy Inc.; J.R. Shaw, who founded Shaw Communications Inc.; and Talisman Energy Inc., are among the 39 donors who gave Mr. Prentice’s campaign between $10,001 and $30,000. Mr. Prentice raised roughly $1.8-million over the course of the campaign, with 564 people or businesses chipping in. Mr. McIver raised about $417,000 thanks to donations from 173 people and organizations. Mr. McIver was the only candidate to receive financial support from billionaire Murray Edwards, a powerful oilman and backroom political player in Alberta who supported Ms. Redford. Mr. Lukaszuk said he raised more than $300,000, thanks to 117 donors.

Money aside, Mr. Prentice’s work experience is extensive. While a minister with the federal government, he had the political chops to be considered as Stephen Harper’s replacement. After leaving Parliament Hill, Mr. Prentice joined CIBC as vice-chair and executive vice-president.

People who saw him at CIBC say Mr. Prentice was a very effective banker, based on his ability to engage with people at all levels and his grasp of issues. That made him a key player in winning over clients. “If he met 10 people, nine of them would say, ‘I’d like to have a beer with that guy,’” said a person who worked with him but requested anonymity.

“He was able to take on heavy roles [in Ottawa] and come through it well respected. On that level he enters Alberta politics with blazing credentials,” Mr. Taras said.

As for Mr. Prentice being shy on policy details, it could be part of the strategy. The race for PC boss has looked as one-sided as an avalanche. Mr. Prentice has already been endorsed by 50 of the party’s MLAs. The polls have always had him in the lead.

“Here’s the thing: He may not want to be specific as the front-runner,” Mr. Taras said. “Why would you put all your cards on the table now? It’s about playing the long game. The real campaign [to be premier] is coming.”

Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this story, Brian Ferguson was incorrectly identified as the CEO of Encana. Mr. Ferguson is the CEO of Cenovus Energy Inc. This version has been corrected.

With a report from Boyd Erman in Toronto

Follow us on Twitter: @CarrieTait, @AllanMaki

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