Dianne Watts, a former mayor of the City of Surrey, says she will quit her federal Conservative seat to run for the leadership of the BC Liberals, seeking to win the trust of a provincial party now out of power for the first time in 16 years so she can reboot it.
Ms. Watts announced her plans Sunday during a rally in this city she led for a decade, calling on about 200 supporters, many of who had followed her through municipal and federal politics, to follow her into her new provincial campaign.
The mayor of B.C.'s second-largest city from 2005 to 2014, Ms. Watts is seeking to lead a party that has traditionally melded elements of both federal Conservatives and federal Liberals, in support of free enterprise. Other senior Liberals are expected to enter the leadership race this week.
"I am committed and I am all in," Ms. Watts said, explaining her decision to leave the South Surrey-White Rock seat that she won in the 2015 federal election.
Liberals will choose a successor to former premier Christy Clark next February. Ms. Watts's immediate agenda includes attending the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention this week to look for support, and then hitting the road for a tour of the province.
But a spokesperson for Ms. Watts said the former mayor only joined the party she wants to lead in May of this year – a reality that evoked astonishment from ex-education minister Mike Bernier, who also entered the leadership race this weekend with an announcement in Dawson Creek where he lives.
"Wow," said Mr. Bernier, explaining many people will ask Ms. Watts how loyal she is to the party.
"I've been a member of this party for a long time as have most of the other people running, but I don't want to discredit any other candidate because everyone is, I believe, going to run a very hard-fought campaign," said Mr. Bernier, who launched his campaign in his northern riding on Saturday.
"I don't think Dianne Watts has any advantage over anybody being an outsider. In fact, in some ways that might make it a little harder on her because she does not have any proven track record supporting our group. I have not seen what she has done in the last election."
Ms. Watts, commenting on her BC Liberal credentials, told a news conference after her kickoff speech that she was once a campaign manager for a successful BC Liberal campaign.
She was dismissive of "identity politics" and said she is a fiscal conservative who balances a commitment to doing the right thing for communities and taking care of the less fortunate.
Former finance minister Mike de Jong has raised questions about where Ms. Watts was as the BC Liberals fought for re-election this spring.
Although the party won the most seats, it was toppled when the NDP and Greens united to vote together on a confidence measure.
"I'll you exactly where I was," Ms. Watts said. "I was sitting in the House of Commons doing the job the taxpayers paid me to do. I think they would be terribly offended if I left the House of Commons in Ottawa and came out to work on an election. Surely, I can't imagine my presence there would have done any difference in the outcome."
There was little sign of caucus support in the room as Ms. Watts launched her bid, but she told a news conference that caucus members have told her they are waiting to see who runs and what vision they offer before deciding who to support.
Both Ms. Watts and Mr. Bernier promised shifts in the style and priorities of the Liberals.
"I believe, like many British Columbians, that a strong economy and balanced budgets must have a purpose, and that purpose has to be our children, our families, our seniors and those who are most vulnerable," Ms. Watts told the rally.
Of the Liberals, Ms. Watts said, "We need to rebound, rebuild and reconnect with voters who have supported us election after election right up until this year's election."
Ms. Watts said the past BC Liberal Throne Speech tabled earlier this summer that embraced some NDP and Green policies was "very confusing" for British Columbians, and the Liberals need to stand on their own public policies and strategies.
She said campaign-finance reform was necessary, but she was opposed to forcing voters to subsidize parties – a measure in legislation the NDP government has introduced.
"The whole bill needs to be rewritten."
Mr. Bernier said he would consult the party executive before deciding whether or not the party should accept subsidies.
Mr. Bernier, a former Dawson Creek mayor first elected to the legislature in 2013, said the Throne Speech cost the party credibility with the public.
"We should not have been reacting on issues because of politics. We should have been reacting on issues because they were the right thing to do for families."
Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, now an MLA, announced last week that he was running.