POLITICS

The rage of Raj: New Liberal leader Raj Sherman set to battle Alberta Tories

09/11/2011 12:23 EDT | Updated 11/11/2011 05:12 EST
EDMONTON - The new leader of Alberta's Official Opposition admires Abe Lincoln and quotes JFK.

He is Elmer Gantry, a big-tent orator galvanizing converts to demand more of their health-care system.

And he is Wile E. Coyote, taking aim with his mail-order Acme bazooka and blowing his own face off.

Raj Sherman's roller coaster ride brought him Saturday to the leadership of the Alberta Liberals, and a chair in the legislature chamber directly opposite the government that punted him from its fold less than a year ago.

The 45-year-old emergency room doctor turned politician, says his shoot-from-the-hip style of criticism, which made him a folk hero to every Albertan who has ever waited 14 hours for help in the emergency ward, won't change now that he's in charge.

"Anything that's come out of my mouth is basically what's come out of the mouths of Albertans into my ears," said Sherman in an interview. "If it's the truth, if it needs to be said, it's going to get said. I make no apologies for that."

Sherman defeated four challengers, including party stalwarts Hugh MacDonald and Laurie Blakeman to win the race to replace outgoing leader David Swann.

His opponents have criticized him as a one-issue parvenu who could polarize a party falling in the polls and atrophying at the grassroots.

Sherman says he'll unite with his leadership opponents, rebuild the party, and focus on broader issues.

"The most important issue for me moving forward is our economy," he said.

He said he'll push for a new pipeline to the west coast and will back the controversial Keystone XL pipeline extension through the U.S. Midwest, which is garnering widespread protest from environmentalists.

"I plan to work with the oil industry," said Sherman. "I don't plan to scare the bejesus out of it like my previous government did (by continuously adjusting fee schedules on oil royalties)."

Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said Sherman gives the party a sorely needed high-profile leader on the No. 1 topic for Albertans — health care.

She said she speaks from personal experience. Last February she was to address a health forum with Sherman in Calgary. The snow that day paralysed the city, but it was too late to call the event off, so her husband drove her to the forum.

"We got there and the parking lot was full. There were almost 300 people there. And they were there to hear Raj," she said.

Sherman, in a way, is a natural choice for a party that has measured success for 90 years by the size of its losses and is trying to unseat a Progressive Conservative government that has run the levers of power since 1971.

In the last decade, the Liberal party leadership has become a Venn diagram of health-centric critics and ex-Tories with axes to grind.

Nancy MacBeth, a former Tory health minister, took over the Liberals in 1998, only to see the party annihilated by then-premier Ralph Klein's team in the 2001 election.

In came ineffectual caretaker Ken Nicol. He was quickly replaced by Kevin Taft, an academic who ran for office after Klein labelled him a "communist" for his stinging treatise on Tory health-care mismanagement.

After Taft came Swann in 2008. Swann, a medical doctor, jumped to politics when the Tories dumped him from his public health officer post for speaking out on climate change.

Next up is Sherman. He was elected in the Edmonton-Meadowlark riding for the Tories in 2008 and just days later became the junior health minister.

He led two lives: during the week he saw a cabinet fail to take action on wait lists. On weekends, he'd work in the emergency ward and see the frontline frustration.

By November of last year his frustration spilled over. He criticized his own caucus and Premier Ed Stelmach for failing to deliver on promises to fix health care. He assailed health officials for "knucklehead" decisions. He took a strip off former health minister Ron Liepert, calling him a misguided bully boy.

His caucus colleagues kicked him out and he crossed the floor to sit as an Independent.

He then travelled the province, listening to people's heath-care concerns. He became a hero, a rebel with establishment cred, a famous face on TV talk shows, Don Quixote with a lancet for a lance, "The Shermanator."

And then he stepped in it.

In late February he rose in the house and levelled allegations against Edmonton health officials and the government: 250 patients had died awaiting surgery for lung cancer. Doctors who knew about it were either coerced into silence or paid off with millions of dollars in hush money. Officials kept two sets of books to hide the corruption.

He named names.

It was a sensational charge, but one that had no evidence to substantiate it other than Sherman's unnamed sources.

In the days that followed as the pressure mounted, he promised to provide evidence, then didn't. Then he said he would again, then didn't.

Then he said he couldn't because of privacy rules, then said he wouldn't because his sources needed immunity, then said it's not his role to provide evidence, then said he never promised to provide evidence in the first place.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said he could find no evidence of such a conspiracy.

It was a painfully ironic twist for Sherman: the man who publicly lauded Abraham Lincoln's commitment to the dignity of man had become the poster boy for the awesome power politicians have to publicly shred reputations with legal impunity.

But he had touched a nerve, raising a larger issue of numerous doctors quitting or cutting deals to leave.

Was it a few disgruntled docs or widespread intimidation? Sherman, the Liberals, and other opponents put the government on its heels for weeks, tabling lawsuits and testimonials in the house. They forced Zwozdesky to relent and launch a limited inquiry into health-care problems.

Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah said Sherman is an enigma, but the best chance to revive a moribund party.

"It's going to be exciting," said Mensah, with Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. "Whatever happens, Raj Sherman will be an antagonist. He's going to ruffle feathers."

What Sherman will do Monday is to start rebuilding a party that lost half its caucus in the last election, has precious little money in the bank, has seen more than half its constituency associations in Edmonton and Calgary lapse into inactivity, and is all but invisible in rural Alberta.

"Ask not what your party can do for you, but what you can do for your party," he told the audience more than a week ago at a debate.

For Sherman, it means the doctor is in, tying on his gown as he's pushed through the door to face the Liberal body politic lying on the operating table.

It has a sucking chest wound and is hemorrhaging buckets of blood.