ALBERTA

Ralph Klein Obituary: A Divisive Legacy, A Controversial Politician And A Man Of The People

03/29/2013 04:11 EDT | Updated 03/31/2013 01:51 EDT

Ralph Klein's humble beginnings could not possibly have foreshadowed the impact he would have on Alberta and the imprint he would leave on Alberta politics.

Klein, Officer of the Order of Canada, Member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, former journalist, Calgary mayor, Alberta premier, and unapologetic Tory, died in Calgary on Friday. He was 70.

Seen by his supporters as 'a man of the people' and by his detractors as brutish, Klein left an undeniable mark in the social, political and economic fabric of Alberta.

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Ralph Klein's Most Memorable Quotes

Klein's focus on abolishing the provincial debt became mantric.

His efforts, to a great degree, were behind the province's ability to deliver balanced budget after balanced budget during the latter half of his tenure as premier.

But his efforts also saw a massive exodus of medical professionals, the demolition of hospitals in the 1990s, cuts to the arts and belt-tightening in education.

Klein was heralded as the knight who slew the dragon of unbridled government spending and put an end to provincial debt, but he was also credited with saddling the province with a backlog of infrastructure issues that may take decades to overcome.

Klein was born in Calgary in 1942 and had a tumultuous childhood. He was, to a great degree, raised by his grandparents after his parents separated when he was six years old. Klein was a high school dropout.

He finished high school after joining the RCAF reserves and eventually attended Athabasca University.

His communications career played out much the same way as his political career – unconventionally. Where many reporters make the jump from journalism to public relations, Klein made the jump from public relations to reporting, working for the Red Cross and the United Way before becoming a TV reporter in 1969.

He put his communications skills to work as a politician when he was elected mayor of Calgary in 1980. By all measures, Klein was a popular mayor.

During his tenure as the city's chief executive, Klein garnered national attention when he attributed the overcrowding in Alberta’s jails and prisons at the time to "bums and creeps" coming to the province from Eastern Canada. He was also the mayor who helped Calgary win the right to stage the Winter Olympics and was the reigning mayor when the games came to town in 1988.

Klein entered provincial politics the following year, being elected the Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary Elbow in the 1989 election.

As the province struggled under a mountain of debt and failed business ventures, Klein took over the party in December, 1992, becoming premier with the promise to reduce the size of government and to aggressively reduce the provincial debt.

His manner of politics was characterized by a brash sort of charisma that allowed many to feel close to the man, seeing him as a guy they could very well run into at a downtown bar and have a beer with. To others, he was simply brutish.

But his style, which earned him the moniker 'King Ralph,' and his laser-sharp political focus, allowed him to maintain an air of invincibility, as he ruled continuous majority governments for 14 years.

He was against gay marriage in Alberta, hated the Kyoto Accord, shot from the hip and is behind Canada's only flat tax.

He had it and didn't mind flaunting it.

In typical King Ralph fashion, and in a not-so-humble manner, Klein gave each man, woman and child living in Alberta in 2005 a $400 cheque, later dubbed 'Ralph Bucks,' after he made the provincial debt a thing of the past.

The point was made. He paid off the provincial debt and now he could throw proverbial $100 bills out into the province’s streets.

Klein often came across as a cold political operator driven by focused views, and to whom a good balance sheet was all that was required for good politics.

But then there were the moments of humanity too.

Upon being elected mayor of Calgary, he said, "none of these people owe me anything, but I owe them a lot."

After one of the lowest points in his career – a day on which he stumbled past an Edmonton homeless shelter and tossed some change at a homeless man, while telling him to get a job – Klein publicly, and with uncharacteristic humility, admitted to having an alcohol problem.

During his last day at the Alberta Legislature, the 'Man of the People,' 'King Ralph,' the premier with the rough edges, cried.

Klein's politics were loved by many but also widely despised.

"My day was not complete without a protest or two or three," Klein said.

But few people who were in the province under his reign would deny the politician was a likeable guy.

But he doesn't leave behind just the image of an outspoken politician or a loveable persona.

When rage burns inside today's conservative Albertans upset that the province will run a deficit, they are revealing a mindset brought to life by Klein.

When Albertans talk about the government’s getting out of the business of business and prophesize about the virtues of small government, that is Klein talking.

When Albertans react defensively about the oil patch or the province's agriculture, it is a continuation of a belief system fostered by Klein.

So many of the beliefs and mindsets that are automatically associated with Alberta attitudes today, for better or worse, are sentiments that were fostered and introduced to the populace’s collective way of thinking by Klein.

To some extent, today's Alberta PCs struggle with that legacy, as they try to marry the province's growing and expensive infrastructure and service needs with what is now a provincial culture of expecting low taxes and even lower spending.

On top of that, the Tories must deal with the many conservatives disillusioned with the current government, and who yearn for a return to those guiding principles.

Klein does leave a divisive legacy, but it is a legacy – whether divine or misguided – that most likely came from an honest place.

When expressing his feelings about Alberta, Klein, who in later years battled dementia and chronic lung problems, is quoted as saying: “This is a province rich in blessings and hope. The best is yet to come."