Former B.C. finance minister Mike de Jong enters Liberal leadership race

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Victoria: British Columbia’s former finance minister Mike de Jong has announced his bid for the provincial Liberal leadership, joining a race that already includes two other past cabinet ministers and the former mayors of B.C.’s two largest cities.

De Jong made his decision official Tuesday, saying his goal is to re-energize a free-enterprise coalition.

It’s his second run at the post. He lost to former premier Christy Clark in 2011.

“By bringing together an expanded and diverse team of new supporters, we can develop an exciting vision for our province’s future that builds upon our record of having established B.C. as Canada’s leading economy,” de Jong said in a news release.

Supporters include former Liberal cabinet ministers Teresa Wat and Pat Bell, as well as legislature members John Martin and Simon Gibson.

De Jong, who has served in the legislature for more than 23 years, said he can rebuild the party, which was ousted from office following last spring’s election after a 16 years in power.

As finance minister under Clark, de Jong tabled five consecutive balanced budgets even as most other Canadian jurisdictions were in deficit, although experts also note B.C.’s child poverty rate was among the highest in the country.

The race to replace Clark is growing crowded, with as many as eight candidates expected to declare by the end of the week.

Former Liberal cabinet ministers Andrew Wilkinson and Mike Bernier announced their candidacies Monday, while past transportation minister Todd Stone indicated he is seriously considering a leadership bid.

Conservative MP Dianne Watts, well known in the Metro Vancouver area as a multi-term former mayor of Surrey, entered the race Sunday and is seen as a strong candidate despite never being elected to the legislature.

Backbencher Sam Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, entered the race last week and recently elected legislature member Michael Lee of Vancouver-Langara and Terrace businesswoman Lucy Sager are also seen as a potential candidates.

The absence of a clear front-runner could get messy for the Liberals, saud David Black, a political communications expert at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

“There’s no heir apparent,” Black said. “When you lack the heir apparent you open the door to a lot of fractiousness.”

He said the Liberals need a leader who appeals to urban voters without cutting the party’s roots in rural areas. In May’s election, the Liberals lost seats in Metro Vancouver and won only one of 14 ridings on Vancouver Island.

The party also needs to find someone to bridge its economic prudence with new social policies, Black said.

“It’s a hard thing to engineer those two paths politically, but it’s trying to find the sweet spot.”

The party will elect its new leader in February.

The Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote in July, paving the way for the NDP to form a minority government with support from the Green party.

Clark resigned as premier and the legislature member for Kelowna-West after the party’s defeat.

The current standings in the 87-seat legislature are: 41 New Democrats, 41 Liberals, three Greens, one Independent and one vacancy.

The Canadian Press