King Ralph some called him. Citizen Ralph others called him. Some found him overbearing, egotistical, arrogant, uncaring. Others thought he was a man of the people, "one of us". Some thought his Premiership was an utter disaster. Others thought he was the greatest thing to happen to the province since Lougheed (and for some that assessment includes the 2 premiers who followed him). Ralph Klein, from his first term as mayor of Calgary through to the end of his political career made a splash. That much is certain.
I first heard about the man in that first term. As the recession of the early 1980's hit in full force and jobs became scarcer there were a number of imports who had come to Alberta in search of the plentiful oil-patch jobs they had heard about for most of the 1970's [funny how things stay the same isn't it, people still come to Alberta looking for the plentiful oil-patch jobs -- just ask how many Easterners are working in Fort MacMurray]. Only problem was, the jobs had dried up with the crash of the oil industry and soaring interest rates so there were hordes (according to some) of unemployed Easterners in Calgary. Mayor Klein went on the record as telling the Eastern bums and jerks to go home. He did have a way of speaking his mind. [Just to note, Ralph was hardly unique in Alberta to having a less than friendly disposition to the East at times--there have been many people in the province who have at one time said the Eastern bums could freeze in the dark, and during the 1980's there was a vocal group calling for Western separation]
Then later Ralph became a Cabinet Minister. I remember in 3rd year University doing a parody of him as Environment minster. If memory serves there were more than a few calling him Ralph Clown at that point. What else can you say about an environment minister who flipped the bird to environmentalists asking why he was not working to protect the environment (peak issues during his tenure included effluent from pulp mills polluting the Athabasca river system).
Then he became premier, the role he is possibly best know for, especially outside of Calgary. HE became premier when the province was in debt after never fully recovering from deficit budgets during the 1980's. And his premiership marked a grand shift into the neo-conservative philosophy. He (well his government, a premier can not do these things by him/herself) slashed budgets, he cut jobs, he did balance the budget and pay off the debt. One year he even sent out "Ralph bucks", rebate cheques to every Albertan because there was such a surplus. And for that he was applauded. By some. Others of us watched and asked what the cost of that was. There were those who asked if there was even a plan both to the cuts and the debt pay off and to dealing with the budget as a whole (late in his time as premier, as the province was back in a boom and growth he more or less admitted the government did not have a plan). Dart board economics was how I used to describe it--dart #1 decided which department to cut and dart #2 decided how much to cut.
The thing is, Ralph was not always a deep conservative. As this article reminds folk he was once quite the opposite. At one point in the mid 1980's he was tied heavily to the Canadian Liberal party. But memories are funny things, and it is often what we do/who we are last that sticks in people's minds.
What he was, despite the fact that I found his premiership to be deeply troubling (when I was looking at settlement in 2001 I pretty much was saying my preference was NOT to be in Alberta because I had had enough of Ralph Klein's Alberta -- so the church in its ironic wisdom sent me to Mike "the Knife" Harris' Ontario), is an excellent politician. As mayor he sold incredible property tax hikes and was re-elected by a grand majority. As Premier he decimated the public service, he closed hospitals (some of which never should have been built to be honest but Alberta had money coming in hand over fist in the 70's), he reduced nurses, and he became popular for it! Ralph made it look like he was a populist because he made the public think they had asked for what he did. This is a man who resigned as party leader because he only got 55% in a party vote of confidence--some party leaders would love to have that after a decade of the top job.
He was always controversial. He showed up (drunk, the story goes) at a homeless shelter one night and threw change at the shelter residents. He said that a rancher who discovered a cow with mad cow disease should have chosen to "shoot, shovel and shut up" as the that discovery damaged the Canadian cattle industry. He was not always (was rarely?) diplomatic. But he was committed to the job. THat you can not take away from him. I just wish the lionizing I saw on the news tonight reporting his death would take time to name that he was not a saint, that his choices as premier accomplished his stated goals only at a great cost.
Here are soem highlights from his long career.