The Contenders: The Do-Over - The Orca

The Contenders: The Do-Over

Katy Merrifield

Katy Merrifield interviews the BC Liberal leadership candidates. Next up, second-term Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee.

Michael Lee was a relative unknown when he ran for BC Liberal leader in 2018. And many underestimated his potential. But with a brilliant team, sharp visuals, and a tight message warning BC Liberals to broaden their appeal or face defeat, Lee came a respectable third place.

Arguably, the 2020 election result proved Lee’s warning wasn’t heeded. Now, he’s running again to finish what he started.

“The first time I ran for leadership of the BC Liberal Party, it was a real sprint and I learned a lot from that process. We signed up the most new members and reached out to young people all over the province, talking about the need to broaden our appeal as a party to be more balanced and inclusive,” said Lee.

If the last leadership race was a sprint, this near-year effort is a marathon. Lee still believes in his initial message, but is now focused on a promise to restore the trust and integrity he feels British Columbians have lost in the BC Liberals.

“We have to create the narrative about our party.”

“For too long, others have been defining this party, whether it’s the NDP or others, and we know that the BC Liberal Party cares more than just about jobs and the economy. We have a strong legacy of leadership in other areas as well; environmental policy, reconciliation with First Nations and Indigenous people. These are areas we need to continue to make progress on in rapid fashion.”

Lee is a progressive conservative, having worked for former Prime Minister Kim Campbell in the early ‘90s. He’s also a longtime community advocate, handling immigration files with SUCCESS and working with at-risk youth in Chinatown. Immediately prior to becoming an MLA, Lee worked as a corporate lawyer, honing his appreciation of the important relationship between investment attraction and resource development.

But it’s the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s that he credits as his most formative years.

“I learned a lot about serving our community and our country, what it means to collaborate with others, how we need to come together as a community to break down the silos that divide us, and the need for partnership. I learned a lot about what we need to do as a country and as a province to move forward.”

Lee’s second run once again sees an impressive team of both federal conservatives and liberals – but is adamant his campaign staff exhibits common values of balance, integrity, and inclusivity. Shepherding this task is Lee’s campaign manager Diamond Isinger, a talented federal Liberal organizer and community advocate herself. (A reminder to everyone in BC politics – the last two leadership races in BC were won by women campaign managers and frankly I wish there were more in this race).

Collaboration and partnership is woven through almost every answer Lee gives. So I had to ask, after such a strong showing in the 2018 race and playing a key role in the Proportional Representation referendum campaign, why did he disappear from the spotlight for a few years?

“Ever since the result of the last race, my only focus was to support Andrew Wilkinson and the BC Liberals. The last thing I wanted was to distract anyone on our team. I am the ultimate team player, the leadership campaign was over, and I was playing my role. When I’ve been given the opportunities, I think I’ve demonstrated my skills and performed my role very well.”

Full disclosure: I worked with Lee on the proportional referendum and a broad community outreach strategy prior to leaving my role with the BC Liberals, and can attest to his work ethic, teambuilding skills and thoughtful intelligence. I also think measuring someone’s capabilities by how many times they rise in Question Period is only contemplated by a minority among the political uber-nerds (staff, media, and yes I include myself here too).

What’s more important is Lee is prepped and ready for round two of this race. With several current and former caucus endorsements in hand, including a former leadership candidate (Mike de Jong, Ben Stewart, Bruce Banman, Ralph Sultan, Doug Horne and Mary McNeil), Lee is already in a stronger position than last time.

After a close call in 2018, we’ll see if Michael Lee can bring it home in 2022.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.