Leela Aheer was standing in the middle of a rapidly-emptying convention centre, still digesting the results of her party’s first ever leadership vote, when she got word that the winner wanted to speak to her.
A little bewildered, she agreed, and they set up a meeting. The next day, Jason Kenney, the newly-elected leader of the United Conservative Party, was at Aheer’s house. He had taken a look at his new caucus and realized he needed her help to fix a major problem.
“I inherited 27 guys and two women, which is ridiculous,” Kenney told the National Post in a recent interview. “We don’t believe in quotas but, by gosh, we need to do a better job of reflecting diversity by merit. I’ve been a bit obsessive about this, to be honest.”
The MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View, Aheer had supported Brian Jean in the leadership race, her former leader in the Wildrose Party and Kenney’s main rival. Even in the whiplash world of politics, where people go from frenzied combat to smiling conciliation in a matter of days, Kenney’s gesture surprised her.
United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, middle, poses for a photo with Chestermere-Rocky View UCP MLA Leela Aheer, left, and Airdrie UCP MLA Angela Pitt following a meet and greet on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 at Apple Creek Golf Course.
The UCP formed in July 2017 through a merger of the grassroots Wildrose Party, led by Jean, and the scattered remains of the once-dominant Progressive Conservative Party, led by Kenney. Both female MLAs came from the Wildrose side of the merger.
Like any opposition party, the UCP expects to form government after the next election, and if Kenney defeats Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP next year and gets to build a cabinet, he wants options. So, in his mission to rebuild the province’s conservative political machine, he made it an immediate priority to pull capable people into the party — with an emphasis on recruiting female candidates.
The door, Kenney said to Aheer, would be “swung wide open.”
The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, and when it wrapped up, Aheer tackled her new mandate — to help Kenney reduce the gender disparity within the UCP ranks — with gusto. She says she’s had serious conversations with more than a hundred women, some of whom are now official UCP candidates, some are engaged in nomination contests and others are knocking on doors, fundraising …read more