Vancouver prosecutor pleading a case for Liberal leadership

It's been 28 years since the first time someone from Vancouver won the leadership of a major federal political party. Former UBC student John Turner, who took over as prime minister when Pierre Trudeau retired, lasted 79 days at 24 Sussex Drive before the ruling Liberals were crushed by the Brian Mulroney-led Conservatives in the 1984 national election and spent the remainder of his career as leader of the opposition.

Alex Burton, a B.C. Crown prosecutor specializing in organized crime, hopes to do a better job if elected the Grits' new leader next April.

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The 44-year-old Mount Pleasant resident announced he is throwing his hat into the leadership race ring Oct.1 with the aim of reviving Canada's so-called "natural governing party" after it was reduced to 34 seats and third-party status in the 2011 election.

Six years after the infamous sponsorship scandal brought down the Liberals, Burton knows the party has a big job ahead in winning back voters.

"I think the biggest mistake we can make as a party is to assume that, in the context of where we are now, that we are the natural response," he told the Courier at a Commercial Drive coffee shop the day before announcing his candidacy. "We've been told to go sit in the corner, we've done our time and that now we can come back. If that is the approach we bring, we are not going to rebuild our credibility with Canadians. We need to rebuild our party from the ground up. We need new ideas, new voices, new faces and new engagement.."

While it may seem unlikely that someone who isn't a member of the House of Commons will be chosen as a new party leader, Burton says being an outsider isn't necessarily a disadvantage.

"We have such a mistrust and distaste for politicians, but the truth is we want good people to be in politics," said Burton, the president of the party's Vancouver-Kingsway riding association. "We want intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people, and we have to make it easier for people who are not in the Ottawa bubble to have input into our national conversation."

He also feels most Canadians are far more concerned about the economy than they are left or right-wing policies.

"There are large segments of Canadian society who don't want what the other two parties are offering, who want a more balanced approach and who understand that economic activity and wealth generation is how we create a just society where everyone has equal opportunity," he said. "We need an economic fiscal policy that looks down the road, not just to the next election. With the GST, we had a system that worked and an economy that was running fine, and we had a party that wanted to get elected so badly it said it would cut two per cent of the GST to save you a bit of money on your washing machine or whatever, and then the recession hit and instead of being on really strong footing, we now have a massive deficit and we're heading back in the direction we worked so hard to get out of."

Burton's rookie campaign has attracted the support of high-profile Liberal strategists such as Kevin Chalmers, David Gruber and Mike Hillman.

Chalmers, who helped Stephane Dion win the party leadership six years ago and ran both of former Vancouver-Kingsway MP David Emerson's campaigns (not to mention the less successful De-elect David Emerson campaign after he crossed the floor to accept a Tory cabinet position), says catching on with rural voters will be key to winning.

"Each riding has a cumulative total of 100 points," said Chalmers, who will soon be hitting the road with Burton on a cross-Canada campaign trail. "One person voting in northern Saskatchewan or Iqaluit has, if they are the only one who votes, they have 100 points. This is one of the reasons it could be a more competitive race despite all the hoopla. You need to focus on rural ridings because there are more of them than urban ridings, and the places where the Liberal Party is least popular is where you have the most pound-for-pound impact on the leadership race."

Burton says he isn't fazed by the hype surrounding the leadership bid of seeming heir apparent Justin Trudeau.

"It's going to bring attention to the race, attention to the Liberal Party and that's terrific and I'm glad he is running. We have a six-month campaign in which he can be tested and we can see who can put forward ideas that are a little outside the box, that can move Canada forward and stand up to the Conservatives and the NDP and distinguish us from them."

Burton has only 278 Twitter followers to the shaggy-haired former local high school teacher's 152,000, but he says having celebrity status is overrated.

"It's an unfortunate side effect of being an organized crime Crown prosecutor that really you're not supposed to have a high public profile," Burton said. "I hope people judge me on my ideas and not on how long my hair is."

Twitter: @flematic

Editors note: the original version of this story neglected to mention that former prime minister Kim Campbell was the second Vancouverite to lead a major political party at the federal level. Campbell served a short stint as Progressive Conservative leader and prime minister in 1993.

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