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Amazing Grace McCarthy left her influential fingerprints on B.C.

VICTORIA — One of my strongest memories of Grace McCarthy was the day she rode to the rescue of the Social Credit party as it prepared to expel the provincial news media from a convention.

It was October 1990 and the Socreds were well into what proved to be an irreversible decline under Bill Vander Zalm, the mercurial populist who defeated McCarthy for the leadership in 1986.

McCarthy had already resigned from cabinet and retreated to the backbench, troubled by his political interference in her ministry and increasingly erratic leadership.

But she remained loyal to the party she’d helped rebuild after its landmark defeat in the 1972 election, even if not much could be done to save Vander Zalm himself.

Enter the Zalmoids, as his true believers were known, with a motion to close the party’s annual convention to the news media as punishment for critical coverage of the fearless leader.

Nuts? Yes, particularly as radio station CKNW was broadcasting live from the floor of the convention at the time.

But the motion passed on a show of voting cards with minimal protest and those of us in attendance began bracing for how the expulsion order would be carried out. Would they ask politely, or just bring in the dogs and the fire hoses?

Enter McCarthy, making use of her unmistakable presence — no forgetting the hair, the wardrobe or the smile — to get the attention of the chair.

There’d been a discrepancy in the voting, she protested. Hers had not been counted nor those of the people around her. “I am sorry, frankly, that after all the years I have attended Social Credit conventions, this even has to come to a vote,” she added.

While Zalmoids snarled that McCarthy was out of order, the chair — one of the saner heads in the room — called a second vote. Party organizers and cabinet ministers then spread out to buttonhole individuals and whole delegations and when the vote was taken a second time the news media were allowed to stay.

Nor for the first time had McCarthy demonstrated her leadership skills at a Socred convention,  never mind that they weren’t always welcomed by all of the delegates.

In that 1986 leadership contest, she ran second to Vander Zalm in the early balloting at the party convention in Whistler.

As the only candidate with anything like his populist charm, she was also the only one with a chance of beating him, providing the others dropped out before it is too late.

But the opportunity passed and Vander Zalm won the leadership, putting the party on the road to ruin.

After Vander Zalm was forced out in early 1991 over a scandal of his own making, the Socreds had a second chance to choose McCarthy as leader. She faced off against Premier Rita Johnston, chosen as Vander Zalm’s successor in a caucus vote earlier in the year.

McCarthy almost made it, the delegates at a midsummer convention in Vancouver preferring Johnston by a mere 60 votes on the second ballot.

Wrong call. McCarthy was better positioned to put distance between herself and the disgraced Vander Zalm. Johnston could not do so, having supported him from the outset and served with him to the bitter end.

In the subsequent provincial election won by the Mike Harcourt-led New Democrats, Social Credit was relegated to third place behind the upstart B.C. Liberals led by Gordon Wilson.

Even if the Socreds had gone with McCarthy over Johnston, not likely could she have won the election. But with her acumen and energy, the Liberal insurgency might never have happened and Social Credit would have survived to fight another day.

After that crushing defeat, Social Credit belatedly did choose McCarthy as leader at a convention in 1993. Early the next year, she sought a seat in the legislature via a convenient byelection created by the resignation of one of the handful of remaining Socred MLAs.

Again she almost made it, losing in Matsqui by a mere 42 votes to then-newcomer to the political scene, Mike de Jong of the B.C. Liberals.

Had it gone the other way and McCarthy been returned to the floor of the legislature, she might have been able to rally the remaining Socreds to secure an alliance with the B.C. Liberals.

Instead, within weeks of her defeat, most of the Socreds defected to B.C. Reform. Soon after McCarthy and Social Credit both vacated the political scene altogether.

Thereafter and up to her death Thursday at age 89, she was mainly known for her charity work, which was considerable, especially on behalf of children with intestinal disorders.

For all the might-have-beens of her career, her accomplishments were nevertheless considerable. Expo 86. SkyTrain. The Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. Supernatural B.C. Tourism promotion. She left her fingerprints on all of them.

She left fingerprints on more dubious achievements too, from the redrawing of the boundaries for her constituency in Vancouver to the sale of the Expo lands.

Hard to think of a woman who had greater influence on provincial politics, before Christy Clark came along.

But for all McCarthy’s breaking of glass ceilings, she never made it to the top. And for all that members of her own party admired and loved her, they never fully warmed to her leadership qualities until it was too late — for her as well as for them.

Vpalmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer

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