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FOULDS: Covering Grace McCarthy's final stab at saving Social Credit

On Feb. 17, 1994, I left the newspaper office in Abbotsford at about 5 p.m. and began driving to Grace McCarthy's campaign headquarters across town. It was byelection day.

On Feb. 17, 1994, I left the newspaper office in Abbotsford at about 5 p.m. and began driving to Grace McCarthy's campaign headquarters across town. It was byelection day.

I cut through a strip mall parking lot to save time and was T-boned by an elderly driver in a hurry to get dinner at Subway. My driver's-side door was crushed inward and my windows and mirror were shattered, all of which, in retrospect, offered a bad omen for McCarthy's political fortunes that night.

There are many legacies left by the legend that was Grace McCarthy, including her political swan song in 1994, one that reshaped British Columbia politics for decades to come.

McCarthy, who died last week at the age of 89, was truly the grand dame of B.C. politics, a heavyweight under Social Credit premiers W.A.C. Bennett and his son, Bill Bennett, for two decades.

McCarthy was instrumental in returning the Socreds to power in 1975, three years after the elder Bennett's 20-year reign was ended by NDP leader Dave Barrett. McCarthy was also the driving force behind Expo '86 and coined the name of Vancouver's rapid-transit system: SkyTrain.

But it was the 1994 byelection in Matsqui where she came within a few votes of changing political history in this province -- and I, at the ripe age of 25, had the good fortune of covering her campaign from beginning to agonizing end.

That byelection in Matsqui (now known as Abbotsford West) was a carnival of craziness.

McCarthy had become Social Credit leader and venerable party MLA Peter Dueck resigned so she could run. (The same day, a byelection was being held in Vancouver-Quilchena, where new B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell ran for office once Art Cowie stepped down to accommodate him.)

McCarthy had to fight accusations of being a parachute candidate, but her problems paled in comparison to those encountered by NDP candidate Sam Wagar.

Although he was acclaimed as New Democrat candidate in the byelection, news that he was a witch, practising the Wiccan religion, became the story in the Fraser Valley. He agreed to a second nomination process, which he lost by two votes to Lynn Fairall. Wagar later sued the party and the two sides settled out of court. He is now Wiccan chaplain at the University of Alberta.

The race, though, was always between McCarthy and a popular school trustee named Mike De Jong, who had a young, energetic team behind him, one that worked and played extremely hard. The campaign was intense and everybody knew that, as McCarthy went, so, too, went the legendary B.C. Social Credit Party.

In the end, when the votes were counted, De Jong prevailed by just 42 ballots. Imagine that, from school trustee to MLA to finance minister, without even stopping at city hall.

Despite the razor-thin margin of victory, the McCarthy team's request for a judicial recount was rejected and that defeat spelled the end of Social Credit as we knew it.

Four of the six remaining MLAs eventually joined the fledgling B.C. Reform Party, while Socred membership in time floated to the B.C. Liberals, who became the de facto Socreds once Campbell cemented his role as leader and finally became premier in 2001.

There is another fascinating side story to that 1994 byelection. The Family Coalition Party was also planning to field a candidate and was trying hard to convince Bill Vander Zalm to run. Vander Zalm, of course, defeated McCarthy in 1986 in Whistler to succeed Bill Bennett as Socred leader, after which the party began its fatal tailspin.

Vander Zalm teased out his decision for as long as possible, knowing how to garner headlines, before deciding against. But Family Coalition leader Kathleen Toth did run, receiving 247 votes. Would at least 43 of those votes have gone to McCarthy had Vander Zalm not captured the spotlight during the byelection campaign? Did the Zalm succeed in killing Social Credit twice -- both times by defeating McCarthy?

What if she had won? What if McCarthy had become Social Credit MLA in Matsqui and led her collection of seven MLAs in the legislature?

Chances are we would be mired in a much different British Columbia today. Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds