Gene Zwozdesky, the former Speaker of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, has died of cancer at the age of 70.
Known for being incredibly approachable and having the ability to lay-on the political charm in a grand way, Zwozdesky became known in the latter part of his time in elected office as the “Wizard of Zwoz” for his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors. But while Zwozdesky is known to many Alberta political watchers from his time in the Progressive Conservative cabinet and later as Speaker of the Assembly, he started his political career in the opposition benches as a Liberal.
A teacher and champion of Alberta’s Ukrainian musical and cultural heritage, Zwozdesky was first elected to the Legislature in 1993 as Liberal in Edmonton-Avonmore.
Zwozdesky defeated five other candidates to win the Liberal Party nomination that year, taking the nomination on the fifth ballot with 660 votes out of 757 votes cast. Led by former mayor Laurence Decore, Zwozdesky easily unseated two-term New Democratic Party MLA Marie Laing as the Liberals swept the capital city.
He was easily re-elected in the renamed Edmonton-Mill Creek district in 1997, holding his vote share in an election that saw Liberal vote decline from its high-water mark in the previous election.
Respected by his opposition colleagues for his work as treasury critic, community development critic, caucus whip, and co-chair of the party’s outreach committee, Zwozdesky was seen as a contender for the party leadership to succeed Decore in 1994 and Grant Mitchell in 1998, but chose to decline the leadership on both occasions.
In 1997, Zwozdesky was briefly a candidate in the Speaker election following Stan Schumacher‘s retirement but was convinced by his caucus colleagues to withdraw from the contest. It is believed that the 18 Liberal MLA votes in that Speaker election helped secure Barrhead-Westlock MLA Ken Kowalski’s win over Premier Ralph Klein’s preferred choice, Dunvegan MLA Glen Clegg.
In 1998, he left the Liberal caucus and crossed the floor to the PC caucus less than one month later. The official reason for his departure was said to be a disagreement with new party leader Nancy MacBeth over fiscal policy, but it was widely suspected that Klein had been personally trying to recruit Zwozdesky. He was appointed to cabinet as Associate Minister of Health and Wellness in 1999, a shrewd political move to create a foil to counter opposition criticism of the PC government’s Bill 11: Health Care Protection Act, a bill that opponents argued would have increased the privatization of Alberta’s public health care system.
Zwozdesky was re-elected as a PC candidate in Edmonton-Mill Creek in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012. He served as Minister of Community Development from 2001 to 2004, Minister of Education from 2004 to 2006, Associate Minister of Infrastructure from 2007 to 2008, Minister of Aboriginal Relations from 2008 to 2010, and Minister of Health & Wellness from 2010 to 2011. In his roles as Minister of Education and Minster of Health, he was generally seen as a calming force appointed for the purpose of providing stability in the wake of a disruptive predecessor.
As Health & Wellness Minister, Zwozdesky was given the nickname “the Wizard of Zwoz” by the media after he entered the role with a full-court charm offensive.
“Only three weeks into the job he’s the Wizard of Zwoz, a minister who can reverse unpopular health-care policy with a wave of his BlackBerry,” wrote the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid in February 2010.
In this role, Zwozdesky was responsible for mending the fences smashed by his combative predecessor, Ron Liepert. While he was only in the role for a short period and largely continued to support the PC government’s ideological creep towards privatization in health care, he did oversee important labour negotiations and the swift departure of Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett following the “cookie” controversy.
He was dropped from cabinet when Alison Redford became premier in 2011 and following Kowalski’s retirement in 2012, Zwozdesky was elected Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. His only challenger in that contest was Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was a rookie in the Liberal caucus when Zwozdesky mounted his first campaign for the Speakership in 1997.
While generally seen as a fair Speaker of the Assembly, Zwozdesky had some partisan blindspots, most notably when he ruled that Redford did not mislead the Assembly over the tobacco-gate scandal. He was highly criticized for that decision.
He served as Speaker until his defeat in the 2015 general election to New Democrat Denise Woollard.
Although it had become clear by the final week of the last election that a giant NDP wave was going to splash through Edmonton, it was difficult to believe that Zwozdesky would lose re-election. But when the votes were counted in Edmonton-Mill Creek, the six-term MLA fell 5,174 votes behind Woollard, ending his 22 year career in Alberta politics.
Following the 2015 election, Zwozdesky helped the new class of NDP and Wildrose Party MLAs transition into the Assembly and then gracefully stepped away from the political spotlight following the election of Medicine Hat MLA Bob Wanner as Speaker. And while a political comeback was unlikely for Zwozdesky after 2015, he continued to stay connected to his political past, being elected as President of the Alberta Association of Former MLAs in 2018.
Photo: Gene Zwozdesky speaks to Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid in the Legislature Rotunda in 2011. MLA Dave Taylor is seen in the background. (Photo source: Dave Cournoyer)