By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Ralph Klein, the rough-edged "King Ralph" who ruled Canada's energy-producing province of Alberta from 1992 to 2006 with conservative policies that included deep public spending cuts and debt reduction, died on Friday, his family said.
He was 70.
Klein, a one-time television reporter who was also mayor of Calgary, had been suffering from dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and had been out of the public spotlight that he basked in for much of his adult life.
"In his public life, while many will now debate what he stood for, he himself simply believed that public service was important, that it need not be complicated, and that it revolved around people, Klein's wife, Colleen, said in a statement.
Klein was one of Canada's most successful politicians, presiding over four consecutive majority governments and attracting voters with an everyman persona, tight-fisted fiscal policy and a propensity to fire sharp-tongued and sometimes off-color zingers at his critics.
One of Klein's proudest accomplishments as leader of Alberta's ruling Progressive Conservative party was eliminating the Western province's public debt in 2004 after deep and often controversial cuts to healthcare, education, the civil service and spending on infrastructure.
The cuts, and steadily rising prices for Alberta's surging oil and gas production, generated a string of budget surpluses that climbed into the billions of dollars. In 2005, he used some of the bounty to send C$400 checks to all Albertans, in a program nicknamed "Ralph bucks."
Klein fostered a business-friendly economy by reducing corporate taxes, luring several major companies to the province to make use of what Klein called the "Alberta advantage."
During his premiership, Alberta's oil sands gained global attention as the world's third-largest accumulation of crude oil and increasingly important source of U.S. supply.
Klein often grabbed national notoriety, not just for the common touch that won him popularity with Alberta voters even as he slashed public services, but also for frequent jibes at opponents.
Some of his more memorable moments on the public stage included blaming "creeps" and "bums" from Eastern Canada for straining Calgary's public services in the boom years of the early 1980s, flipping off an environmental protester in front of TV cameras when he was Alberta's environment minister and throwing cash at a homeless man at a shelter while premier.
After the latter incident he admitted to having a drinking problem, although he would never vow to give up alcohol.
But such foibles and his ability to move past them only endeared him to voters.
Born in Calgary in 1942, Klein rose into the public consciousness as a civic affairs reporter for CFCN Television in the 1970s.
In 1980, he ran for mayor of Calgary, helped in his campaign by a political science student and restaurant waiter named Rod Love, who would be his strategist and chief of staff for two decades. Love came to be known as "Ralph's Brain".
The political rookie won the race and was mayor for nearly a decade, a period that brought the western oil city to world prominence as host of the successful 1988 Winter Olympics.
Klein made the jump to provincial politics in 1989, running for the Conservatives, and became the party's third consecutive premier in 1992, tapping into voters' love of common touch. First elected in 1971, the party remains in power under Premier Alison Redford.
Klein took stands against the then-ruling federal Liberal party and its support of the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gases, arguing its adoption would hurt the oil industry and Alberta.
An initiative he championed but never brought to fruition was more privatization of Alberta's healthcare system, which like the rest of Canada's is publicly funded. His efforts to bring in legislation that would allow more for-profit care was met by angry protests outside the provincial legislature in Edmonton.
In the 2004 election, his Conservatives won another majority but a reduced one, and the party pulled its support for him during a subsequent leadership convention. He resigned in 2006.
(Editing by Janet Guttsman and Paul Simao)