Klein rose to public prominence as a radio and television personality, much as did radio-evangelist–cum–premier William Aberhart. Klein gained his first political experience when he was elected mayor of Calgary, Alberta, on October 15, 1980. While he was mayor the city was enjoying an economic boom, attracting many unskilled labourers from all over the country. Klein gained unfavourable national attention by blaming "eastern bums and scums" for straining the city's social services and police. Calgary hosted a very successful Winter Olympics during his tenure as mayor.
Klein made the transition from civic to provincial politics in 1989, becoming a member of the legislative assembly and the minister of environment in Don Getty's government. He was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta on December 5, 1992, and became the province's 12th premier on December 16, 1992.
Although his government has been generous in funding arts and has not cut health program to the degree as some other Canadian governments (notably Ontario), Klein's social and environmental views are widely seen as very primitive.
An admitted alcoholic, Klein under the influence once verbally abused homeless people. This was consistent with an earlier stance on welfare he had taken, which was to offer destitute people "a bus ticket to Vancouver" to exploit the more generous social assistance of British Columbia (since the election of fellow-traveller Gordon Campbell in that province the gap has narrowed somewhat).
Regarding global climate change, Klein, whose province subsists largely on oil and natural gas revenue despite many attempts to diversify (into forestry, software, and beef ranching), mused in a speech in 2002 that from his point of view it was just as likely that "dinosaur farts" caused the Ice Age. This led a few to observe that not only were fossil fuel emissions themselves the output of the decay of ancient life forms into petroleum, and thus fart-like in some ways, but that "dinosaur farts like Klein" himself might cause new climatic disasters by continuing to emit both fossil fuel emissions and more hot air.
In 2003, mad cow disease was discovered in a cow in Alberta that had been removed from the food processing chain, but only examined six months later. This triggered a new crisis as Canadian beef was stopped at the border. Alberta ranchers were vending beef for as low as C$1/pound in Calgary. Klein called on the federal government in Ottawa for support, citing the response to the Toronto SARS crisis in previous months.
In June 2003, an Ontario Superior Court Charter ruling removed federal restrictions on same-sex unions being recognized legally as marriage. This being very unpopular in Alberta, Klein repeated a promise to use the unpopular Notwithstanding Clause to veto any imposition of the word "marriage" on the province of Alberta's regulations regarding same-sex couples (which did more or less provide economic equality). This was, contrary to many media reports which annoyed Klein, a position of the Alberta legislature itself passed five years earlier, and not a new reaction of his own.
In late June 2003 Klein and U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney, widely reported to be friends, met to discuss the beef ban and the route of an Alaskan oil pipeline which Klein has vehemently argued must be integrated with the extensive Alberta pipeline system. This is popular with Cheney and other advocates of North American energy independence in the oil industry.
See also: List of Alberta premiers.