The battle for the Conservative nomination in the Calgary Centre by-election, which was widely expected to be a race between an economic conservative and a Red Tory, seems to have turned into one between the economic conservative and a candidate backed by social conservatives.
This is seen to be an important contest because it's generally assumed here in Alberta, and especially in Calgary, that thanks to a docile electorate whomever wins the Conservative nomination automatically becomes the Member of Parliament.
So, right from the start, the race to replace MP Lee Richardson was certain to be vigorously contested. Richardson, one of the last Red Tories in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's neoconservative-dominated caucus, announced on May 30 he was quitting to become Alberta Premier Alison Redford's principal secretary.
But early on, after a large crowd of potential candidates was quickly winnowed down to a serious few, the contest looked like it was going to be between Joan Crockatt, a former newspaper journalist and high-profile on-air commentator known for her market-fundamentalist economic views, and John Mar, a Calgary alderman and former RCMP beat cop who called Richardson his mentor.
That was then. Last week, just a week before nominations are scheduled to close, Mar suddenly pulled out of the race, saying his young family, which once supported the idea, didn't support it any more.
Strange explanation, and who knows what was really behind it. Maybe it was his wife and kids -- although, if you ask me, it was less than graceful to let them wear the last-minute decision. Maybe it was some sharp advice about time management from Stephen Carter, the political strategist behind Premier Redford's April 23 victory, who is was reported to have signed on to help Mar's campaign. Maybe his cousin Gary Mar, the recently unsuccessful provincial Tory leadership candidate, had something to say. Or maybe word came down from Ottawa that Harper was less than enthusiastic about having any more Red Tories in his hard-edged caucus.
Whatever it was, Mar's decision clearly left Crockatt as the obvious frontrunner. And while she states unequivocally that she's pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, she's as conservative as they come on economic issues and in that regard would fit right in with Harper's harsh neoconservative crowd in Ottawa.
Crockatt's only potential problem, according to the Calgary newspaper she once worked for, is that she hasn't held a Conservative Party card for more than six months as technically required by party rules. But as Crockatt told me, waivers are routine, and there's "no reason to expect it wouldn't be granted, based on my record."
With Mar out of the race, though, Crockatt faces a surprisingly vigorous and well-organized challenge from Jon Lord, a former two-term Calgary alderman and Progressive Conservative MLA who clearly has strong support in social conservative circles. That said, it is very hard to know what Lord's personal views are in areas such as women's right to reproductive choice and same-sex marriage because he has said very little about them.
Despite an aggressive style and a varied political career, Lord cannot be called a strong candidate when it comes to appealing to the general public in the riding. In addition to his single term in the Alberta Legislature, humiliatingly ended by a Liberal, he ran for mayor of Calgary in 2010 and received just 0.4 per cent of the vote. He tried and failed to get a provincial PC nomination last year and was essentially told to get lost by the party, and none too politely either.
Worse, Lord's campaign is being helped out by Craig Chandler, who is described on his Wikipedia pages as a "businessman, pundit, and political and religious activist." (Emphasis added.) Chandler has a long and well-established history of activities with fringe political parties, frequent and unsuccessful bids for political office, and controversy surrounding his vociferously expressed anti-gay-rights views. He used to answer his telephone by barking "Happy Capitalism!" -- really, I'm not making that up. In 2007, he was denied a PC nomination in a Calgary riding by the governing provincial party's clearly horrified executive.
Chandler, in other words, can be fairly described as electoral poison. Guilt by association though this may be, on the grounds of his role in the Lord campaign alone, Lord seems unlikely to be able to successfully challenge Crockatt.
But it also makes Lord a dangerous challenger. After all, a nomination election isn’t the same thing as a regular election with real voters instead of party insiders and recruits just signed up by a candidate. Thoughts of busloads of fundamentalist church members being taken to nomination polls next Thursday to vote for Lord must surely keep Crockatt awake at night!
There are now three other known candidates in the race: riding executive and sometime car salesman Stefan Spargo, whose sole claim to fame seems to be that he flies an Alberta flag on his house, and former chef Jordan Katz, whom the media keep describing as a “political strategist” for some reason, and who once ran as a Tory candidate in southern Ontario, have been there for a while. It’s said here neither stands the chance of the proverbial snowball in Hades. In addition, on Thursday, political commentator Kady O’Malley reported on her CBC blog that she had been told by an anonymous tipster a former PMO "Quebec advisor" named Joe Soares had indicated he would also join the race. O’Malley says Soares lists only an Ottawa address. In fact, as of right now, though, only Crockatt has officially filed papers.
By any sensible measure, Crockatt remains the only credible candidate still standing in this nomination race, which should make her nomination in Calgary Centre likely, even easy.
(A disclaimer: I have known Crockatt for many years and, in fact, once worked under her direct supervision at the Calgary Herald. I was not enamoured of her managerial style, although I like her personally. I disagree profoundly with her economic views. However, I recognize her undoubted energy and talents as a campaigner.)
None of this means, however, that the actual election will be an automatic victory for the Conservatives -- notwithstanding the fact that's the way things often turn out in Alberta. Very soon, we'll discuss how a candidate for another party could beat Crockatt in the by-election, and why that might just happen.
A date for the by-election has not yet been set.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.