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Edmonton mayoral election: Shrewd Wildrose intervention sets stage for future gains

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Stephen Mandel

When it was first suggested here that Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith had plenty to gain and nothing to lose by wading into the debate over Edmonton's downtown City Centre Airport, this view was seen as wildly eccentric.

The conventional wisdom at that time was that Smith's intervention, which so outraged Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel he played the "Calgary card" when he angrily instructed her to butt out, was an inexplicable blunder that would alienate her from Edmonton-area voters.

Nowadays, with less than a week to go till the civic election on Oct. 18, it's pretty much become the conventional wisdom. So what if she lives in Calgary? Smith's gambit is now widely accepted a shrewd move that gets the Wildrose Alliance into play in the Capital Region in time for the next provincial general election.

It is that and more.

As Smith and her Wildrose Alliance strategists know well, first intervening to back the Astro-Turf group called Envision Edmonton, which tried unsuccessfully to force a plebiscite to keep the downtown airport open, and later to support mayoral hopeful David Dorward once he was identified as the most likely pro-airport candidate, does not mean she expects to keep the airport open.

On the contrary, unlike the mayoral race in Calgary, the outcome of the contest in Edmonton is a foregone conclusion. Mandel will win. The only question is by how many votes. Dorward is no Barb Higgins, the Calgary candidate that actually has a chance of knocking off the favourite in that city's mayoral race.

But backing a cause for which there is considerable support throughout the greater Edmonton area -- and support that crosses all party lines -- is an investment for the Wildrose Alliance that will yield it dividends in the future.

As argued here before, this is a "wedge issue" of an unusual non-ideological sort, one that plays right into the hands of Smith and the Wildrose Alliance for three reasons:

  1. Since support for keeping City Centre Airport open crosses political lines, traditional Conservative supporters are as likely to hold one view on the issue as the other.
  2. Right now, the toughest sell for Smith and the Alliance is in the Capital Region, where support for Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives is strong, as is support for the Liberals and New Democrats.
  3. Therefore, any riding in the region that doesn't go Conservative in a general election amounts to a win for the Wildrose Alliance.

In other words, the Wildrose Alliance doesn't have to win seats here to win. If it can increase its popular vote by only 3 to 4 per cent throughout the region, that will be enough to significantly change the electoral map in the Capital Region.

A shift of that magnitude by Conservative voters to the Wildrose Alliance could double the number of Liberals in the Legislature from eight to 16, and the number of New Democrats from two to four, all without changing those parties' popular votes a bit!

The fewer Edmonton-area ridings that vote Conservative, even if they don't choose the Wildrose Alliance candidate, the better Smith's chance of becoming either premier or Opposition leader, either of which would be a huge and significant victory for her far-right party.

So whether the airport stays or goes after the Oct. 18 civic election, it's good news for the Wildrose Alliance. If it stays, of course, Smith can take credit for being part of the effort to save it by throwing Wildrose Alliance troops into the fight. If it goes, as is far more likely, it's a bone that will stick in the throats of Edmonton-area residents who wanted to save the airport -- significant numbers of whom, especially from the Conservative side of the ledger, will remember and vote Wildrose.

Smith has already gained ground by identifying Mr. Stelmach's Conservatives as supporters of Mayor Mandel and the plan to redevelop the airport -- even though the premier and most of his MLAs have tried hard to stay far from the issue.

The Wildrose Alliance has gained by being able to identify itself with an issue that can pull enough support from Conservative voters to get more Liberals and New Democrats elected where Smith needs them elected.

And the party also gains by getting a workout in actual politics well before the provincial election for its front-line activists, while most supporters of all other parties but the NDP, which has a strong civic presence in Edmonton, sit on their hands.

The Edmonton civic election is no "proxy war," as has been suggested by some observers. It is the opening skirmish in the real thing.

By choosing to intervene in this way in the Edmonton civic election, the Wildrose Alliance has proved again they are a shrewd and confident player that may very well form Alberta's government.

And if they do, the political operatives who move here from Calgary to support Premier Smith's government can buy condos in the spectacular and conveniently located new downtown development built under Mayor Mandel on the site of the historic City Centre Airport.

But there are plenty of other winners in this scenario, too -- among them, the Liberals, the New Democrats and Mayor Mandel himself. Virtually everyone, that is, except Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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