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Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Runway: the strange and troubling tale of 'Darren Holmes'

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Today is Municipal Election Day throughout Alberta. By midnight tonight it will be all over but the tears and the bet collecting. Tomorrow morning, many of us will be commentating bravely, taking credit for what we got right and explaining away what we got wrong. After that, we can move to the question of what it all means.

But let's get a jump on the latter bloviations by taking a look at a bizarre last-minute development that is certain to have an impact on the Edmonton mayoralty race.

The 11th hour brouhaha, which stems from the fight over whether or not to close Edmonton's City Centre Airport, will likely benefit Mayor Stephen Mandel today, and hurt David Dorward, his strongest challenger.

The uproar could also have significant longer-term implications for Alberta politics because of the support thrown to Dorward and the fight to keep the airport open by the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party and the quieter assistance provided by the Conservative provincial government to Mayor Mandel, who hopes to close the airport and see the site developed.

Early this month, Edmonton city councillors and others began receiving telephone calls from a Seattle journalist named Darren Holmes, who claimed to have uncovered a scandal that Mandel was only trying to close down the airport so that cronies in the development industry could reap big profits. People heard Holmes saying he had worked for the Seattle Times. A blog called Darren's Big Scoop, apparently published by the same person, repeated many of the claims Holmes made in his phone calls.

Something about the way this fellow conduced his interviews, however, set off a number of folks' innate BS-detectors. "It wasn't like a conversation with a journalist, with questions," one recipient of Holmes's "very, very abusive" attentions told The Edmonton Journal.

The Journal did a good job of following up on the supposed freelancer from Seattle and established in short order that the defamatory claims made in the blog were not true, the Seattle Times had never heard of the guy and … wait for it … Holmes was in fact Nathan Black, manager of a petition drive to force a referendum on keeping the airport open.

The petition campaign was run this summer by an Astro-Turf group called Envision Edmonton, and Black, in the words of the Journal, "was a public face for Envision Edmonton and was often quoted in the press as a spokesman."

Black was also a volunteer on Dorward's campaign, and the Journal suggested he once played a peripheral role in a CSIS operation to infiltrate white supremacist groups. For his part, Black admitted to the Journal he made the calls, but claimed he had said "Seattle Hill Times," and denied having anything to do with the defamatory statements on the blog. (There doesn't appear to be a Seattle Hill Times either.)

One would think this kind of nonsense would pretty well put an end to Black's activities and do serious harm to the fight to keep the airport operating. In fairness, he was soon dumped by the Dorward campaign. But, astonishingly, Envision Edmonton brushed off Black's tactics as a mere "runaway prank," unworthy of either the prankster's dismissal or any general concern. The group put out a press release that praised his efforts in their airport campaign.

Now, Black will naturally be described as a single bad apple. But it is fair to wonder if he is a symptom of something more serious. If nothing else, according to the Journal, he is "involved in other conservative political organizations in the city, as a campaigner and a strategist."

Don't forget that similarly inclined people hold influential positions elsewhere in the Alberta right. Consider Calgary West Member of Parliament Rob Anders, described by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as "a true reformer and a true conservative … a faithful supporter of mine." Anders was described as a "foreign political saboteur" by CNN for his role in Oklahoma Senator James Inhof's 1994 campaign. (A reference to Anders' role as a "professional heckler" in Inhofe's service has been removed from his Wikipedia page.)

Yes, it is tendentious to draw a line from Black's shenanigans, to Envision Edmonton, to its supporter the Wildrose Alliance, to its supporter the federal Conservatives of Stephen Harper, to the dirty tricks and "swift boat" deniable smear campaigns of their far-right inspirations south of the U.S. border.

Yet one can hardly shake the feeling l'affaire Darren Holmes is a symptom of something more pervasive. Maybe it's just his alleged connections to the organs of state security. But it is particularly troubling that Envision Edmonton, which claims to be a legitimate group representing the views of many members of the public, seems so untroubled by Black's admission of sleazy and unethical activities.

Albertans are entitled to ask if we are likely to see more such unsavoury activities by the far right in future Alberta election campaigns. If we do, will they too be dismissed as mere "runaway pranks" by great big boys who let their enthusiasm get the better of them?

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

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