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Wildrose leader's Okotoks riding pick's a sure bet to send her to Legislature

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Danielle Smith, the leader of Alberta's Wildrose Alliance Party, has shrewdly chosen a well-heeled suburban riding south of Calgary that is almost certain to send her to the provincial Legislature by an overwhelming margin.

So much for her sentimental favourite. Smith has been saying for months she preferred to run in the Calgary North-Hill riding, where she resides. But by choosing the redistributed Okotoks-High River electoral district for her bid for power, she's trading a convenient thing for a sure thing.

That may be because, while Calgary North-Hill has a history of reliably voting Conservative, the town of Okotoks and its surrounding countryside -- packed with more expensive acreages than working farms, or so it seems from the roadsides of the area -- is an electoral district made in heaven for a politician of Smith's market fundamentalist persuasion.

Now, a political scientist quoted by the Calgary Herald in the wake of Smith's announcement suggested her choice was made because "she and her party are not as confident about their prospects as they once were." Maybe, but don't bet money on that explanation telling the whole story.

For one thing, Calgary North Hill's current MLA is Kyle Fawcett, one of a group of ultra-conservative MLAs in Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative caucus who back in the fall of 2009 dubbed themselves "the Fiscal Four," promised to dress as darkly as Johnny Cash and play the role of the four horsemen of the fiscal apocalypse until the premier shaped up or shipped out.

Indeed, there was a day when all Four Fiscalians were rumoured to be about to make the jump holus-bolus to the benches of the Wildrose Alliance. In the event, however, only Fawcett's seatmate, Airdrie-Chestermere Rob Anderson, made the switch. Fawcett, Calgary-Egmont MLA Jonathan Denis and Battle River-Wainright MLA Doug Griffiths all decided to stay put.

Now, any persistent interest by Fawcett in the Wildrose Alliance may be entirely imaginary. Still, one can't fail to imagine the faint grinding noise made by the wheels within the wheels of Smith's riding choice.

Regardless of that, however, over the months that Albertans have been getting to know her, Smith has been revealed as a shrewd political player, but a more cautious one than one might have expected from the ideological purist she portrayed in her days as a far-right-wing columnist for the Calgary Herald.

She chose not to run in the Calgary Glenmore by-election last fall, which her party narrowly won, and now she's choosing not to run in her home electoral district in Calgary. This suggests political deliberation more than any uneasy sense by her party's strategists that the Alliance's prospects are slipping.

At any rate, whatever they may be elsewhere in the province, the Alliance's prospects in Okotoks-High River are excellent.

Okotoks -- which derives its name from the Blackfoot word for "Big Rock," owing to the fact it's close to the site of the world's largest glacial erratic -- is not really a town in the sense most people think of communities on the Canadian Prairies. That would be High River, the next community to the south, which is also featured in the new riding's name.

Rather, it's a 24,000-soul Calgary bedroom suburb just minutes south of the big smoke's southern boundary. So Smith will be able to pick up on her party's well-known popularity among Calgary-area urban voters.

Possibly even more important from Smith's perspective are those acreage residents west of the Big Rock, with their magnificent views of the Rocky Mountain Cordillera and their equally impressive bank accounts, many derived from the petroleum industry. These guys are just not going to hold back on generous donations to a political party that promises to free the oil industry from even the modest controls it is subjected to by Stelmach's timorous government.

But most important of all may be the fact that so many of the riding's residents are as mad as hell at Stelmach, and disinclined to take it any more, over the treatment of their current MLA, George Groeneveld.

Groeneveld, popular in the riding in its current incarnation as Highwood, was unceremoniously turfed from the premier's cabinet last January when Stelmach and his insiders panicked at their plummeting public opinion polls, spurred by the Conservatives' then-dreadful handling of the health care file. Someone had to go, and Groeneveld, to the absolute fury of many hitherto stolid Tories in the riding, ended up being the sacrificial lamb.

He's stuck around, playing the role of the jilted friend who views the world more in sadness than in anger, but there's no way he's going to be seeking re-election as an incumbent in a riding with any name.

Last spring, Groeneveld's treatment prompted the famously blistering Highwood Conservative Constituency Association board's letter blasting Premier Stelmach and his government for many sins, but especially the way it treated their MLA. The government, the letter's authors concluded, was "nearing the precipice of moral insolvency to govern. … bereft of policy, planning, execution, follow-through and communication to the members of the party, and, most importantly, to the citizens of Alberta."

If things don't change, the authors argued, "this party can expect no mercy from the electorate on the election day. …"

That, clearly, is precisely what Smith is banking on.

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

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