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What's up with Calgary West PC nomination? Rematch, appointment or what?

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Ken Hughes

What are we to make of the calls by Ken Hughes, defeated front-runner in the now "disallowed" Progressive Conservative nomination race in the Calgary West riding, for a new nomination vote?

With a provincial election soon all but a done deal, wasn't a candidate -- maybe him, maybe someone else -- just supposed to be appointed?

Back on Dec. 28, Hughes stepped down as chair of Alberta Health Services with the apparent blessing of Alberta Premier Alison Redford to seek the PC nomination in the riding now held by retiring Finance Minister Ron Liepert. Absolutely everyone, including your faithful blogger, assumed Hughes's ascension to the candidacy, the Legislature and the Cabinet as Alberta’s Minister of Health and Healthiness was a foregone conclusion.

So it was to everyone's astonishment -- most of all Hughes's, presumably -- that on Jan. 21 the candidate presumptive was narrowly defeated in the actual vote by Shiraz Shariff, a former Conservative MLA who lost in Calgary McCall in 2008.

Oh dear! As was noted at the time in these pages, that's not the way things are supposed to happen in Alberta!

Facing this unexpected development, the PC Party convened a hasty investigation led by Kelley Charlebois, a sometimes controversial Alberta Tory operative who has haunted the party's fringes for many years and is now its interim executive director.

Charlebois decreed on Feb. 9 that there had been written complaints about irregularities, for which no candidate was explicitly held responsible, and therefore the nomination of Shariff was disallowed.

Party President Bill Smith immediately issued a terse news release -- Lord, how I love that phrase! -- asking the Calgary West PC Riding Association to put forward the names of three candidates from whom Redford would pick a winner. That winner, presumably, was not going to be Shariff.

Hughes initially said he’d be willing to serve if asked, but while rumours swirled about who the named candidate would be, a prevailing view among political observers was that it was unlikely to be Hughes because the optics would appear so horrible, even here in Alberta where the Natural Governing Party can normally do pretty much what it pleases.

For his part, Shariff bitterly cried foul, sensibly pointed out that if there was no evidence he'd done anything wrong he ought not to be punished, and demanded a new nomination vote. "I'll be there," he vowed.

Now it begins to look as if he might get his wish.

On Friday afternoon, a story appeared in the Calgary Sun in which Hughes urged the party to hold another vote instead of letting the premier handpick a candidate.

"To clear the air, the party needs to allow the membership of Calgary West to select the candidate they want in a process that cannot be questioned," Hughes said in the Sun, which is owned by Sun Media, a company that normally operates as the semi-official Conservative Party news agency in both Alberta and Canada.

The Sun, which kindly declared the swift party investigation to have been "thorough," quoted Hughes explaining, notwithstanding his previous openness to the idea, that he "could not and would not be prepared to accept an appointment resulting from an undemocratic process."

This appeared to catch some party officials off guard. At any rate, party spokesman Tom Olsen (a fellow who had a previous life as press secretary to former premier Ed Stelmach) told the Sun that the party executive knew nothing about Hughes's thoughts and that unfortunately no one was available to comment just then.

Yesterday, however, Hughes (or someone with the password to his @KenHughes4MLA Twitter account) set to Tweeting that there should be another vote. "Democracy is only fair way to pick candidate in #YYCWest. 805 voted Jan. 21. Party should re-run the race," Hughes Tweeted at five minutes before 3 p.m.

He followed that up with "I will not accept nomination in un-democratic way. Nor should anyone else. Plenty of time, last race was only 2 weeks," and, more surprisingly, added right after that, "…Process failed everyone #pcaa. Let the 4 re-run."

Does this all mean that the PC leadership has decided that another nomination vote -- this time more intensively managed that the last one -- is the only way to get Hughes in Cabinet where he belongs? Or is Hughes acting on his own for some reason that is not yet clear?

Regardless, yesterday the PCs held their "campaign college" in Edmonton, at which Premier Redford unveiled her "campaign bus," an important feature of an upcoming election that now a hardy perennial of election news media coverage here in Alberta.

The local press tried hard to squeeze a nugget of news out of this insider event -- noting that some campaign pictures showed Redford in a parka, and therefore we were likely to have an early election.

They did not think to report, however, on whether the event was attended by Hughes, Shariff, neither, or both.

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

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