Lethbridge could produce surprising results in Alberta's election

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Alberta's provincial election seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the Wildrose Party (formally Wildrose Alliance) began to see a rise in popularity and gained a few former Progressive Conservative backbenchers, media pundits were quick to point out that when an Alberta political dynasty falls, it falls hard. Across the province, polls are reporting anywhere from 30 to 74 seats for the Wildrose Party, and a fall from grace for the Progressive Conservatives. The Calgary and Edmonton battlegrounds are widely reported on but south, in the land of status quo, a very interesting thing is happening.

Prior to 1971, the urban centre of Lethbridge was one electoral district. Coinciding with the fall of the Social Credit government in 1971, it was split into two districts: east and west. Situated 200 km south of Calgary and 100 km from the American border, this mid-sized urban centre is as influenced by the American economy as it is by the surrounding agriculture sector and its oil and gas sister up north. While the city's roots are in mining and agriculture, Lethbridge's largest employment sector is government-based -- meaning a diversity of unions and interests.

For the first time in two decades there is an unsteadiness shaking the campaign trail. Both districts are regarded as strongholds. Recently re-drawn, the electoral division is just about down the middle of the city. Lethbridge East has elected a Liberal MLA since 1993 and Lethbridge West has voted PC since 1975. Change has never been a winning candidate's platform. However, like in large swaths in the rest of the province, there is a growing appetite for it. No longer the rallying cry of a few outspoken and brazen rabble-rousers, it is coming from school administrators, from casual observers and from a mass of disaffected voters who feel ignored and taken for granted.

Since 1971, voter turnout in Lethbridge has declined from 74 to 34 per cent. Complacency has been the name of the game, and the thorn in the side to many in the community who have remained active and engaged in other parties. It is looking like this election could be the long-awaited rain in a desert of political apathy.

In Lethbridge East, the well-reported floor crossing of Bridget Pastoor has caused many to wonder if she will remain the MLA or if that partisan trade has cost her. Pastoor, a former Lethbridge city councillor, was an incredibly popular MLA and has served the Lethbridge East constituency since 2004. Since her floor crossing, the confidence that pundits have had in her election win has begun to wane. Liberal candidate Rob Miyashiro was the unexpected winner of the nomination, but has proved to be campaign ready and has not missed an opportunity to get in a headline or a photo. Both the Wildrose and the New Democratic candidates, Kent Prestage and Tom Moffatt respectively, have kept a lower profile though no doubt Prestage is hoping to mop up some of the disaffected PC supporters who were opposed to Pastoor's candidacy. Prestage has also been able to reap the benefits of a constantly touring leader whose popularity currently exceeds any other leader.

Lethbridge East is a riding to watch, and in this writer's opinion it is hard to say which way the vote will go. Although Pastoor has name recognition and is well regarded for her work, the floor crossing has elicited a negative and vocal reaction. Miyashiro is campaigning on a history of 17 years of Liberal representation, and no doubt the Wildrose has posed a threat to both candidates.

Lethbridge West is also in the midst of a hotly contested race, but with a twist. The reported two front-runners are the NDP candidate Shannon Phillips and the PC candidate Greg Weadick. The PCs have held this riding for 36 years, and the PC candidate has won fairly handily for most of that history. However, Weadick is only in his first term and his win in 2008 was by a mere nine per cent over the Liberal candidate, Bal Boora. Boora is again the Liberal candidate and while he certainly has name recognition -- having run in the recent federal and municipal elections, his community support has seemed to go elsewhere in this election. While clearly passionate about this community, his disorganized campaign has demonstrated its limitations.

While the Liberals received 35 per cent of the vote share in 2008, the orange wave from the 2011 federal election seems to have planted roots in Lethbridge West. They received 5,600 votes -- more than any provincial candidate received in 2008. Boora has taken exception to this though, coming out defensively against the comparison and denying it has any impact on the provincial election.

Boora must not be seeing what many others have noticed. A drive through most of Lethbridge West illustrates the orange wave in the blanket of "Elect Shannon Phillips" signs that cover the balconies, front lawns, back fences and windows of Lethbridge residents. The Wildrose candidate, Kevin Kinahan, has also shown a strong presence, maybe not in lawn signs but in supporters at forums and events. A principal of a school in Coaldale, he is not a newcomer to provincial politics and neither is his campaign team. A member of the Wildrose Party (formally Alliance), he ran in Little Bow -- an adjacent riding to Lethbridge West in 2008 and captured 23 per cent of the vote. However, despite seeking the nomination in 2010 for Little Bow once again -- Kinahan's home is in Coaldale, part of the Little Bow riding -- he lost under some suspect circumstances.

The two front-runners, Phillips and Weadick, are also veterans of political races. Shannon Phillips has been heavily involved with both the provincial and federal NDP since her time as a student at the University of Alberta. She has spent time as a staff member for the NDP in their role of Opposition under the "dome," as well has worked for the federal party and was Jack Layton's point person during his tours in Alberta. Weadick has served one term as an MLA -- rising fairly rapidly to Parliamentary Assistant for Advanced Education and Finance during Doug Horner's time as Minister, and then becoming Minister of AET during the Redford cabinet shuffle. His rise though is no doubt due in part to his location. Southern Alberta, while typically a Progressive Conservative stronghold, has seen the rise of both the NDP and the Wildrose in various ridings and presents a significant threat to the Tory dynasty. To note, the Alberta Party is also running a candidate in Lethbridge West: David Walters, though he only joined the race as Election Alberta closed candidate nominations.

Both in east and west, there is no shortage of speculation on who is going take it. As the Wildrose strengthen across the province, people are beginning to openly deliberate on the value of strategic voting to narrow the number of seats the Wildrose could take.

Unfortunately, the heat of the campaign is also spilling into negative campaign tactics and several parties have seen their signs taken from supporters' properties or defaced with hate messages. Typically this city has carried through elections with little fuss or muss but with this much momentum for change, Lethbridge might just see a higher voter turnout and narrow victories in both ridings.

Jennifer Prosser is a Lethbridge resident, and a born and raised Albertan. A blogger, social media coordinator and consultant, co-founder of Elect Lethbridge and freelance journalist her work can be at her site.

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