Alberta Liberal MLA Kent Hehr

Like ripples on a pond, the impact of yesterday’s announcement by Alberta Liberal MLA Kent Hehr that he plans to run for mayor of Calgary could spread far beyond Cowtown City Hall.

In any city of more than a million people, something would be gravely amiss if there weren’t some pretty vigorous disagreements on city council. But to voters who are barely paying attention, Hehr’s campaign claim that Calgary council is so divided and dysfunctional it needs an outsider to patch things up may carry a certain amount of credibility.

So the not-very-surprising candidacy of the affable and well-spoken MLA for the Calgary-Buffalo riding, a lawyer who became a quadriplegic after a random shooting 18 years ago, probably has as good a chance as any in what is already a crowded field after popular Calgary Mayor David Bronconnier announced he is stepping down in October.

At his press conference yesterday, Hehr shrugged off the idea that running for civic office has anything to do with the lacklustre recent performance of Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann. Maybe so, maybe not, but the announcement of Hehr’s planned departure is sure to add to doubts about Swann’s ability to hang onto the Liberal leadership.

Now, since Hehr has indicated he plans to keep his seat in the Legislature while he campaigns for mayor, for the moment the problems created by yesterday’s announcement are Swann’s alone.

But if Hehr takes Cowtown City Hall on Oct. 18, which is Municipal Election Day throughout Alberta, he will obviously have to resign his seat in the provincial Legislature. When that happens, the situation becomes an interesting problem for every party in the Legislature except the NDP, which has insufficient supporters in Calgary to mount a meaningful challenge.

Consider first the dilemma that would be faced by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, who has promised repeatedly there will be no general election until March 2012. Facing a tough challenge from the right by the well-financed Wildrose Alliance led by the capable Danielle Smith, would the premier have the courage to roll the dice and call a by-election?

If he did, and the Alliance candidate won, conservative voters would view the upstart party as an increasingly credible alternative to the moribund Progressive Conservatives. Worse, Stelmach’s own leadership would without question come under increased pressure as dissidents within his own party grumbled (as some are grumbling now) that he is leading them into the abyss!

If he didn’t call a by-election, though, the potential for political erosion would be almost as great. One can almost hear the shouts of political cowardice from Wildrose Alliance supporters.

But this scenario also creates problems for the Wildrose Alliance. Smith’s strategy of campaigning full-time without the work and critical attention associated with holding a seat in the Legislature has been working pretty well. But if Stelmach called a by-election, how could she not run in it?

But Calgary-Buffalo, with a recent history of strong Liberal votes, would be no shoo-in for Smith. Since the election of Sheldon Chumir in 1986, the Alberta Liberals have done well in Calgary-Buffalo, electing their candidates in six out of eight elections. So what happens to Smith’s credibility if she grabs for the brass ring in Calgary-Buffalo … and misses?

And then there is Swann, his leadership already rocked by the ungracious April 13 departure from the Alberta Liberal caucus of Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor (who will now sit as an independent) and the possible departure of Hehr (who supported Taylor’s bid for the Liberal leadership in 2008).

What would the impact be for Swann if he couldn’t lead the liberals to a victory in a riding where his party has not only done well in the past, but the right-wing vote is badly divided between the Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance? Surely it would ring the death knell for his leadership!

What’s more, the prospect of such a damaging Liberal defeat would likely tempt the New Democrats to try to find a strong candidate in hopes of destroying the Liberals as the centre-right opposition.

In such circumstances, the only hope for the Liberals would be to find a popular and credible candidate with sufficient profile to capitalize on traditional Liberal strength in the riding despite Swann’s own weakness. Can Swann persuade such a person to run? It is an open question.

In other words, the risks of a by-election in Calgary Buffalo next fall or winter are so great for the Conservatives, the Wildrose Alliance and the Liberals, that all their leaders must all be praying Hehr never darkens the door of the Calgary Mayor’s office.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...