Alberta Election 2012 Underdogs: Sue Huff

Today’s underdog election candidate is of Alberta Party candidate for Edmonton-Glenora Sue Huff. Please give a warm welcome to my co-author Lana Cuthbertson, who joined me on the door-knocking route this time.

Still to come this week: Edmonton-Centre PC candidate Akash Khokhar and Wildrose Edmonton-Strathcona hopeful Meagen LaFave.


Sue Huff tweets from a laptop in her campaign office
Sue Huff, Alberta Party candidate for Edmonton-Glenora, is a steadfast blogger and tweeter.

“Well that was worth coming back,” Sue Huff says as we leave the house of a woman who’s agreed to take one of her signs. She makes a point of trying to remember people, and in this case it paid off. Huff says the first time she visited, the woman had too many questions, and had never heard of the Alberta Party. Now she’s a believer.

It’s no wonder Huff has pushed for more all-candidate forums in her riding, and invites every person she can. Her background in theatre, film and TV shines through almost as brightly as the smile she brushed before we left the campaign office. She’s got incredible charisma, and experience as a local school trustee. But will it be enough to wrest Edmonton-Glenora away from the PCs’ Heather Klimchuk?

We walked briskly to keep up with Huff and ask her about where the Alberta Party fits into a crowded political spectrum, the chilling effect that she says Bill 44 has had on classrooms, and what a party all about listening thinks of citizen referenda.

How personal questions on schools got political

As Huff brushes yet another friendly dog away from the (probably faux) fur rim of her Value Village coat, she tells us the threat of her children’s elementary school closing was what pushed her into politics.

She was so upset that Westglen Elementary was threatened with closure for low enrolment that she ran for — and won — a place as a trustee with the Edmonton Public School Board. While there, she successfully argued that they should find alternatives for closing inner city schools. And the moratorium she lobbied for has helped bring Westglen back from the brink.

During her term as trustee, Huff says she got frustrated with the way decisions were made at the EPSB. She’d be given an agenda Friday, and expected to vote on it the next Tuesday. Her fellow trustees, she says, didn’t understand why she said she needed more time to ask what her constituents thought.

Today, Huff covers the education file for the Alberta Party. Just as she shifted her career from acting to writing for radio and TV when her kids were born, they now seem to be a major force behind her political choices.

Big Listen, uphill battle to be heard

Besides the EverGreens, no partyseriously campaigningin this election has had a harder time getting recognized than the Alberta Party. Formed in 2010, the fledgling party has taken on a centrist platform aimed at making voters feel like their opinions matter more directly than in any of the old standbys. Their low profile means Alberta leader Glenn Taylor had to join in last week’s debate by chatting live online.

Huff knows the challenges of luring voters to their party better than perhaps anyone else running. She served as acting leader before Taylor took over, and guided the Big Listen process they used to take input from around the province and develop the party’s platform. And she’s been knocking on doors in Edmonton-Glenora since last fall.

This riding has swung back and forth between the PCs and the Liberals over the decades. Heather Klimchuk is now a cabinet minister, and two of their other competitors have been MLAs before.

Huff didn’t jump into this race blindly. A prominent trustee during her time on the Edmonton Public School Board, she says she was initially courted by the Liberals and NDP. But when they confirmed she’d have to vote along party lines in the Legislature, she asked whether they’d ever seen her as trustee.

Religion matters less than inclusive environment in schools

One piece of legislation that came up while she was a trustee really irks her today: Bill 44. The bill changed Alberta’s Human Rights Act to protect against [edit: against was a key missing word here earlier] discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but came with a twist.

Socially conservative PCs (and now-Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson) opposed to those protections demanded parents be given the right to prior notice every time teachers planned material discussing sexuality, sexual orientation or religion. Huff says the threat of teachers being pulled before human rights tribunals for violating that law has had a chilling effect on classrooms.

“Teachers are not renegades,” she says. Being married to one herself, she argues the law shows a major lack of trust in teachers to appropriately bring up issues of tolerance and rights in the classroom, or even address bullying when it arises. If elected, she’d push to have it repealed.

“The fact that the Minister of Education [Dave Hancock] was willing to accept that compromise was a bad day for him.”

Huff thinks most people aren’t willing to open the can of worms around public funding for Catholic schools though, or access to secular education for parents without a public alternative. Catholic schools are constitutionally protected, she points out.

Religion matters less to her than making sure public money is going towards schools that are inclusive and open to everyone.

“Stick to your knitting”

At one house, a man draws Huff into a lengthy debate over why the Alberta Party sees itself as so different from the established options. He eventually tells her he’s a committed Liberal voter, and she later says their supporters are the ones who interrupt her the most, and have already made up their minds.

“Stick to your knitting,” is how Huff sums up the difference in her philosophy for a woman at another door. In other words, keep focused on serving your constituents, not your party. The Alberta Party policy of allowing MLAs to vote freely almost seems made for her.

She’s also promised to let her constituents judge her performance for them after her first year in office, and use online and face-to-face tools to gauge their opinions frequently on issues in the Legislature.

Is that enough to set them apart from the other parties? It’s hard to say. But eventually it occurs to us that Huff’s biggest target isn’t disaffected centrist voters. It’s the people she visits in high rises who say they’ve never voted before, because they feel like nobody ever listens to them.

Huff is adamant that government can change, even when people question her about its feasibility. She really believes in collaborating with the other parties, and seems to be very personally behind this Alberta Party idea, even though it was contentious at a few of the doors we knocked on.

The limits of listening

Before she wrapped up her route for the afternoon, we asked what Huff thought of the Wildrose plan to open up citizen-initiated referenda. The Alberta Party is all about listening, after all.

“There’s a place for referenda,” she sighs, “but you need a process first where people can get educated by listening to other perspectives.”

Meeting in living rooms in groups of a dozen or less for the Big Listen, Huff says, she saw people shift their opinions during policy conversations as they heard each other’s stories. Getting to look people who disagree in the eye and develop empathy for their challenges is key, she says.

“Checking off a box on a ballot doesn’t involve getting to know how your decision will affect your neighbours.”

Huff takes the same cautious stance when someone comes out onto the porch to ask her about proportional representation. It needs to be discussed, she says, but most people are not engaged enough yet to make a decision about it.

The heart of her outlook seems to be a desire to spend more time developing good policy.

“Is there a meteor falling on my house? Okay, go ahead, make a decision.” Otherwise, she argues, it’s better to put in the time to do it right.


Sue Huff’s candidate website

Come back tomorrow for a look at Akash Khokhar, the PC candidate for Edmonton-Centre.

Alberta Election 2012 Underdogs: Marlin Schmidt

I think we can all agree this provincial election has gotten pretty overheated. It’s warranted. There are genuine serious issues coming up about climate change and energy policies, human rights, and moral issues. There’s something else I’ve wanted to focus on, though: underdogs.

There are hundreds of candidates running for office in this election, and though change is in the air, only 87 can become Members of the Legislative Assembly. I wanted to know what motivates the people running in tough ridings, the ones that have been impenetrable fortresses for other parties for years.

So I decided to follow some of those candidates to see what makes them tick. Today I’m starting with NDP candidate Marlin Schmidt. Tomorrow’s profile of Alberta Party hopeful Sue Huff will be a collaboration with my friend and Edmonton Journal contributor Lana Cuthbertson. Without further ado…


Marlin Schmidt out on the street examining a door-knocking list with a volunteer
Marlin Schmidt (left), NDP candidate for Edmonton-Gold Bar

Sitting in the passenger seat of his door-knocking volunteer’s car, Marlin Schmidt is swapping horror stories about the mosquitoes up north. Way up north. Schmidt’s a hydrogeologist for Alberta Environment in Edmonton now, but says his time working in the field in northern Canada shaped his journey from a young Reformer to an NDP candidate today.

The riding Schmidt’s taken on is Edmonton-Gold Bar, and it’s been won by Liberals since 1986. Hugh MacDonald has been the MLA here since 1997, and only decided not to run this time around after running for the Liberal leadership and losing out to Raj Sherman.

That’s a tough legacy to overcome for any candidate, and the new areas that have been added have mostly voted Tory before. But Schmidt’s been through similar battles before running federal races for the Member of Parliament in this area, Linda Duncan. Before she won, Rahim Jaffer seemed to have just as tight a grip on the riding for the Conservatives.

I talked to Marlin Schmidt to see what he had to say about moving over to the NDP, the minor controversy over a public school trustee’s endorsement, and the conditions under which he loves strategic voting.

Swearing at the TV and starting out Reform

Following Schmidt and his volunteer on the evening’s door-knocking route, I realize he’s tall enough to get swiped by most of the trees, so I try to veer to the edge of the sidewalk. As we walk, Schmidt jokes he’s been interested in politics since he was a kid because he his parents were always swearing at politicians on TV, and he wanted to find out what they were swearing about.

His family moved around a lot when he was young, and Schmidt says he has a strong memory of growing up in Saskatchewan under Premier Grant Devine’s scandal-ridden Conservatives. The corruption of that party and its baker’s dozen of MLAs convicted of fraud “left a bit of a mark,” says Schmidt.

The Reform Party seemed to capture the sense he felt of being alienated by the “Eastern bastards” when he was young, he says, and Reform got his vote in his first election. Eventually though, Schmidt realized he felt like the West was being cheated more by big oil and banking companies than by the government.

It was living in northern Alberta with his young wife and working as an environmental consultant for oil and gas companies that guided his shift towards the NDP, he says. He felt frustrated that so much of his pricy consulting fee was going to shareholders, not the people doing work in the company. And eventually he got frustrated with his taxes, too — with how low they were getting.

“Since I started working, my taxes have basically just been doing down,” Schmidt says. But the cost of saving for his kids’ post-secondary education and non-instructional fees kept going up. The NDP seemed to be a better fit for his belief that it’s easier to pay for the important things collectively.

Questions about taxes and oil sands at the door

It’s easy to understand why he just walks past the houses with Wildrose signs on their lawn. It makes sense too that the longest conversation of his evening is at a house where a man tells him he’s worried about high taxes and wages squeezing out his small business.

Schmidt stands at the door for a while trying to persuade the man that the NDP wants big corporations to pay their fair share, but would lower taxes for small businesses. The man nods, saying somebody’s got to pay for everything government does. I’m surprised to hear him tell Schmidt he thinks green concerns about the oil sands are also overblown, but that he’s rented a helicopter to see industry’s impact on the land, and walked through reclaimed forests to see what they look like for himself.

“It’s not much of a forest,” he says.

Although environmental issues play to Schmidt’s strengths, he gives a delicate answer to this potential voter. He talks about the real concerns he sees in his work at Alberta Environment, but agrees they’re occasionally blown out of proportion by advocacy groups. I ask Schmidt later why the NDP platform is so vague about environmental issues, and he admits it’s a third rail for their party in the same way moral issues are proving to be for Wildrose.

“As soon as the NDP talk about the environment,” Schmidt says, “people think we want to shut down the oil sands.” So this election they’ve consciously decided to back down from the development slow-down they called for in 2008, and focus on issues like upgrading bitumen in Alberta.

That issue has earned them attack ads from the Merit Contractors Assocation, which represents non-union contracting companies benefiting from the current setup of shipping unrefined oil out. Schmidt gets a pretty big smile talking about those ads. “Unless they’re a highly vindictive organization,” he argues, they wouldn’t attack the NDP unless they saw them as a credible threat.

EPSB says endorsement controversy a non-issue

The one minor bump in Schmidt’s campaign so far has been Liberal candidate Josipa Petrunic’s campaign’s allegation that he received an illegal endorsement from Edmonton Public School Board trustee Sarah Hoffman. They say Hoffman’s endorsement breaks an Alberta School Board Association policy an abusing her position.

To be clear, I spoke to Dave Colburn, Board Chair of the EPSB. He said they have no policy on the issue as long as the endorsement is personal. I asked whether it was a problem that Hoffman’s endorsement on Schmidt’s campaign literature names her as a trustee. He said unequivocally that their legal team has advised him she hasn’t violated any rules.

As for Schmidt, he says he thinks it’s appropriate for elected officials to support other candidates as long as no public money is involved. Especially with so few progressives in Alberta, he says, they can’t wall each other off.

“I agree with strategic voting sites when they agree with us.”

A Rahim Jaffer sign leaning gently against a lamp-post in a stone-filled yard
Inexplicably, this house had a sign in their yard for Rahim Jaffer. He was the Conservative MP for this riding... federally... until 2008.

The reason I’m standing awkwardly on the porch as Schmidt knocks on dozens of doors, of course, is I want to find out why he’s running for the NDP in a riding held by another party on the left for so long. It’s a question that comes from many people he talks to who’ve voted Liberal before. Schmidt has an answer ready when people argue the riding’s been held by them for decades.

“It was Hugh’s riding for 14 years.”

Hugh MacDonald, he argues, had strong trade union backing, and supported many issues the NDP champion. On the back of his pamphlets, a tiny bar graph reflects how hard he worked to battle the same argument campaigning for Linda Duncan. It shows Duncan was miles ahead of the Liberal candidate in the area during the 2011 election, and that definitely wasn’t always the case. For years, the Liberals argued they were the only credible threat to the Conservatives.

There’s a website called Change Alberta endorsing “progressive” candidates with the best chance of winning competitive ridings all over the province. Though their methodology is a bit shaky, Schmidt has won them over in Edmonton-Gold Bar. Since the NDP so often end up on the losing end of strategic voting though, I ask him how he feels about that kind of endorsement.

“This election I love them,” he laughs. “To be straightforward, I agree with strategic voting sites when they agree with us.”

He’s not the kind of candidate who suddenly puts on a new mask every time he greets people at the door, and I can tell he’s struggling to give an intellectually honest answer. He says he’s trying to come up with a good argument, but there isn’t one.

The pamphlet and the website help this time though, and he knows he needs to win.


Marlin Schmidt’s candidate website

Come back tomorrow, when Lana Cuthbertson and I will profile Edmonton-Glenora candidate and former Alberta Party leader Sue Huff.

Alberta Election 2012: Parties barely competing for votes on the environment

Laurie Blakeman writes on the schedule dominating the wall of her campaign office in Edmonton
Liberal candidate Laurie Blakeman had some strong opinions to share with Terra Informa on carbon emissions and reclaiming land in the oil sands.

With a week to go until the provincial election, every other conversation I have these days is about the latest polls or what to think about the rising fortunes of the Wildrose Party. There’s plenty to scrutinize about their candidates’ “fiery” (ahem) opinions on sexual orientation, abortion rights, and launching a wider inquiry into doctor intimidation.

If you’re like me though, you probably watched that whole televised debate last week wondering when any of the four major parties would mention the environment. Sadly Liberal leader Raj Sherman couldn’t come up with a slogan about shale-bed methane as catchy as “fudge-it budget.”

Fortunately for you, the team at Terra Informa did the hard work and put together a story on the environmental platforms from the PCs, NDP, Liberals and Wildrose. For the sake of time, we couldn’t get to the Alberta Party or EverGreen for this segment. Our questions mainly targeted what to do about our dependence on coal-fired generation for electricity in the province, and the shoddy job oil sands developers have been doing replacing wetlands.

I will admit to taking a small amount of pleasure interrupting Alison Redford for this story to correct her about coal. She was trying to suggest we’re not still building coal plants in this province. Incredible as it is, we absolutely are.

Edit: Almost forgot: if you’re in Edmonton Tuesday night, you might want to check out Candi{date}, a meet-your-candidates event that Next Gen and InterVivos are hosting. It promises to be very shmoozy. I’ll add it to the Community section.