Alberta Election 2012 Underdogs: Meagen LaFave

Tomorrow is the big election, and I’m finishing this profile series with the ultimate underdog: Meagen LaFave, Wildrose candidate for Edmonton-Strathcona. She’s running for a party that’s climbed to the top of the provincial polls, but in a district that’s still very tough.

Seeing what makes a libertarian like LaFave want to run in a safe NDP riding was probably the most interesting experience I had working on this series. I talked to her about how her experience in health services affects her views on health care reform, what a libertarian thinks about recognizing rights for transgender Albertans, and why she chose Strathcona over any other part of the city.

Don’t forget to vote Monday, even if you’re not registered. If you’re in your home riding, all you need to do is bring government-issued ID to your polling station. The Council of Alberta University Students can tell you about the absurdities of forcing post-secondary students to vote from their permanent address.

The People’s Republic of Strathcona

Wildrose candidate Meagen LaFave sits in her office writing on post-it notes
Meagen LaFave says she even writes "Sorry I missed you" post-its while she's watching TV these days.

As Meagen LaFave’s team watches a wind storm die down from her campaign office window, she coughs and finishes writing a stack of “Sorry I missed you” post-its. At 23, she’s the youngest Wildrose candidate in the province, and she’s still getting over a cold from pulling out all the stops campaigning.

On the wall, a whiteboard shows polling results from April 3rd. LaFave’s campaign manager tells me they stopped updating it once it got busy and they realized provincial numbers don’t mean much in what they wryly call the “People’s Republic of Strathcona.”

The NDP’s Rachel Notley is the current MLA for this riding, and their party has held it for most of the last 26 years. Notley’s predecessor Raj Pannu was popular enough to earn the nickname “Raj Against the Machine”. It doesn’t get much safer for the NDP in Alberta, but LaFave says Strathcona’s the part of the city that fits her best.

“I’ve lived in this riding, I love this riding,” she says. This is where she long-boards, shops, and watches theatre. It’s also where she works for a research group and bio-specimen business within the U of A.

There are a lot of conservatives in this area looking for an alternative, she says, and she thinks it helps that she’s a libertarian but not a hard-line social conservative.

LaFave says she couldn’t disagree more with Allan “lake of fire” Hunsperger about condemning gay relationships, for example. She believes it’s his right to say what he thinks, though.

Getting your hands dirty, starting work at 14

What made LaFave want to run, knowing the odds?

“I’m a pretty type-A person,” she says. “I went from being a bookkeeper to the business manager of my company.” So looking at the challenges, she figured if you’re going to get your hands dirty, you might as well get them really dirty.

“The libertarian values, frankly,” were what LaFave says attracted her to Wildrose. She had watched their development for years while studying political science and history at the U of A, and finally joined the party in 2011.

Like many Wildrose members, she used to be a PC supporter. Eventually stories of doctor intimidation, seemingly ever-increasing hospital wait times and accountability issues convinced her the party was broken. She didn’t expect Wildrose to take off so much, though.

Born and raised in Edmonton, LaFave says she has “quite a bit of blue collar” in her. She credits her entrepreneurial father and accountant mother with teaching her to be fiscally responsible. The day she turned 14, she started her first job.

The Wildrose Party has been criticized for fielding so many candidates like LaFave without experience holding public office. There are parallels to the flood of MPs elected in Quebec from the NDP just last year, many of whom were mocked at first but have proven to be capable politicians.

LaFave admits she doesn’t follow federal politics much, but thinks she has weight from her work experience, and is privileged to see dysfunction in our health care system through her work with Alberta Health Services and the U of A.

“Everybody getting involved in politics starts from ground zero.”

The relief valve of more private health care

Two green Wildrose T-shirts sit on top of a stack of Edmonton Senior papers.
Beneath the Wildrose T-shirts, LaFave's office keeps a stack of the Edmonton Senior papers where they bought an ad.

Health care questions are definitely LaFave’s favourite to answer at the door. One woman she meets is encouraged by Wildrose’s promise to increase funding for home care, but wary of a two-tier system emerging. LaFave emphasises that they’re only proposing publicly funding more private delivery if a wait-time guarantee isn’t met.

“But what happens when that door opens?” the woman asks.

It’s a question LaFave doesn’t mind answering. Her experiences working with Alberta Health Services have made her adamant that big changes need to be made to the province’s health care system.

There’s a huge amount of waste in the bureaucracy, she says. Because her company is a not a for-profit entity connected to AHS and the University, it has to pay a large chunk of any funding it gets directly to their joint research centre NACTRC. LaFave says over the years NACTRC has stopped providing even basic clinic space in exchange for that money, and concludes the money is now just boosting bureaucrats’ salaries.

I ask LaFave why not spend her energy reforming the bureaucracy within the public system if she has these insights. There’s a lot of evidence that private delivery of health care is more expensive than public delivery. For example, Canadian Doctors for Medicare has published a report showing the “pac man” analogy of health care continually eating up more of provincial budgets is mostly due to shrinking revenues and rising costs of private services like drug and dental insurance.

LaFave also works directly with billing, so I point out that a lot of research shows the exorbitant costs of the US system are partly pushed up by the amount of private health care providers they have trying to untangle a web of who pays for which patients to use what services (This American Life has a great special called More is Less that explains this in more detail).

LaFave is firm that she sees so many superfluous people working in health care billing in Alberta that cutting their jobs would balance that out. And the wait-time guarantee would just be a relief valve, she says, until more front-line doctors and nurses are hired.

What seems fuzzy is how a Wildrose government would gauge when they cross that finish line.

Those contentious moral issues

Even in the People’s Republic, the Wildrose name gets a lot of people excited about change. One man wants to meet LaFave at the door just to tell her, “We need new leadership. Big time.”

But she tells me that questions about homophobia, racism and other bigotry among Wildrose candidates have outgrown most of the policy questions people pose.

“My opinions are not the same [as those views],” she says. “That’s where the libertarian thing fits me so well.”

So I ask her what the libertarian response would be if a gay constituent said a marriage commissioner had denied their right to that public service, by declaring it violated their conscience rights. She pauses.

“I haven’t really considered whether someone should be forced to offer marriage,” LaFave answers honestly, “because I wouldn’t want to force someone to do something they disagree with.”

It’s an obvious tension in her desire to champion individual rights, and she doesn’t have an answer yet on how to negotiate them when they compete. She’d probably want to help both sides resolve the issue through the courts, she says.

Finally, I ask Lafave about the Wildrose pledge not to legislate on contentious moral issues. This has mostly been framed as a way to reassure voters they won’t try to do something like de-list abortion. The flip side is it implies they won’t work on expanding legal protections for groups like trans people.

A transgender rights bill is working its way through the House of Commons yet again. This attempt to explicitly protect people from being denied things like housing, employment, and health care because of differences in gender identity and expression has been killed so many times that its old sponsor has actually retired from Parliament. With Albertans like teacher Jan Buterman lack legal protection when they’re fired for how they express their gender, it’s a serious issue that could be addressed provincially.

LaFave admits Wildrose’s pledge means they wouldn’t bring any such legislation forward. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t raise the issue with her caucus if constituents told her it mattered.

“As a representative for Strathcona,” she explains, “if people said it’s something they want me to bring forward, that’s my job.”

“A libertarian wants people to do what they want to do, and work where they want to work.”

***

Meagan LaFave’s campaign website

Alberta Election 2012 Underdogs: Akash Khokhar

Akash Khokhar presses the elevator buttons in a downtown apartment building
The number of apartment buildings in Edmonton-Centre makes getting in to campaign a bit of a challenge.

In today’s underdog profile, it’s time to meet Akash Khokhar. He’s the PC candidate for Edmonton-Centre, held by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman for 15 years now. When you see those PC ads that say “Not your father’s PC Party,” Khokhar is the guy they want you to think about.

Just look at the cute self-deprecating video his team made to help people pronounce his name. It’s an idea cribbed from Naheed Nenshi, who hired the same campaign strategist for his mayoral run as now-Premier Alison Redford. Khokhar shares more than a meme with Nenshi. He has a similar belief that Alberta’s leaders need to embrace its growing diversity.

Alison Redford, he thinks, is the leader who best embodies the ways the province needs to change. I asked Khokhar how her leadership win influenced his decision to run, what it’s like bumping up against four decades of his party’s reputation, and how he hopes to unseat a queer-friendly MLA in a riding that scoops up Edmonton’s gaybourhood.

The model progressive conservative

Campaigning in a dense downtown riding has its challenges — starting with getting inside buildings to see the voters. Waiting in the lobby of one older adult residence, Khokhar is finding it difficult to convince the building manager he’s willing to risk interrupting people while they’re having dinner.

Finally, he leans into the intercom and calmly states, “Sir, you are aware that under the Elections Act you are required to let us in.”

The door buzzes and we walk inside.

A lawyer specializing in insolvency cases, Khokhar can be firm. But he’s also the kind of person who’s met voters twice in one day: once while door-knocking, and once while delivering Meals on Wheels. He’s the co-owner of Suede Lounge on Jasper Ave, and he does pro-bono work on eviction issues through the Edmonton Community Legal Centre. In other words, he’s out there in the community.

After studying international relations in California and doing a law degree at the University of Toronto, Khokhar came back with some clear ideas about the strengths of diverse cities.

Khokhar’s ideas seem to fit the bill of a model “progressive conservative”: the way we run our communities and our province is basically fine, it just needs some tweaks to provide better business and social supports.

For example, I ask him what he’s learned from working for people facing evictions. Legislation for tenants is pretty good, he says. The big problem is access to justice. He thinks more dispute resolution mechanisms would help ease the burden on the courts and are less intimidating and pricy for poorer people.

“Everything I went to law school to do, she had done.”

It’s easy to see why Khokhar was lured into running by Alison Redford’s party leadership election last year. Her turn towards the Joe Clark-style progressive wing of the PCs is palpable enough that it’s fuelled the membership exodus bleeding supporters further right to Wildrose.

“Everything I went to law school to do, she had done,” he says. Redford had worked as a human rights lawyer, worked with Nelson Mandela, and come back to become Justice Minister and Premier.

“Her being elected showed a real shift to me and a recognition that the province is changing.”

On social and fiscal issues, she just seemed to be a fit for him that came out of nowhere. It was enough to persuade him to run for office for the first time.

On fiscal issues, he says he supports Redford’s plan for results-based budgeting (re-examining the value of all department spending from zero up, rather than looking for simple cuts or additions to what’s there). Having seen government from the inside working for Intergovernmental and International Relations, he says it’ll help identify inefficiencies and stop budget inertia.

“I think my job could have been done by someone who was already there,” he offers, laughing.

Of course, the timeline of Redford’s influence as leader means he was only nominated in January. He’s been campaigning hard since then, but three months of groundwork puts him far behind the incumbent Blakeman’s name recognition.

Wearing 41 years of other people’s decisions

What does get a lot of recognition is the PC name. It’s hard to imagine joining the party at a worse time for a new candidate. Khokhar points out that about half of their candidates are running for the first time, but they’re facing the reputation of 41 years of PC rule. That’s a lot of other people’s decisions to wear for a rookie.

At one apartment we come to, for example, the man at the door says his biggest problem right now is with the federal government, and getting disability support. Khokhar points out that Redford has only been premier for six months but has already raised AISH, an income-support program for people with disabilities.

“Too little too late,” the man says.

Khokhar may be new, but it’s inevitable he faces tough questions for his party’s decisions from the left and the right. One man speaks to him entirely in French (and Khokhar plays along gamely) until he’s had a chance to point out Tory flaws in providing arts funding and affordable housing for 50+ year olds.

Another says he’s a PC supporter, but works for Enbridge and worries whether Redford will push hard enough for the Northern Gateway pipeline. A seasoned campaigner walking with us interjects that she’s been fighting hard for its approval.

This too reflects the legacy Khokhar is working with. Most of his campaign team are young faces, but this shmoozy campaigner is a senior policy advisor, and has been working for the PCs for decades. It seems like second nature to him to lean over and suggest notes I should be taking from a speech he makes on arts funding.

How much can a party with so many insiders left change from an institutional culture that’s been battered by years of scandals over entitlement and corruption?

Not your father’s PC on queer issues

Khokhar himself isn’t boxed into Klein-era ideas, and it comes out (pardon the pun) when I grill him about queer issues. Having lived in Oliver myself before, I ask him how he thinks he would represent an area with Alberta’s most prominent gaybourhood better than Blakeman.

The first time I met Khokhar was actually at Suede, when they were hosting an event for the leaders’ debate. At that time, he seemed vague about his thoughts on Bill 44’s rules on teaching material related to religion, sexuality, and sexual orientation in schools. He frowned and said Blakeman didn’t have a monopoly on supporting minority rights.

Still, he hadn’t even heard of the government’s decision a few years ago to cut funding for gender reassignment surgery. GRS can be crushingly expensive, and it’s a serious issue for transgender folks who need to make a physical transition.

But by the time I sat down with Khokhar in his office, he’d asked Redford about it, and gotten a commitment that the funding would be re-instated.

“I think that’s right,” he says.

“I’m not running because of what the party was, I’m running because I believe in what she stands for.”

***

Akash Khokhar’s campaign website

This weekend: the final underdog profile. I’ll be talking to Meagen LaFave, the Wildrose candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona.

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.