By Jody MacPherson
The commute to Okotoks from Calgary is a scenic drive southwest with truly spectacular mountain views on a clear day. Having travelled the route almost daily for about 15 years, I saw something this week I’ve never seen before.
Beginning at the turnoff to Dunbow Road on Highway 2, there is a series of election signs for a party other than the Progressive Conservatives (PC’s). The Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith has a half dozen or more signs at regular intervals all the way into Okotoks. Not one PC sign could be found along the same stretch of road. The first sign of Smith’s PC rival, John Barlow, isn’t visible until just outside the town boundaries.
Okotoks is adjacent to the famous Okotoks erratic, the largest of its kind in the world. It’s a town where political sensibilities shift as slowly as this “big rock,” left behind as the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago.
Don’t let the town’s sleepy, peaceful appearance fool you, though. There’s an epic battle being waged in the community on several fronts. The traditional power base in the town has been frustrated in its attempts to overturn the sustainable Okotoks model in favour of expanding residential development. They want to build a water pipeline to the community from Calgary to fuel growth in a town that has literally “tapped out” its water supply.
Bullying hits home
In the surrounding Municipal District of Foothills, it’s a different story. The MD politicians have been a burr in the sides of the provincial government for several years now, resisting attempts at regionalization. Their motives are less about protecting the environment and more about preserving the rights of their constituents to control their land. Land use planning is the enemy in these parts.
Promises to property owners
It’s not surprising Alison Redford kicked off the race with an olive branch at her fundraiser in High River last week. She assured cantankerous landowners she was sympathetic to their concerns about property rights and about the voting structure of the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP). The governance model gives Calgary a veto over rural planning decisions and Redford surprised everyone by promising to get rid of the veto. But, as the U2 song lyric says, “she’s the promise, in the year of election.”
The ground game
Okotoks is the largest town in the large, mostly rural riding of Highwood. Driving around, viewing the lawn signs, it looks as though Smith’s campaign has not yet penetrated these neighbourhoods. After the first week of the campaign, Barlow’s lawn signs seem to slightly outnumber Smith’s in most areas of town. In such a conservative stronghold, with an unprecedented battle unfolding, it’s surprising there are not more signs.
Media on side
Barlow is a likeable candidate, strongly backed by business interests and younger families who can identify with his balance of community-mindedness and conservative sensibilities. He’s the comfortable choice. He’s also the associate publisher of the Western Wheel newspaper and showed questionable judgment by not stepping down from his duties immediately after being nominated as the PC candidate. He continued at the newspaper while also campaigning, not stepping down until after the writ was dropped. It’s worth noting that his backers are some of the same people who are calling for a water pipeline.
When the National Post came to town to do a story on Highwood, they reported their conversation with former pharmacist Allen King, who they described as “tidying up” around Barlow’s office. They likely didn’t realize they had stumbled on one of the town’s biggest power brokers. King is an unapologetic, anti-sustainability, conservative columnist for the Wheel and true blue Tory royalty.
Also on the ballot
Let’s be up front here. I’m a liberal, but I’ll admit Highwood shows no signs of electing a centre-left candidate any time soon. The PC’s captured 65 per cent of the popular vote in 2008. So, I’m not going to spend time on the other candidates. This is a showdown between Smith and Barlow.
Showdown at the OK-otoks corral
At first blush, Barlow might seem outgunned by the savvy, sophisticated Smith. A master politician, she’s demonstrated how to win votes, even when in unfamiliar territory and in a riding that doesn’t always welcome newcomers. This is Barlow’s first real foray into politics, but I’m not prepared to underestimate the Tory dynasty yet. They are likely putting significant effort into this race and Smith has to cover an entire province, by comparison.
The riding was also one of redrawn to give it more of a “rurban” flavour. Rural residents are likely favouring the Wildrose, but their influence may have been neutralized somewhat by the boundary changes. I’d wager the Wildrose is strong in High River as well.
Shades of the republic
Some of the more progressive voters might fear Smith’s right wing views and decide to vote for Barlow to try and keep her from winning. The worst possible outcome for Barlow is a low voter turnout. If disaffected PCs decide to stay home, rather than defend their party against the Wildrose onslaught, Smith will easily win. Given the dismal performance of the Tories thus far in the election, this seems like a serious concern for Barlow. He’s fighting an uphill battle with Smith’s political skill and Redford’s inability to control her wayward party.
Okotoks will no doubt be the main battleground. A debate organized by the chamber of commerce and scheduled for April 10 will be standing room only. Smith and Barlow will go head to head.
As I left town, I noticed yet another large billboard of Smith’s smiling face adorning a property south on Highway 2. Next to her sign, on the same property owner’s fence is a sign that reads, “Vote Ron Paul.” At this intersection, I turned left and drove back to Calgary.
Jody MacPherson raised a family in Okotoks, where she has extended family and many valued friends. She has since moved into Calgary and has been active in the Alberta Liberal Party for several years. Coincidentally, she now lives in Calgary-Elbow, Alison Redford’s home riding.
17 replies on “guest post: the election in highwood – week one.”
Yes, that’s my mom. She’s a social media pro! Love it when she likes my blog posts 😉
A pretty good analysis of the landscape in Highwood! It is a riding that I have been watching but have not driven around as of yet.
I agree that some of the Okotoks power brokers are around John, particularly those who want a bigger town with the pipeline ( as they are now pretty much unsustainable without more water). So they have gathered around John to make it happen, even if the rest of the municipality refuses to be bullied. That is why Allison’announcement was a stunner ( however, there is that huge distrust factor- after all this is a say anything to get elected Premier).
The rest of the riding – the MD and the town of High River may not be so PC any longer. I have not yet gaged the extent of support one way or the other outside Okotoks.
I agree though that there was a bit of discomfort with a newspaper guy campaigning while still working at a newspaper. I did hear that.
I do not think that signs tell the story here – there are a lot just keeping silent but are WR supporters but do not want to show colors. They need to do business with the town councils, the MD councils, etc. so they do not want to get in conflict with them- that license or that application just may get turned down or delayed etc.
The blog has peaked my interest – guess I will take a drive up there and see what is cooking
If signs were a real sign of the times we would just have to put up plenty of signs. This election will only be won or lost in the ballet box. I’ll guarantee you there are some wearing a PC pin that will vote for anyone but PC including the WR but not excluding the Libs. The culture of entitlement is a real and present roadblock of the PC vote. Last election I drove across the Province in the last week and observed the lay of the sign land. I have seen more signs (of different stripes) in my riding so far this year than on that cross Provincial trip.
Mr. Barlow’s paper also had plenty of photo opps for their candidate in the issue leading up to the election. Poor form for sure.
I’m not so convinced about Danielle Smith’s supposed political prowess. What has she actually won? Leadership of a start-up party with few viable alternatives? Board of Education trusteeships? There’s a lot of “bumpf” about her, but as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it”.
Bring on the pudding
I realize that campaign signs don’t necessarily equal votes, but there sure are a lot of Danielle Smith signs here in High River. It’s scary.
I’ve never voted on the right before, but I may have to vote strategically this election to keep Smith out.
If only that landowner knew: Wildrose is made up of everything Ron Paul is running against in the Republican Party.
I give Smith a 50 / 50 chance of winning the riding. Real toss-up in my opinion. I would flip Phillip’s comment and say that there are a lot of tried and true PC voters not showing their colours, but will vote true blue in the end. The thing is whether they are motivated to vote – this election will turn on the faithful and if they stay home all bets are off.
The WR have gotten off to a very lucky start, and a lot of good press by the media families (a close race sells more papers). But there is a lot of electioneering left and we’ll see what the sentiment is after the third period buzzer.
Last thing – I still can’t dismiss the feeling that they may split the right wing vote and let the Liberals or NDP sneak through in some ridings. Nah! Still think it will be a PC majority, but this is just the first period.
The one thing that bothers me is the critisism of Mr. Barlow for continueing his job before the writ was dropped. Rimbey town councilor Joe Anglin has been a nominated WRA candidates for months and did not stop his current elected positions until the writ was dropped he had been campaigning. Joe Anglin has for example writen many letters to the Editor regarding his positions. Surprise the Lacombe Globe – owned by the right wing Sun Corp – has not been adding that he was a nominated candidate. If you want to be the party that takes the moral high ground you better actually be on it in practice
Small town mayor.
Yup two wrongs do not make a right.
But I see a slight difference in writing letters to the editors than being the editor- just saying!
But your comment is justified
Congratulations John Barlow, your supporters are allowing signs attached to their properties. A great sign of support. I drive in the country almost every day and see your supporters proud to present their support to you, in the country too. Your integrity of being on titled land not in the Public space is honorable. Allison Refford is an outstanding leader and you, John Barlow will make a terrific member on the P C Team.
Gosh sandi, I just drove thru Okotoks a few hours ago, and seems to me about equal. And both are on public and private. But as usual, I have to remind people that signs do not vote.
But I have great respect for all candidates. It takes a lot to put yourself forward on the stage. Question is: will the next Premier of Alberta be from Highwood. I do not think that a southern rural riding has ever held that title.
Anybody know if that is true
The first Socred Premier’s riding was Okotoks-High River, which was originally what this riding was going to be called after this election. When the PCs realized this, they changed the name back to Highwood. 🙂
There may be Danielle signs in Highwood, but very little sign of Danielle. I was in High River two weeks ago and took the opportunity to ask folks at random if they’d met Danielle yet. The first five said “no”, the sixth said she thinks the house Smith just recently bought is in her neighbourhood, but no signs of life in it. Meanwhile, John Barlow knows everybody (life’s like that when you work for years at a small town paper). If Danielle is expecting a coronation she may be in for a major surprise!
Every Sunday. Held successful events at heritage point, Saskatoon farm, carlson’s, skating party. Teams door knocking, and best guess will sweep HighRiver.
Just as any campaign, door knocking takes time, but are moving right along with great success. As WR increases over all inthe polls – the response grows. Who would not want a Premier from high wood.
I wish our riding was that positive, we may have a slightly taller hill to climb, but again th swing is coming.
The more panicky Redford campaign appears, the more of the undecided are deciding.
But nthe only poll that counts is electionday
Went to the debate in Okotoks — way more Wildrose supporterds then any others . The ndp candidate didnt bother to show up . The student running for the liberals at least showed up but was unfamiliar on his parties positions on many issues .
Danielle won the debate hands down —
@ Tom – you do understand she is running for premier and needs to tour the entire province –right . Barlow was getting booedby the majority of people at the Okotoks debate for some of his comments .