Alberta Tory stalwart Ted Morton at risk in rise of Wildrose

CHESTERMERE, ALTA. — The Globe and Mail

Norm Buckley does some spring cleaning in his front yard of his Chestermere home, a Wildrose-strong neighbourhood about 20 kilometres east of Calgary on Sunday, April 8, 2012. A former Global TV Calgary news anchor and Chestermere resident Bruce McAllister is running as the Wildrose candidate in the new riding of Chestermere. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

For a sense of how quickly the hearts of Alberta’s staunch conservatives have shifted, one need only stroll through Chestermere, a booming town just east of Calgary.

Small, southern-Alberta communities like this were once the heart of Progressive Conservative support. It’s where Ted Morton – Energy Minister, former finance minister and the stalwart of the party’s right flank – is running and, before the right-wing Wildrose Party hit the scene, it would have been a slam-dunk for the PCs.

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This time, they’re barely putting up a fight.

Mr. Morton’s seat is in peril, with several sources saying he’s on pace to lose to Wildrose candidate Bruce McAllister, a former news anchor. It certainly seems that way in Chestermere, the hub of the newly created riding that includes nearby rural areas, where green Wildrose signs line the lawns of homes. Morton signs are a rare sight on private land.

The PC campaign says it expected the race here to be a battle – but if anyone might have been immune to the Wildrose surge, by flaunting right-wing credentials, it would have been Mr. Morton. That hasn’t been the case.

As Wildrose soars, no seat is a sure thing.

“I just think it’s time for a change,” Gary Friesen, a 54-year-old construction site supervisor, says on the steps of his Chestermere home. After voting PC his entire adult life, he’s backing Wildrose. “We’ve been PC long enough, but we want to keep some of that conservative in us – small-c.”

If defeated, it will mark a reversal of fortune for Mr. Morton, a university professor and long-time colleague of Stephen Harper; former senator-in-waiting; and three-time cabinet minister. Wildrose once wooed him to cross the floor, but he instead sought the leadership of the PCs (for the second time). He hoped to unite the right, saying two parties were a “recipe for electing Liberals or NDs.”

His pitch fell short, and he failed to make the final ballot – instead, three progressive candidates did. “It’s clear that the conservative wing of the party stayed home,” his campaign manager said on election night.

Mr. Morton became an ally of the winner, the more centrist Alison Redford, but has stumbled under the weight of both his record and wedge issues publicized by Wildrose.

As finance minister, he tabled massive deficit budgets during the recession, despite being a fiscal conservative, and was the man behind Alberta’s Land Stewardship Act, a land-use law – badly needed, some say – that Wildrose opposes. Ask a staunch Wildrose supporter and they’ll say Ted Morton tried to seize their land, a hyperbolic notion that is nonetheless politically suicidal among rural areas and social conservatives whose support Mr. Morton counted on. “The Wildrose is running a campaign based on fear – fear of what might happen to property rights, fear of parental rights,” Mr. Morton said in a radio interview last month. But he hasn’t been able to recover.

“I think what it comes down to is politicians, when they get elected, have to keep their promises, have to do what they say they’re going to do,” Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said. “And Ted Morton didn’t do that.”

And so, here he is – in Chestermere, a new riding that includes part of his old one. Mr. Morton, who didn’t respond to interview requests, has emphasized his “family friendly” and “Alberta proud” policies, saying he’ll best represent the riding because he’ll serve in cabinet if the PCs form government.

Mr. McAllister’s message is more local: he lives in the riding (Mr. Morton’s campaign literature doesn’t say where he lives).

“To understand the issues of a community, it really does help to live in it. To earn the trust of people, I think it helps to be one of them,” Mr. McAllister said, adding he hasn’t made his race about voting against Mr. Morton.

“I have no desire to get into all of that back and forth stuff. People know who I am here, and I am knocking on thousands of doors, meeting as many people as I can.”

And so an uphill fight lies before Mr. Morton. One of his signs sits outside the home of Chestermere resident Becky Benoit, as requested by her six-year-old daughter, Grace.

“She started noticing all the signs, and saw that they were all green. So she felt it was unfair,” Ms. Benoit recalls, saying her daughter wanted a blue Morton sign to even it out. “It’s sad that his biggest supporter around here is a six-year-old.”

Mr. McAllister, meanwhile, said Mr. Morton’s presence didn’t encourage or deter him to run. He sought the nomination after hearing Ms. Smith speak on a radio show.

“I sat in that car for an hour, listened to the interview and all the callers,” he remembers. “And said, ‘I think Alberta politics is about to change.’ ”

Albertans go to the polls on April 23.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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