CALGARY — Carson Lavender is cutting branches in his yard when Conservative candidate Greg McLean approaches. With a big smile, he sets aside the yard work and tells the Calgary Centre candidate that he’s not sure which way he’s going to vote.
“It’s hard to vote for that clown that is in there right now,” he says, referring to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
That’s music to McLean’s ears.
Then the young man adds: “I would not say that I am a Conservative leaner, but I don’t know how I could vote for that guy.”
McLean tells Lavender that while he’s a fiscal conservative — 20 years in the financial sector has convinced him of the need to balance the budget and not load the next generation with foreign debt charges — he isn’t a social conservative. He’s pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ, he says. “I’ve been fighting for the rights of my friends of different sexuality all my life.”
“If you’re not on that boat, you’re way behind,” Lavender responds.
“You’d be surprised,” the Tory candidate says.
It’s a Monday evening in late July, and McLean is door-knocking in one of the few Liberal-held ridings in Alberta. The Conservative candidate has been pounding the pavement for most of the past year, first to position himself for a competitive Tory nomination, and now to unseat what he deems a “popular” incumbent.
The Liberal, Kent Hehr, is a well-known politician. A former student athlete who was paralyzed by a stray bullet in a road rage incident, Hehr represented the riding provincially for seven years. In 2015, he won the seat for Trudeau’s Liberals. That feat had not been accomplished since 1968 — when Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, swept into power with Trudeaumania. The following election, in 1972, saw the Liberal in Calgary South, the precursor to Calgary Centre, soundly defeated. And that’s a record McLean hopes to replicate on Monday.
McLean calls himself a “viable Conservative candidate.”
In 2015, Hehr won the riding by 1.2 per cent — 750 votes. It was one of the tightest riding races in the country. The incumbent, Joan Crockatt, was “quite conservative socially and fiscally,” says Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University. ”She was further to the right than the riding.”
Crockatt squeezed through in 2012, in a byelection that saw her win just shy of 37 per cent of the vote. Fifty-eight per cent of voters in the riding cast ballots for either the Liberal or Green candidates, both of whom had strong environmental credentials.
Vote splits on left and right
Vote splits, says Williams will matter here. Hehr won by uniting some progressives under the Liberal banner. Will he be able to convince New Democrat and Green voters to do so again?
NDP is running high school teacher Jessica Buresi. The Greens have environmental scientist Thana Boonlert, and the People’s Party of Canada is fielding Chevy Johnston, who runs a family grain brokerage firm. Johnston says he thinks it’s not just vote splits on the left people should be worried about but vote splits on the right too.
Calgary Centre is a diverse riding. The city’s most marginalized live here, on the streets and in low-income housing, as do some of Alberta’s most well-to-do residents.
“It’s harder to predict or even to describe what the character of this riding is because of that diversity,” Williams says.
Young urban professionals live, work and congregate in the riding. They mix with families in single-detached homes and those renting apartments in towers or living in subsidized housing. Like other Calgarians, many are struggling because of the volatility in the oil and gas industry. And they blame the Trudeau government in Ottawa.
Anger against the Liberals is palpable.
“I’ll still be voting Conservative,” Murray McLean says when Greg McLean (no relation) appears at his door in Marda Loop. “We have enough trouble with these red and orange [people].”
Everybody is “going stupid” on the carbon tax, he tells me. “The science is not settled. The science is never settled. It is always open for debate, for new theories and new data to come through. … The data out there is pure propaganda.”
Murray McLean says he hopes Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stops with his “politically correct” carbon plan. “Somebody has to call out this crap for what it is, it’s wealth distribution.”
Like other Conservative voters, he wants the deficit under control and a government that gets out of most public spending. Why vote Conservative and not People’s Party of Canada, I ask. His response: “What’s a People’s Party of Canada?”
Watch: Things you might not know about the leader of the People’s Party. Story continues after video.
As he slow jogs from one beautiful home to another, Greg McLean, dressed in an orange T-shirt, blue shorts, Asics runners, with a plastic water bottle stuffed in his back pocket, is upbeat but not overly confident.
The reception is overwhelmingly positive. “Keep going, you’ve got our vote!”
Many cite “the oil and gas industry” in explaining their choice. Most are longtime Tories.
McLean thinks he can turn the riding around. “You don’t win unless you door-knock.”
His media handler, Scott Henderson, chimes in to tell me that about 15 per cent of the residents “will vote for you if you came to their house.”
“The thing about Kent [Hehr], he’s a really good retail politician.”
McLean thinks it matters but won’t give him an advantage in this contest.
“The thing about Kent [Hehr], he’s a really good retail politician,” McLean says. “He’s hit a lot of doors, and I think he has spent a lot of time being in the neighbourhoods day in and day out and covering a lot of the territory. If that’s a measure, I think he’s at least as well positioned as I am.”
While Hehr may be a formidable opponent, McLean says the Liberal incumbent has “drastically failed” to deliver for his constituency, the city and the province. Thirty-eight times, he says, Hehr supported measures that negatively impacted Alberta.
“I think the country is far worse off as a result of the Liberal government’s policies here. The representatives that we have in Calgary have done a very poor job of representing the interests of Alberta — including around the cabinet table.”
The Tory candidate says Bill C-48 (a ban on tanker traffic in sensitive areas already covered by a moratorium), Bill C-69 (a law that revamps the way resource projects are assessed) and the clean fuel standards have “really work to shut down the energy industry.”
A year ago, McLean was in Peru with his wife, Ruth, and first floated the idea of jumping into elected politics.
The former financial manager worked for several firms in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary before working in private equity and venture capital for a few family offices in the financial capital of Alberta. He also spent six years working for two cabinet ministers in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the mid-1980s.
The Liberal government’s record was “gnawing” at him, he says.
“The one thing that was really aggravating me was how badly this government was doing with the deficit,” he says over a glass of water at the Phil & Sebastian coffee shop on 33 Avenue SW. “$20 billion a year of deficits at a time when the economy is supposedly healthy?”
At some point, he says, spending has to be withdrawn — it’s “artificial money.”
“I’ve heard all the excuses about our debt-to-GDP ratio … It’s all misinformation.”
The Liberals argue that as long as the debt-to-GDP ratio is maintained about 30 per cent or declining, the federal government can afford the debt payments and the spending. Economists tend to agree. At 30.9 per cent, Canada’s federal debt-to-GDP ratio is the lowest in the G7. In comparison, the United States’ ratio is at about 77 per cent.
McLean says he told his spouse he felt he’d learned a lot in business, and now at 57, he had the skill set to “actually try and change something.”
So, they threw themselves into the project. The 11-month nomination campaign was “painfully long,” he says. Ruth told me they had time to perfect their pitch and organize their volunteers.
The No. 1 issue in the riding, he says, is getting Alberta’s resources to market: “Companies are going broke because they’re not getting a price for their resource.”
New pipeline capacity would help the local economy. There is a 24 per cent commercial vacancy rate in Calgary. “That’s a result of this federal government’s policies.”
When the city receives less revenue from businesses downtown, there is less money for local services. “This is the cascading effect of bad government policy at the federal level.”
McLean’s message at the door is that the country needs change and that “winning a Calgary Centre is imperative to winning in Canada, because it all adds up.
McLean comes across as partisan but an independent thinker. It’s important to him that voters see him as modern and on-side with their positions on social issues. He is unafraid to put distance between himself and Scheer.
“Voters who are not sold on Andrew Scheer are definitely not sold on Justin Trudeau, so what I’m trying to do this campaign is to make sure it is a campaign on the issues. Where Kent stands on the issues and where I stand on the issues, personally, and do it that way.”
During two days of door-knocking this summer, with both the Conservative and Liberal candidate, not one person had glowing words to say about Scheer.
When women answer the door and seem less committed as Conservatives, McLean is quick to point out he’s pro-choice.
“It’s definitely a concern,” says one woman.
McLean thinks he loses about 10 per cent of the votes because he isn’t anti-abortion.
“If that’s important to them, then I’m not the candidate for them.”
Still, he’s annoyed the Liberals are “fear-mongering” on Scheer’s personal positions against same-sex marriage and anti-abortion.
“I find it doubly offensive that some parties bring it up as divisive issues around elections, because we’re all past that.”
At all the doors where voters leaned Liberal or planned to vote Liberal, residents declined to give me their full names.
One woman politely told McLean she wasn’t interested in hearing his pitch. She planned to do her own research and decide, she said.
Hannah was unlikely to vote for him, McLean said, because she’s a teacher.
“The teachers are really anti-[United Conservative Premier Jason] Kenney because they are unsure what he is going to do,” he said. “Often they are strident that they are not going to be voting Conservative provincially or federally.”
In Killarney, door-knocking with Hehr, a woman who doesn’t want to be identified explains she just started a new teaching job at a private school and doesn’t want any of the students’ parents to know she’s not a Conservative.
Back in Marda Loop, a man named Joe says he voted Liberal in 2015 but is leaning to the Conservatives, “It’s been disappointing the last three or four years, with what’s been going on, we are seriously thinking about switching over.”
McLean stresses that it’s a tight race. Joe dismisses the assertion in a riding that he thinks should be an easy Tory win. But McLean says again: “No, it’s a tight race.”
Joe then mentions that Hehr has been to his door twice.
I meet Hehr at the C-Train station on 8 Street SW. He’s handing out coffee. His dad, Richard, and a volunteer have a folding table set up holding three big Thermoses filled with black coffee, and Kent Hehr literature.
As he wheels around the platform saying hello to commuters — “Do you have a busy day ahead of you?” — some people fist-pump him or smile with recognition. After the Thermoses are all empty, we head towards the Beltline Safeway, where, I learn, he likes to linger and chat people up. He’s an equal opportunist. He also loiters at the Midtown Co-op, where the staff all know him and he can connect with constituents doing their grocery shopping.
“Politics is about meeting people where they are,” he tells me.
On the street, a woman named Jacquelyn yells out that Hehr is “fantastic.”
“I have a masters in psychology,” she says. “I can read people.”
“He’s a twice-fired minister. In the real world that you and I work in, when you lose your job you are fired.”
A block away, Murray Marshall has a few words for Hehr: “We deserve better than we are getting out of this government!”
“Governing a nation is hard; you can’t make everyone happy,” Hehr responds. “We’re moving forward on the pipeline.”
Marshall, a carpenter, tells me Hehr is going down.
“Kent is not popular, and the wave is there to push him out,” he says. “He’s a twice-fired minister. In the real world that you and I work in, when you lose your job you are fired.”
“Those are not the standards that Calgary Centre wants. Those are not the values that we are looking for.”
After Hehr’s win in 2015, he was appointed minister of Veterans Affairs and associate minister of national defence, then was demoted to minister of sport and persons with disabilities. Still later, he was pushed out of cabinet over two allegations of sexual harassment dating back to his time as an Alberta MLA.
The resignation was supposed to be temporary, pending the results of a third-party probe. The investigation, however, found that one complaint was legitimate, while the other was not. The probe was never released to the public.
In an interview later that day, Hehr does not enjoy being pressed on this topic.
“That chapter has been written about,” he says. “If a voter has a concern, I discuss that issue head on. OK. And it hardly ever comes up, OK … I’m open and accountable for issues in my past, and in my present.”
Hehr peppers his comments with “OK” at the end of his sentence.
He dismisses Marshall’s comments, saying Murray has been telling him for the past three elections that he was going to lose.
Herh has a busy day. After a quick stop at the campaign office — a big yellow sign in the window declares “Pipelines Under Construction” — we head to a citizenship ceremony at Fort Calgary, door-knocking, and later an event with Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, one of several cabinet ministers who have visited the riding before the writ dropping.
Hehr says he’s “hopeful” his constituents send him back to Ottawa. He thinks he has a good record to run on.
Affordability is a big issue, he says.
“Do Canadians see their lives better under our government than under the previous Conservative government?” In Alberta, he says, there has been a reduction of 50 per cent in child poverty. There has been twice as much invested in the city than there was under the previous Conservative government, he says.
But pipelines, of course, remain a key issue.
A number of Albertans believe Trudeau bought the pipeline so it wouldn’t get built. McLean himself believes it.
“I think buying the pipeline was a way to prevent a lawsuit from a foreign company that would have had a NAFTA challenge because [Trudeau] put so many hurdles in getting that pipeline built, and its costing them far more than they had anticipated when they entered the process,” he says.
“[Trudeau] is somebody who will do anything to virtue-signal, including spending $4.8 billion of Canadian taxpayers’ money.”
Hehr says he hears this complaint often at the doors. “And I say if we didn’t want to build the pipeline, would we have spent $4.5 billion on it? There were easier ways to do that. We could have just said ‘no.’”
When the private sector faltered, when investor confidence was shaken, Hehr says, what we saw was the prime minister and the cabinet step up and invest in a new pipeline to ensure that Alberta’s oil reaches new markets.
“When people look at that, there is only one conclusion they can come away with. We wanted to see Alberta oil get to new markets. The evidence was there.”
It was a torrid 30 degrees when I hit the doors with Hehr. He plows through, living up to his reputation as a formidable campaigner.
“I love door-knocking. I love meeting constituents,” he says as he rolls down the sidewalk while volunteers knock on doors.
“What I learned long ago is that you don’t learn as much in the office as you think you do. It’s going out there, hitting people where they live. And having them ask you questions. That’s the spirit of politics. That is really where campaigning begins and ends.”
We meet a woman who is a big Hehr fan but still won’t take a sign. She had a sign for Rachel Notley, the former NDP premier, during the Alberta election and her home was vandalized. She doesn’t feel safe showing her colours.
He pours water down his white shirt to cool off. The water seeps into his electric wheelchair and it freezes. A few doors later, the chair completely stops working. Everyone calls it quits and two staff members struggle to ensure Herh makes it safely down a slight hill and into his van.
Hehr says he knows this contest relies on his pulling voters from all sides to his side.
“When I talk to New Democrat voters, OK, they understand what we are doing on climate change, OK. They know that it is a big step putting a price on pollution and the other actions we are taking,” he says.
“In my view, we’ve pushed the other parties so far to the left they may fall off a cliff.… And the people know that.”
Back in Marda Loop, Carson Lavender says he used to be a Conservative. He grew up in Saskatchewan with the mantra that if you weren’t a Conservative, you were a Communist. But after moving away for school and travelling around the world, he says his perspective has changed.
He’s looking for a party that takes environmental issues seriously, he says. He bikes to work and takes transit. At the same time, he feels Trudeau “turned his back on the people who voted for him.”
He likes Green Party Leader Elizabeth May but feels she’s “a little bit out there.” He says McLean seems like a “nice guy.”
When I text him this weekend, two days shy of election day, Lavender said he finally settled on who he was going to vote for.
“I will be voting NDP,” he wrote. “I think Mr. Singh is the most fit to lead.”
He’s pleased with his choice. Strategic voting be damned.
“Feels good,” he wrote.
This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.