It wasn’t much of a life, really. It mainly deals with the time in the mid-1980’s when I volunteered to help a man running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, a position that at that time also guaranteed the man (no women were conspicuously involved at this time) would also be Premier of Alberta (America equivalency is the Governor), while opposition parties were doomed to permanent obscurity and media snubs.
Anyway, it wasn’t my first leap into this sordid arena. My father ran for MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly, the equivalent of a state representative) in 1955 in Wainwright, Alberta and I helped him hand out brochures and tack posters to telephone poles. It was a exciting experience for me and I got to visit a lot of dusty corners of eastern Alberta. He was a Liberal candidate running in a province dominated by the Social Credit party. I’m not biased, of course, but dad was a quantum improvement on the straw-chewing rube incumbent but that cut no ice in rural Alberta. Straw-chewing rubes were popular. My father lost decisively. The Social Credit party could have run a garden slug and not even bothered to publicly endorse it. It was my first exposure to the intellectual vacuum that was Alberta politics. After the election, the headline in the biggest newspaper read “God sent us Ernest Manning”. Ernie was the Premier and the leader of the Social Credit party, a fuzzy-thinking gaggle of populists originally given to obscure economic theories. The SC had held power since 1935, so change was not on the minds of most Albertans. My poly sci profs in the US were fascinated that such a strange political movement could flourish so close to the oppressive American model. In truth, the SC had more in common with Huey Long’s rural popularity than any economic theory.
In 1965, bright-eyed from four years of college training, I agreed to act as campaign manager for a co-worker running for alderman in Edmonton. My candidate, a Mr. Basset, was a nice man with no real political ambition beyond fighting for some community issue I’ve long forgotten, maybe a leash law or a plan to remove the slivers from the park slides. His problem was twofold. No one knew who he was, including many of his neighbors. Moreover, these were the days before the ward system so every aldermanic candidate was a city-wide candidate. A city of 400,000 people. The upshot was that no less than 70 candidates were on the ballot to fill 7 positions. It was chaos. Imagine trying to select 7 favorites from a list of 70. Many Edmonton voters couldn’t count to 70. My great achievement in this short campaign was listening to some of the most stultifying campaign speeches in the history of representative government. The incumbent aldermen were overwhelming favorites even if their collective brain-power would hit a wall with 6th grade arithmetic. Modesty prohibits me from touting my campaign slogan “For a civic asset, vote Basset”. He liked it, finished 35th and said he’d had enough. I agreed. Given his problem with name recognition, I credit the slogan for his 35th place finish, although it might have been “Basset” placed near the front of the ballot.
In 1970, I was asked to be campaign manager for a lupine young lawyer trying to latch onto the Premier Lougheed bandwagon. We didn’t get along. He was a duplicitous piece of shit and an affront, I thought, to whatever fresh new honesty was emanating from Lougheed’s young corral of candidates. The smirking creep was a harbinger of the greasy conservatives we find in North American politics today. We parted company in short order. Fortunately, the electorate found him as distasteful as I did and he quickly lapsed into a well-deserved anonymity.
So now it’s 1985 and I volunteer to help a Calgary MLA who I have never met. His name was Ron Ghitter and he was a rare honorable man. As a backbencher he had sponsored an impressive list of worthwhile legislation. He was someone with a vision of a better Alberta. Unfortunately, he was running a distant third. Leading the pack was an ex-football player who parlayed an easy-going manner into a durable political career as a cabinet member, even if he always seemed a tad distracted by his real love in life, betting on the ponies. In second place was a hotel owner who capitalized on three political assets, a mop of thick black hair, a mouthful of perfect teeth and a perpetual smile that could endure a thumbscrew. They were enough to challenge for the party leadership. Call it the JFK factor. Mr. Ghitter was in tough.
One Wednesday night in October, I drove 25 miles out to Stony Plain west of Edmonton at attend a election for party delegates for the leadership convention. This is politics at its rawest, rural folk gathering to recommend which of their neighbors deserved a trip to the party’s nomination convention Calgary in November. These people were – as Gene Wilder so accurately described in “Blazing Saddles” – the ‘common clay, you know, morons.’ It was a prescient description.
My job was a) to hand out brochures for Mr. Ghitter in the vain hope the material would sway stolid minds at the last minute and b) help with the vote count or scrutineering. I felt I was fulfilling my community obligation and perhaps helping my candidate.
The handing out of brochures went badly. This was a well-attended affair and I stood at the door trying to press brochures into hands as people rushed by, evidently eager to get inside to light up another cigarette. Most of them ignored me. But in two separate incidents, a man, then a lady, reminded me of something I truly did not know and would not have cared had I known. “You know he’s a fucking Jew, eh?” they both barked. I stood gaping after the first one but had the presence of mind on the second to remind the lady that at least he didn’t fornicate with sheep like some I could name. This was obviously a sensitive subject in the Stony Plain area as she spent most of the night glaring at me and slapping her husband on the arm. I wondered whether she was upset with the suggestion of an unnatural relationship with farm animals by her husband or ignorance as to what the word ‘fornicate’ meant. I could see her husband was no help in either case. Whatever, I had forgotten anti-semitism lived in Alberta
Next came the speeches. The idea was the crowd would vote to see which six people from their community would be selected to attend the leadership convention and, believe it or not, no less than 45 men and 3 women announced their wish to be one of those six. 48 people for 6 spots! Holy democratic overkill! It would be fair of you to ask at this point why such a modest political outcome could generate such a huge interest. Well, I’m afraid the answer has little to do with democratic town hall enthusiasm and more to do with the possibility that getting close to the Premier could be good for one’s bank account. Surely everyone knew there was a zillion publicly-appointed jobs that paid obscenely high wages, fees, and benefits and are landed due to proximity to the Premier. The zeal was, in truth, plain old avarice. Help your boy gain the Premier’s office and he’ll surely reward you. What can you say about a political system in which the citizen sees the guy at the top as a dollar sign?
Anyway, tradition dictated that each of these 48 hopeful trough feeders got to make a speech telling the crowd what made them worthy of being selected. The prospect of 48 decidedly untrained public speakers stammering for support was nothing if not daunting and could easily become a brain-killing marathon that lasted until sunup. That would not do. So each candidate was given one minute to make his or her case. One minute.
You haven’t lived until you hear 48 one-minute speeches by non-public speakers. They ranged from “Uh, you know me . . . Clyde Stool . . uh” to “I’mFredFrutzandIcanserveyouallrealgood andyouseknowitsovoteformeyahear.” It was pure agony, a display of mass insanity and I have no idea how the crowd actually decided who to vote for other than they were each introduced as someone representing one of the three premier candidates. The two men and one woman who stood up for my guy were booed. So much for my brochures.
They voted – it took a while and the cliche, “herding cats’ was front and centre. Eventually, though, I joined six other people in a second-story windowless room to do our duty as scrutineers. Keep in mind here, I had never done this before. How hard could it be?
Well, hard enough. Seems no one knew what to do. Three boxes full of voting slips sat ominously on the floor, the six scrutineers eying them as if they were props from an Indiana Jones movie about to release some unspeakable scourge. No one said anything. They were waiting to be told what to do. It occurred to me at this point that unless somebody did something, we’d be stuck in this room until those voting slips turned to dust.
Did I mention this room was a tad on the warm side? Did I mention that all six of my colleagues smoked – aggressively? If I was going to survive, I needed to move. So I took over, acted like I knew what I was doing and let common sense run the show. I paired them off and gave each pair a box and a letter-sized pad of note paper. After a long time spent instructing each pair with an exact set of steps to record the vote, handle the voting slip, and deal with possible anomalies, they began to count, stopping only to light up another cigarette. I stepped out of the room for a minute. The crowd below milled about like cattle twitching at the sound of a thunder storm, most of them chain-smoking and acting like the Vatican freaks watching for a puff of white smoke to announce a new pope.
After what seemed like days, the count was finished. A lot of work probably for what was a foregone conclusion – the football player with a love for the thoroughbreds won handily. My guy and Mr. Hair/Smile both finished well up the track. In the end the football player became Premier of Alberta and I’m guessing the six duly elected bozos from Stony Plain immediately sat down by their phones to await the reward that would surely come.
In the meantime, it took me two laundries and two showers to get rid of the tobacco smell. My career in politics was over. And I still quiver when I hear the political cliche, “a smoke-filled room”.
Robert Alan Davidson