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This Calgary riding isn't a Conservative cake walk anymore

For the most part, Calgary has been as clear and predictable as its four seasons when it comes to politics. For more than 40 years, the city has elected conservatives of one description or another to go to Ottawa.

Provincially, it's been happy to let Edmonton elect "pinkos" to the legislature; it's largely stuck with Progressive Conservatives.

Only when it came to voting for mayor did the city seem willing to let its hair down and experiment with moderate populists whose liberal values were not viewed as a threat to the fundamental conservative dynamic that underpinned and historically defined the city's greater nature.

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And then, two years ago, Calgary elected Naheed Nenshi to become the first Muslim to lead a major city anywhere in North America. In the process, residents smashed widespread stereotypes that existed about their city and raised the question of whether profound changes in its demographic makeup could lead to further electoral surprises down the road.

We may soon find out.

Residents in the federal riding of Calgary Centre go to the polls in a Nov. 26 by-election. The prevailing wisdom has been that the election is Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt's to lose – and she may do just that. The wide lead she had early on appears to have evaporated, if recent polls are to be believed. It now looks like a three-way race among her, Liberal candidate Harvey Locke and Chris Turner of the Greens. Yes, you read that right – the Greens.

Mr. Turner's campaign is the most intriguing of any in the race.

Once upon a time, the thought of a Green representing Calgary in the House of Commons was unthinkable. It may still be. But Mr. Turner is not just any Green candidate. He is whip smart, for starters, a writer of high repute and a charismatic speaker on topics such as energy and urban sustainability. His talks are big hits on the university circuit.

In 2009, he helped start Civic-Camp, a Calgary-based civic-engagement organization. His co-founder was none other than the city's current mayor, Mr. Nenshi. It's likely no surprise then that the two men share a common progressive philosophy and general outlook on life.

Large swaths of Calgary Centre are credited for Mr. Nenshi's shocking win. In many ways it was the heartland of his victory, yet another sign that the city is not the political monolith many people think. Many of those behind Mr. Nenshi's masterful, ground-breaking 2010 campaign are helping out the Greens this time.

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Mr. Turner is running on a moderate economic and social platform. He says he and his party are not against the oil sands, but he would like to see responsible environmental protections placed around its development. Far from radical, it is a viewpoint shared by many more people in Calgary than you may think, especially among the young.

"The last thing the industry needs right now is another cheerleader," Mr. Turner said in an interview. "We need someone who can create a little middle ground between industry and its critics and maybe get us back to some kind of rational conversation about its future."

Mr. Locke is also an attractive candidate and sat just two points behind Ms. Crockatt in the last poll. (Ms. Crockatt, 32; Mr. Locke, 30; Mr. Turner, 23, with a margin of error of five percentage points.) A conservationist and lawyer, Mr. Locke is an engaging campaigner who has even been the recipient of compliments from Tory Premier Alison Redford.

And then there is Ms. Crockatt, who has mostly tried to stay as far away from the media and her fellow candidates as she can during the campaign. She has so far refrained from taking part in all-candidates' forums. It is, by most measures, a cynical strategy and also one that has potential to backfire spectacularly.

Ms. Crockatt was an avid cheerleader for the Wildrose Party in the last provincial election, a fact that still stirs resentment among many provincial Tories. That could become a factor on voting day, as could the fact that many in the city are furious Ms. Crockatt appears to be taking their support for granted.

Suddenly, there is the smell of upset in the air.

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"I think there's an opportunity to surprise the country again," Mr. Turner said. "I think Calgarians are starting to get a real taste for confounding expectations and show how open we are to change."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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