A little help from their friends?

Mark Strahl is poised to take over his dad’s seat—amid cries of cronyism. He’s not the only one with an edge.

A little help from their friends?

Ken Goudswaard/The Chilliwack Times

Nepotism, cronyism, coronations—B.C. Conservatives, long used to attacking the Liberals with these charges, now find themselves in the curious position of attacking their own the same way.

The issue has cropped up in the old Reform heartland, where MPs like Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day used to make hay tackling the patronage and privilege infecting Ottawa. On March 12, Transport Minister Strahl announced his retirement from politics. Barely a week later, his son Mark snagged the nomination in Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, his dad’s Bible belt riding, hardly hurting for fresh Tory blood. Yet Strahl faced a single opponent. “A number of very prominent, very interesting people” were keen to run, says Chilliwack deputy mayor Sue Attrill. But the abbreviated process barred “80 per cent” of them, says Casey Langbroek, an accountant who served for 16 years on council. Langbroek, who was stranded in Ontario on business when he learned of the race, calls the process a “gross injustice.”

It’s the same story in the riding next door, long held by Treasury Board President Stockwell Day, who announced his retirement the same day as Strahl. In Okanagan-Coquihalla, only three candidates, all associates of Day’s—his former parliamentary secretary and two members of his constituency board—were able to get their nomination papers in on time.

Long-time party member Dietrich Wittel, a busy Kelowna family doctor, got an automated phone message about the nomination race on March 20—two days before it closed. It was “impossible to provide what they wanted in that short period of time,” he says. “I couldn’t get the RCMP criminal check, a bank account established with a financial officer, or the 25 names.” The process was a “slap in the face to anyone with a sense of democracy,” he told Maclean’s. “Those who were able to get materials in had a head start.”

Kelowna realtor Sean Upshaw learned of the race a day before Wittel, and did everything he could, “running around like it was The Amazing Race,” only to learn when, finally, his package was ready to go, that it needed to be in Ottawa by 5 p.m., not the riding office. (Riding association president Doug Sharpe did not return a call from Maclean’s.) Upshaw ran into Jason Cox, another failed candidate at the local Canada Post, who was also trying to rush his package to Ottawa.

Simon Fraser University political scientist Alex Moens, a member of the Conservative party, calls it a “tremendously distasteful show of inside corruption.” A normal nomination period allows all qualified candidates to come forward, and creates excitement in the party. “What we have now is a gap in the democratic process.” In these ridings, “the Conservative associations seem to have abandoned the democratic values of their Reform party antecedents,” adds the University of Victoria’s Norman Ruff.

These aren’t just any ridings. They’re two of the safest Tory seats in B.C. Clinching the nomination likely also means clinching $160,000 base salaries, plus housing allowances, not to mention being in line for gold-plated pensions. Strahl and Dan Albas, the new Tory candidates, are 33 and 34 respectively. Strahl works for his dad’s parliamentary colleague, Randy Kamp, in his constituency office in Maple Ridge, B.C.; Albas, a Penticton city councillor, also runs his own martial arts clinic.

Strahl has consistently said he did not know his dad was retiring until the party announced it. “I won in a democratic vote,” he told Maclean’s. “It was within the rules.” Albas says the race was open to all. “I found it to be a positive experience,” he adds. The national party, not riding offices, dictated the timing of the races, says Matthew Barker, chairman of the Chilliwack riding’s candidate committee. Party organizers, he says, wanted Tory candidates in all 36 B.C. ridings by March 22, when the federal budget was announced.

Strahl insists paternity has nothing to do with his political passion, though he lists it among his top qualifications for office: “I’ve seen how it’s done—I’ve lived it for a number of years,” he says. “I grew up in an MP’s home.” He remembers watching the free trade debates on TV as a kid, and first joined the Reform party at 14. He then worked for seven years, he adds, for an MP.

His campaign headquarters are in a strip mall, not far from Chilliwack High, his alma mater. On a recent visit, the carpet had just been laid, and the only person inside was a woman in her sixties, answering the phone. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot of heat in this race. Chuck won by more than 20,000 votes in 2008, his sixth straight win since 1993. These days, the elder Strahl, who in 2005 was diagnosed with lung cancer, plays the role of beloved elder statesman in Chilliwack.

“Dad is fit as a fiddle,” says Mark, who sports the same goatee as his father—“still runs a few times a week.” He’s “leaving my campaign to me,” he says. “But he’s still helping out where he can.”

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