In Praise of Politicians

Melissa Mathieson
August 10, 2015
The 43rd General Election is scheduled for October 21, a week after Thanksgiving. Polling data suggests Canadians are expecting a more negative tone to this campaign than previous ones, which is saying something. Yet despite it all, good men and women continue to stand for Parliament. Melissa Mathieson recounts her attempt as a 25-year old to win the Conservative Party nomination in the riding of Macleod (now Foothills), Alberta. She lost, but came away with a new-found respect for politicians who dedicate themselves to the betterment of their communities, as well as the many volunteers and staffers who make our democracy work.

In Praise of Politicians

Melissa Mathieson
August 10, 2015
The 43rd General Election is scheduled for October 21, a week after Thanksgiving. Polling data suggests Canadians are expecting a more negative tone to this campaign than previous ones, which is saying something. Yet despite it all, good men and women continue to stand for Parliament. Melissa Mathieson recounts her attempt as a 25-year old to win the Conservative Party nomination in the riding of Macleod (now Foothills), Alberta. She lost, but came away with a new-found respect for politicians who dedicate themselves to the betterment of their communities, as well as the many volunteers and staffers who make our democracy work.
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Across Canada, candidates of every political party are now out on the hustings, knocking on doors, attending public events, writing press releases, drinking too much coffee and not getting enough sleep – all in in the hope of getting elected on October 19. At one point I wanted to be one of them, and I tried, but it didn’t work out. So on behalf of the thousands of Canadians who wish they were running in this election but aren’t, here is my story.

I started volunteering on provincial and federal political campaigns at the age of 11. While my school peers had posters of the Backstreet Boys on their walls, I had large posters of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and kept an array of newspaper clippings that featured my favourite politicians. It was no surprise to those who knew me when, ten years later, I decided to make the move to Ottawa to work on Parliament Hill, first on the Issues Management team in the Prime Minister’s office, and later as an advisor to Minister Ted Menzies.

Being a Member of Parliament can be a thankless job. It involves being away from home on a regular basis, constantly being in the public eye, and towing a party line that does not always reflect your personal views. However, working in Ottawa allowed me to develop an appreciation for the work our elected representatives do, as well as the sacrifices they make, and I came to see myself one day filling those shoes. So much that when Minister Ted Menzies, who represented my southern Alberta riding, decided in 2013 he would not run again, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and seek the Conservative nomination to succeed him.

My riding, Macleod (now known as Foothills), is often referred to as the “Conservative heartland”. It covers a vast geographic area that sprawls from the southwest edge of Calgary all the way to Waterton Lakes National Park near the U.S. border. The riding is mostly rural, and agriculture is the primary industry. Cattle ranching is huge; in many parts of Canada when you buy Alberta beef at your local grocery store, chances are it was farmed and processed in Macleod! The area tends to elect small-“c” conservative representatives at both the federal and provincial levels. In this year’s provincial election, the NDP, which swept much of the province, did not even gather 20 percent of the vote in my riding, which re-elected a Wildrose MLA.

Due to Macleod’s strong conservative leanings, the election of a Conservative MP was almost a certainty, so the real contest was winning the nomination. Four of us wound up in the race. Nominations can be difficult, as they consist of a competition amongst friends and allies. Friendships can be destroyed, and relationships scarred.

I knew I was a long shot to win, but I also knew that nomination contests often produce surprise winners. They are mainly about selling the highest number of party memberships and getting your supporters out to vote for you. This represented a lot of work, but I was willing to take it on. I had undertaken a Masters degree at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, but put my studies on the backburner so I could dedicate myself to winning the nomination.

To say the least, a 25-year-old female wasn’t the typical political candidate in Macleod. I’ll never forget the time when, during a door-knocking blitz on a cold January day, a man gave me a puzzled look when I handed him a piece of campaign literature, and then admitted he thought I was a Girl Guide selling cookies. Another told me he would not be supporting me, but offered to buy me a drink!

Some party members were keen to give me fashion advice to help me look older: “you need to wear your glasses”; “incorporate more blue into your wardrobe”; “cut your hair if you want to look older”; “wear pearls if you want to look more serious.” I have never received so much fashion advice from men, almost all of whom were sporting wranglers and giant belt buckles! Armed with their advice, for better or worse, I soldiered on.

During my campaign, I released policy positions on various issues. Many nomination candidates don’t bother much with policy, and instead focus on selling memberships. That is certainly the top priority in a nomination campaign, but I found that my policy proposals got people excited about the campaign and helped me build a strong base of supporters.

For instance, I issued a press release on Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) – a hot issue at the time – which secured me the endorsement of some key members of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. This led to my meeting of some of the executives of the association, and then some of their friends, and some of their friend’s friends. It also got me a guided tour of a cattle feedlot and a much broader understanding of the cattle industry. Releasing policy positions on a regular basis helped me demonstrate that despite my young age, I had a solid grasp of issues of concern to the riding.

But I also learned that taking policy positions entails some risks. I made the national news when I denounced the RCMP’s “gun grab” in High River during the 2013 flood. That got me an endorsement from the National Firearms Association. However, when the NFA endorsed me, it published a picture of then-Calgary MP Rob Anders and I at a shooting range. The “zombie Osama bin Laden” target in the background prompted a Calgary Muslim leader to complain that the bin Laden target promoted hatred towards Muslims. This accusation seemed ridiculous to me (akin to shooting at a “zombie Adolf Hitler” being seen as promoting hatred towards mustachioed men), but I had to develop a media strategy to address the storm I had created. In retrospect I probably should not have fretted over this, because it did not seem to bother Conservative Party members in Macleod.

Sustaining the energy to run an eight-month nomination campaign was not an easy feat, and was not something I could do on my own. Luckily, I was able to count on a great team of volunteers and supporters who helped me along the way. My campaign manager, who also became my policy advisor, scheduler, communications expert, stylist, and, at times, my punching bag, was always there to celebrate every small victory and to help me laugh off discouragement. Other volunteers assisted in developing voter identification strategy, mass mailings, and creating targeted door knocking maps. Although I had to endure Twitter trolls and anonymous social media bashers, they were more than offset by the support and words of encouragement I received from complete strangers who had seen me on TV, or attended a debate.

On the day of the official nomination meeting and vote, I was cautiously optimistic that our hard work would pay off. Unfortunately it didn’t, and we lost. Despite my disappointment, I do not regret experimenting with public life. I developed a newfound respect for politicians who dedicate their lives to the betterment of their community, and for the countless volunteers and staffers who help them. Maybe one day, I will give political life another try, but in the interim I will be watching closely as the election unfolds, and cheering on the brave souls who have allowed their names to appear on the 2015 ballot.

~

Melissa Mathieson works in community relations for an energy infrastructure company and is currently completing her Masters of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

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