How Green Candidate Chris Turner Became Competitive in the Calgary-Centre Byelection
by Zoey Duncan
On a brisk November morning, Chris Turner is standing at a bus stop on 14th Street S.W. He’s flanked by two volunteers hauling bags filled with brochures featuring handwritten appeals for votes.
When the Route 7 arrives at 7:52 a.m., the Green Party team will board, exchange their bus tickets for transfers and Turner will walk the aisle telling commuters about his campaign, decrying a lack of federal funding for transit and asking them to vote Green on November 26. At the next stop, they’ll disembark, smile and wave at the riders, hoping there were some Calgary Centre residents in the crowd, and then repeat the process until rush hour ends.
The whole show lasts 40 seconds. This bus stumping — which Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra used successfully in 2010 — can reach up to 400 people in a morning, Turner says. It’s one of the untraditional tactics his campaign is using in an effort to rouse people to vote for him in the Calgary Centre by-election. And it might just be working.
The Calgary Centre riding extends from the Bow River in the north to Glenmore Trail in the south and from Sarcee Trail in the west to the Canadian Pacific Railway in the east. Its 89,536 voters live in shiny condo towers, aging apartment blocks, century homes and freshly built infills. Calgary Centre was left without an MP when Red Tory Lee Richardson resigned on May 30 to work for Premier Alison Redford.
If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative, Liberal and Green candidates are all within swatting distance of each other in the final week of the campaign. It’s a peculiar situation that is turning heads across the country, due in part to the unanticipated popularity of writer-turned-Green candidate Chris Turner.
The Green campaign for Calgary Centre
The headquarters of the Green campaign is an unglamourous beige building on 10th Avenue S.W. Inside, the mood is as bright as the lawn signs piled against the wall. Chris Turner’s name and face are emblazoned on a dozen different hip, emerald campaign materials scattered throughout the office (his likeness either scruffy or clean-shaven, depending on what point in the campaign it was designed). Green-shirted volunteers hunch over tables phoning, tweeting and otherwise working busily.
There are 300 volunteers actively working on the campaign, Turner says. They’re out delivering lawn signs (they ran out mid-campaign and had to order more), knocking on doors (12,499 and counting), or distributing flyers (150 people hand-delivered them across the riding on November 17).
Running a less traditional campaign
The campaign has gone beyond the traditional tricks of the political trade. “No question, we knew we had to do a lot of things that no one else was doing,” Turner says. “Otherwise, as a Green campaign, you get lost in the traditional party race.”
This has meant “pop-up campaigning” like their Green Tea Parties on the busy pedestrian intersection of Eighth Street and 10th Avenue S.W., volunteers with their four-legged accomplices spreading the word at dog parks, and coffee parties in peoples’ homes — a favourite strategy of the Nenshi campaign in 2010.
In fact, comparisons between the Turner4YYC campaign and Nenshi’s municipal campaign are abundant. Many of his volunteers are the same people who pledged allegiance to the purple flag in 2010, and four of Turner’s core strategists were key in Nenshi’s victory.
Parallels to the 2010 Calgary civic election and Nenshi
Leor Rotchild is one of those strategists. “I think that (2010) election really opened up so many possibilities,” he says, “in terms of this idea that if you appeal to people not about a party, not about a particular ideology but as a campaign based on ideas, based on what we want the future of this city to look like, that will resonate with people.”
Stephen Carter, who was Nenshi’s campaign strategist, acknowledges that like his campaign, “they’ve done a good job of engaging the social media and engaging social networks… A full campaign takes advantage of every medium and they’re certainly doing that.”
“The parallels are pretty substantial,” Turner says, while conceding federal party brands add a layer municipal politics doesn’t have. When it comes to the 2010 election narrative, Turner casts himself as the “unexpected third horse,” — like Nenshi — but his Liberal opponent thinks the comparison falls flat.
“None, whatsoever, I don’t see any similarity,” says Harvey Locke, who frames this as a Liberal versus Conservative race. “I think that my candidacy is the one that reflects this movement towards something that is a surprise.”
Instead of juxtaposing Turner with Nenshi, Locke wonders, “whether he will play Ralph Nader to my Al Gore.” In the wake of the 2000 U.S. presidential election some political analysts speculated that Nader took votes away from Gore, leading to his defeat against George W. Bush.
The Nenshi factor
Nenshi, though, is the more common reference to make in this race. His popularity is particularly strong in the neighbourhoods of Calgary Centre. He won’t endorse anyone, including his former colleague Turner, with whom he co-founded the municipal advocacy group CivicCamp. But he stepped into the by-election in a big way when he called out Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt for skipping debates.
“I think the campaigns are highly, highly volatile right now,” says former Nenshi strategist Carter. “I think that this electorate worships Nenshi and his play in the media this last week is going to matter.”
Nenshi’s chipping away at Crockatt may indirectly help Turner’s campaign. Poll analyst Éric Grenier wrote on November 20 that “almost all” the support Crockatt lost between polls in October and November went to bolster Turner. Crockatt did not respond to an interview request for this article.
What a Green win might mean for Calgary Centre and the city
The Greens are far from a sure bet, but neither are the Conservatives in this by-election, and “that is potentially huge,” says Lori Williams, associate professor in the Faculty of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University.
“One MP elsewhere in Canada might not make that much difference, but one MP that is not a conservative out of Calgary?” Williams says. “Just like Mayor Nenshi winning in so-called conservative, red neck Calgary… A lot of people don’t like that stereotype and that motivates them politically.”
The result might already be clear if it weren’t for Turner’s Green label, says Carter. “I think if he’d run for the Liberals, this thing would be sewn up already,” he says.
If his campaign can squeak out a win in Calgary Centre, Turner says he believes it will shed light on the true nature of the city.
“I think it says the thing that a lot of us here know: that it’s a much more interesting, diverse, open-minded city than people give it credit for. We’ve seen this time and again now: the best bet now in politics in Calgary is that the unexpected will happen.”