Politics

All the Tory Ladies: Inside Kenney’s ‘obsessive’ drive to recruit female candidates for Alberta’s UCP

Leela Aheer was standing in the middle of a rapidly-emptying
convention centre, still digesting the results of her party’s
first ever leadership vote, when she got word that the winner
wanted to speak to her.

A little bewildered, she agreed, and they set up a meeting. The
next day, Jason Kenney, the newly-elected leader of the United
Conservative Party, was at Aheer’s house. He had taken a
look at his new caucus and realized he needed her help to fix a
major problem.

“I inherited 27 guys and two women, which is
ridiculous,” Kenney told the National Post in a recent
interview. “We don’t believe in quotas but, by gosh, we need to
do a better job of reflecting diversity by merit. I’ve been a
bit obsessive about this, to be honest.”

The MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View, Aheer had supported Brian
Jean in the leadership race, her former leader in the Wildrose
Party and Kenney’s main rival. Even in the whiplash world of
politics, where people go from frenzied combat to smiling
conciliation in a matter of days, Kenney’s gesture surprised
her.

United
Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, middle, poses for a photo
with Chestermere-Rocky View UCP MLA Leela Aheer, left, and
Airdrie UCP MLA Angela Pitt following a meet and greet on Sunday,
Feb. 25, 2018 at Apple Creek Golf Course.
Zach Laing / Airdrie Echo /
Postmedia Network

The UCP formed in July 2017 through a merger of the grassroots
Wildrose Party, led by Jean, and the scattered remains of the
once-dominant Progressive Conservative Party, led by Kenney.
Both female MLAs came from the Wildrose side of the merger.

Like any opposition party, the UCP expects to form government
after the next election, and if Kenney defeats Premier Rachel
Notley and her NDP next year and gets to build a cabinet, he
wants options. So, in his mission to rebuild the province’s
conservative political machine, he made it an immediate
priority to pull capable people into the party — with an
emphasis on recruiting female candidates.

The door, Kenney said to Aheer, would be “swung wide open.”

The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, and when it
wrapped up, Aheer tackled her new mandate — to help Kenney
reduce the gender disparity within the UCP ranks — with gusto.
She says she’s had serious conversations with more than a
hundred women, some of whom are now official UCP candidates,
some are engaged in nomination contests and others are knocking
on doors, fundraising or volunteering.

Kenney has done the same thing, seeking out strong candidates
at every event or function he attends and making a point to
personally encourage female candidates.

We don’t believe in quotas but, by gosh, we need to do a
better job of reflecting diversity by merit

Aheer is a former music teacher, and if she hears someone sing
a note or two with a little bit of talent, she can’t resist
telling them they’ve got something. So now she does the same
with women who would make strong candidates.

“When you see someone who has that gift, you have to tell
them,” says Aheer.

———

The UCP is loathe to admit it, but it’s impossible not to see
this as a reaction to the Alberta NDP and Justin Trudeau’s
federal Liberals.

The Notley’s 53-person caucus includes 25 women and nine female
cabinet members. Notley herself was the singular political
force that lifted the New Democrats to government in 2015 and
almost all the powerful figures in her cabinet are women. Sarah
Hoffman is the deputy premier and health minister; Kathleen
Ganley is the justice minister and Shannon Phillips is the
environment minister, tasked with rolling out the government’s
carbon tax and environmental policies. Danielle Larivee plays
the role of fixer, carrying the load on complicated legislative
efforts like updating the Municipal Government Act and then
wrestling with issues in the scandal-plagued child welfare
system — both portfolios are littered with tripwires.

The women on the government’s front bench look across the floor
at a sea of men who surround Aheer and Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt
on the opposition side of the legislature. Three NDP cabinet
ministers have had babies while on the job and the party gives
off an aura of family-friendliness. Once, during a scrum with
reporters, Hoffman sidled up to Brandy Payne, then her
associate minister of health, lifted Payne’s baby from her
hands and bounced the infant in her arms as she walked into the
cabinet meeting. Payne smiled, but seemed unfazed as she
continued answering questions.

Status
of Women Minister Danielle Larivee makes a funding announcement
to help improve the lives of women and girls in Alberta at the
Edmonton Intercultural Centre at McCauley school in Edmonton on
Tuesday August 7, 2018.
John Lucas/for Edmonton
Journal

“It’s been an incredibly marked contrast looking across the
floor at two women,” said Larivee. “I’m glad to see they’re
trying (to recruit female candidates) but it’s very much a
policy problem on their side.”

The UCP is a party with “more Richards and Ricks than women,”
she said, because they don’t consider the needs of women and
families.

As an example, Larivee pointed to a recent government bill that
would create a 50 metre no-protest zones around abortion
clinics, which the UCP has refused to debate or vote on. Kenney
has described the bill as a political stunt and directed his
caucus to walk out of the legislature whenever votes are held.

And that’s not just a zippy one-liner by Larivee — with Ric
McIver, Rick Strankman and Richard Gotfried outnumbering the
two women, it’s literally true. If Richard Starke hadn’t
refused to make the transition from PC to UCP, the Ricks and
Richards would have doubled the number of women in caucus.

———

The optimism that accompanied the birth of the UCP, and its
consistently sunny poll numbers, have sparked a rush of
potential candidates who see a quick path into government.
About 280 people registered across the province seeking to be
the party’s standard-bearer in one of Alberta’s 87 ridings,
according to data from Elections Alberta. But going into this
weekend, of the 36 candidates the UCP had already nominated
only nine were women.

The disparity illustrates two crucial obstacles for the party
in its attempt to diversify, with the first being the power of
incumbency. Kenney may be genuinely concerned at the current
gender balance in his caucus, but those men are almost all
triumphing in their nomination contests. Removing the
incumbents from the list leaves seven women and 13 men.

The second obstacle is the party’s promise of open nominations,
which leaves candidates almost entirely to their own devices as
they battle for the nomination and the leader unable to make
endorsements.

United
Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney sent a memo this week to
party members who are hoping to become party candidates in the
2019 provincial election advising them to “don’t go over the
top in attacking the NDP.â€
Larry Wong /
POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Along with the explosion of female candidates, there are many
younger candidates vying for UCP nominations who may be
surprised by the ferocity of these races. Without party
support, it means these candidates are left to duke it out on
their own.

“I respect that. I wouldn’t want to run in a nomination where I
was given an advantage because I was female,” says Tanya Fir,
who recently won the nomination in Calgary-Peigan.

She says the party could have made an “easy fix” and just
appointed female candidates, but chose to do it in a way that
stays true to conservative principles. It may take longer to
change the party’s face, but in the long run, it means the UCP
“will attract people who want to win it on their own merits,”
Fir says.

Many of the women in nomination contests were enthusiastic
about She Leads, an organization that supports conservative
women as they venture into politics spearheaded by Laureen
Harper and former federal Conservative Party leader Rona
Ambrose.

The party hopes it will fill the gap during the nomination
contest blackout, especially for women completely new to
politics who need advice on how to run a campaign. Kenney says
he encouraged Ambrose and Harper to start the group and credits
Ambrose for convincing him that the recruitment drive had to
start with the party leader.

Alberta
United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney stands with Laureen
Harper, wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, centre, and
Former federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose at the launch of
a non-profit group to mentor women to run for conservative
political parties in Edmonton on Tuesday July 24, 2018.

THE CANADIAN
PRESS/Dean Bennett

“There are no secrets to nomination races because it all comes
down to hard work selling memberships, fundraising, putting a
team together and of course a get-out-the-vote program for the
day of the race. Our goal is to help women with this,” said
Harper, via email. “And women new to politics who may be
interested in running need some help figuring this out.”

The UCP has also been paying attention to research showing a
woman generally needs to be asked a few times before she agrees
to run. Aheer says she has firsthand knowledge of this, saying
that women come to her and ask, “Should I run?” while men tend
to ask, “How should I run?”

When she was first asked to run for the Wildrose nomination,
Aheer describes a group of seven party members sitting her down
— almost like an intervention — and convincing her to run.

“We need to ask more. It’s as simple as that,” says Aheer. “If
nobody had asked me I never would have run.”

———

Looking through the nomination races, and the candidates who
have already been selected, there is a wide cross-section of
experience that hints at what a possible UCP government may
look like.

Tracy Allard was recently nominated to be the UCP candidate in
Grande Prairie and, like many of the candidates, she was
surprised that Kenney himself made an effort to recruit her.

“I keep hearing about you,” Kenney told her, before encouraging
her to seek the nomination. With private sector experience and
an emphasis on “common sense,” Allard could be seen as a
prototype for the kind of candidate Kenney has been seeking.

Tracy
Allard was recently nominated to be the UCP candidate in Grande
Prairie
Facebook

‘He definitely was personally very encouraging,” says Allard.
“I can see now he’s been very intentional to engage the right
candidates. People with the right skillsets, not people who
have to be trained up.”

Allard is a Tim Hortons franchise owner who is dismayed by how
the province’s “finances have really derailed.” Her dad was a
constituency association president for the Progressive
Conservatives and politics has always been part of her life.
While speaking to a Post reporter on the phone, she paused for
a second to nonchalantly warn her husband about a deer carcass
on the highway.

In speaking about what they bring to the table, many of the
candidates emphasize “real-world experience.”

Fir brings private sector experience from oil and gas company
CNRL and Sonya Savage, who recently won the nomination in
Calgary Northwest, also brings decades of experience from the
oil and gas sector and long history of behind-the-scenes work
with the PC Party.

At age 25, Michaela Glasgo is one of the youngest nomination
candidates after winning the UCP nomination in Brooks-Medicine
Hat. She worked on Kenney’s leadership campaign and previously
for Conservative MP Rachael Harder.

Particularly galling to her is that “the left insists on
treating women like a lockstep identity category.” Like Savage,
Glasgo’s fiercest competition in the nomination contest came
from another woman.

The nomination contest for Calgary Mountain View, which will
decide who runs against Liberal leader David Khan, is a battle
of two glittering resumes.

Jeremy Wong, a young pastor with a master’s degree in public
policy on top of his master of divinity degree, is up against
Caylan Ford, who has master’s degrees from Oxford University
and George Mason University.

Ford, a young mother and political philosophy junkie, is
another candidate whom Kenney personally urged to get involved
after she confronted him at a meet-and-greet event about his
misquoting of conservative thinker Edmund Burke. Kenney
jokingly described that as “political love at first sight.”

Ford is on maternity leave from her position as a senior
adviser at Global Affairs Canada while she vies for the
nomination, and has to scramble for childminding every time she
wants to go door-knocking.

Ford says the push for more female candidates is simply about
“recognizing that some of your most talented people are women.”

The federal Liberals and Alberta NDP have proudly showcased
gender-balanced cabinets, but every UCP candidate interviewed
for this story rejected the idea of cabinet-making by
quota. Larivee says there was no quota involved in the NDP
cabinet and that the gender balance was simply a natural result
of the party’s gender-balanced caucus.

“I’m very opposed to putting women in cabinet just because
they’re women. It needs to be based on merit,” says Savage.
“Otherwise it damages it for capable women that come along.”

Glasgo says she’s “very, vocally opposed to quota systems.”

“If one day we have a gender balanced cabinet,” she says, “it
won’t be (because of) a quota.”

• Email: sxthomson@postmedia.com |
Twitter: stuartxthomson

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