Leduc-Beaumont: oil and gas, young families make riding a microcosm of Alberta
UCP candidate Brad Rutherford challenges incumbent NDP MLA cabinet minister Shaye Anderson
United Conservative Party candidate Brad Rutherford takes advantage of a mild winter evening to canvass in Leduc, a city south of Edmonton.
He arrives at the home of Elizabeth Woods with two questions: what are her thoughts on the current government and what does she think about the UCP.
"I've always voted Conservative but I'm not sure this time," the senior responds. "But I know I'm not voting NDP."
Woods comes across as an informed voter. She quizzes Rutherford about Premier Rachel Notley's plan to lease rail cars.
"The solution isn't rail cars," he responds. "The solution is pipelines. And that's where the focus needs to be."
Woods tells Rutherford he may have changed her mind. She takes a flyer and Rutherford moves on.
The next house doesn't go as well.
A man who declines to give his name gives a succinct answer to Rutherford's query about the current government.
"They suck," he says. But he doesn't have a high opinion of conservative parties either, noting one of the UCP's legacy parties, the Progressive Conservatives, was booted out of office in 2015.
"I'm not too impressed with any government, to be honest with you," the man tells Rutherford.
"I don't know who I'm voting for. I might not even vote."
Walking away, Rutherford reflects on the interaction.
"It's the hard noes you don't like to get," he says. "But people are still open and thinking about it. That's positive."
Rutherford meets more sympathetic voters at the doors.
Patty Humphrey tells Rutherford she was raised conservative. While she describes herself as "horribly disappointed" by the NDP, she wants to see more from his party.
"Give us something, a solid reason," Humphrey says, adding that it's not enough to tear down the carbon tax, which is ultimately a federal responsibility.
As for pipelines, she isn't sure the UCP could have done any better.
"I don't know how much it would be different with a different government," she says. "What's the real plan?"
Leduc-Beaumont straddles Highway 2, the backbone of Edmonton-Calgary corridor, where most of Alberta's population is concentrated.
Both Rutherford and his main opponent, NDP MLA and Municipal Affairs Minister Shaye Anderson, see the riding, with its growing population, young families and dependence on the oil and gas industry, as representative of the province at large.
According to 2016 census data, the riding's main centres, Beaumont and Leduc, are among Canada's fastest growing cities. Beaumont's 31 per cent growth between 2011 and 2016 puts it fifth on the list behind Warman, Sask., Cochrane, Airdrie and Chestermere.
Leduc was 14th with 23.4 per cent growth over the same five-year period.
Leduc and adjacent Nisku are populated by firms that service the oil and gas industry. The constituency is home to Edmonton International Airport and a new 800,000-square-foot production facility operated by Aurora Cannabis.
"If Leduc-Beaumont is healthy, then Alberta is healthy," Rutherford says. "And vice versa, because of how many people are dependent on our primary resource, which is oil and gas.
"I've said it to Jason (Kenney) … the better this riding does, it just tells you how the rest of the province is doing."
Located closer to Edmonton's southern limits, Beaumont is home to many parents of young children who commute to jobs in Alberta's capital.
Both Anderson and Rutherford fit into that demographic. They live in Beaumont and each have two children under 10. Rutherford is a 10-year veteran of the Edmonton Police Service who moved to Beaumont with his wife seven years ago.
As a cabinet minister, Anderson works out of the Alberta legislature.
"We've got a young, young population in my riding," Anderson says. "And it's fun to see because people are moving here and it makes it exciting."
But a young population means overcrowded schools. While canvassing in Beaumont, Anderson talks with a teacher who tells him her school was already over capacity when it opened in 2014.
Anderson says his government has built and modernized schools across the province but acknowledges more has to be done.
"If we don't keep doing that and make sure we spend to that growth of the population, we're going to be in trouble," he says.
- Residents of new Banff-Kananaskis riding look for candidates to tend to unique needs
- Government needs to 'pay attention' as election talk comes to southern Alberta salon chairs
Known for his distinctive bushy beard, Anderson moved to Edmonton from his home in British Columbia in 2004.
The former technician with Shaw and Telus moved to Beaumont two years later after falling in love with the town while visiting for a service call.
Anderson was one of the surprises of the 2015 election, defeating Progressive Conservative George Rogers, a former mayor of Leduc and the area's MLA for 11 years.
Anderson won 8,321 votes. Wildrose candidate Sharon Smith came second with 6,543 votes, followed by Rogers with 6,225.
Right not so united?
The split of the right-wing vote drove the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives to merge into the United Conservative Party in 2017. UCP supporters believe the party will unseat the NDP in this spring's election.
Anderson says the presence of the Alberta Party, the Freedom Conservative Party and the Alberta Advantage shows the right isn't that united.
He says the UCP shares the same entitled attitude that got the PCs voted out of office four years ago.
"They use words like 'take back' and 'power' and things like that," Anderson says.
"There's lots of parties out there that want to try to vie for the votes but every single one of them, quite frankly, is wanting to do it because they want power."
- Will voters in conservative stronghold Lesser Slave Lake re-elect NDP MLA?
- 'Desperate need' for NDP faces off with desire for change in Lethbridge
Anderson says the constituents he talks with are interested in schools for their children and health care for their families. He says his government has worked hard to diversify the economy by expanding the province's petrochemical industry.
The government is on track to accumulate $96 billion in debt by the time it plans to return to a surplus in 2023-24. The UCP frequently raises that as evidence of how the NDP has mishandled Alberta's economy.
Anderson says the government decided to spend on infrastructure when the drop in oil prices caused the Alberta economy to hit rock bottom in 2015-16.
"You can look at debt as some of the money that we will pay down over time and balance the budget," he says. "Or you could look at crumbling schools and bridges and hospitals that affect everybody across this province."
The question is whether Anderson's message will get through to the voters in Leduc-Beaumont.
As for Rutherford, he says he has heard more people say yes than no at the doors. He thinks people who are undecided will like what the UCP has to offer as more of the platform rolls out.
"You hope that as you go along here and come across those undecideds that you leave a good impression with them," he says.
"So when they get to the ballot box that they can remember, 'Brad came to my door. He was friendly, he told me what he thought, he asked me questions.' And that goes a long way with people."
Rutherford and Anderson are two of five candidates running in Leduc-Beaumont. Robb Connelly is the candidate for the Alberta Party, Gil Poitras is running for the Alberta Advantage Party and Jenn Roach is running for the Green Party.