4 min

Will Calgary vote strategically?

New riding adds Reform voters to gay-heavy city centre

RELYING ON HOPE. Keith Purdy's a high-profile gay candidate who's done a lot for Calgary's gay community. But the NDP candidate is running in a redrawn riding with many new conservative supporters. Will the gay vote split between Purdy and Liberal candidate Julia Turnbull-who won't commit to overhauling laws against consensual gay sex in bathhouses? Credit: Xtra West files

CALGARY- When Joe Clark decided to run in the riding of Calgary Centre in the last election no one thought he had any chance of winning. The riding had voted solidly for the Reform Party in both the 1993 and 1997 elections and it was predicted that incumbent Eric Lowther would win again in a landslide. However, at the end of the 2000 race Joe Clark had won the seat by over 4000 votes. The decisive win was attributed largely to members of the gay community mobilizing against Lowther due to the Reform Party’s stridently social conservative views. Many gays who traditionally voted Liberal or NDP instead cast their ballot strategically-for Clark.

Clark has now retired (making headlines by endorsing the Martin Liberals over the new Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper) and his riding has since been split in half-into Calgary North Centre and Calgary South Centre. It’s Calgary South Centre that can boast being the heart of Calgary’s gay community, with an estimated 25,000 gays and lesbians in the riding-and people wonder whether the gay vote could once again influence the election outcome.

“I think in 2000 you had a turning point in the community,” says Lorne Neudorf, a gay Calgarian who ran for the Liberal nomination in another Calgary riding and lost. He’s now actively campaigning for the Liberal candidate in Calgary South Centre, Julia Turnbull.

Neudorf says the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community realized it could influence the outcome of an election in 2000 so people rallied together. He predicts that could happen again.

“I think this time people are really looking at Julia Turnbull in this election,” he says. Already, Outlooks publisher Roy Heale has backed Turnbull.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Turnbull has no answer when asked if she’d eliminate the bawdyhouse laws that were used when Calgary police raided Goliath’s bathhouse in 2002. “I need to investigate this issue before I can make a comment,” answered Turnbull.

Turnbull has clearly been preparing in other ways for her run. Neudorf points out that the straight Turnbull has been actively involved in Calgary’s queer community for the last two years. She marched in Calgary’s Gay Pride Parade last year and again this year and she’s attended Calgary’s gay rodeo as well as other community events.

Despite Liberal claims, there’s no assurance that gays are choosing their candidate as the one to back in this election. After all, the party is unpopular at the best of times in Alberta, and in this election it is dogged by an unresolved scandal. The NDP has a candidate with deep roots in the gay community. And it’s a community that has suffered a recent police raid against consensual gay sex-the Goliath’s bathhouse raid.

NDP candidate Keith Purdy is a well-known gay rights activist and former chair of the group that puts on Calgary Pride festivities. He and his partner filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission in 2003 in protest against the Alberta government’s refusal to allow gay couples to marry. They’re still awaiting an outcome. And Purdy is calling for an overhaul of the bawdyhouse laws.

Neudorf says Purdy is a well-known and respected member of the queer community but he says voting NDP isn’t a viable option if members of the queer community want to ensure Conservative candidate Lee Richardson doesn’t get in.

“It comes down to taking a strategic option,” says Neudorf. “Why not vote in a way that will make a difference and influence the race?”

Gay rights activist and EGALE board member Stephen Lock agrees with Neudorf that members of Calgary’s queer community seem to be gravitating towards Turnbull as their preferred candidate. However, Lock says it isn’t nearly as organized a campaign as the campaign to get Joe Clark elected in 2000.

“This isn’t an orchestrated campaign like ‘Queers for Joe’ as it was dubbed,” says Lock. “That was a focussed campaign based on getting Eric Lowther out.”

Lock says the queer community isn’t as polarized against Conservative Party candidate Lee Richardson yet. However, he says that may rapidly change.

“The fact remains he didn’t appear at the Gay Pride Parade and we had Liberals and NDP out in full force,” says Lock.

Richardson did not return repeated calls from Xtra West.

Lock is actively campaigning for Purdy who, he says, has a solid base of support in the queer community. However, he concedes, even within the gay community in Calgary, the NDP “is still seen as too far out.

“I think Keith will win some serious votes but I don’t think we’ll see an NDP MP in this riding,” he predicts.

University of Calgary political science professor David Taras agrees with Neudorf and Lock that the gay vote influenced the outcome last election.

“What was significant in the last federal election was Joe Clark led the gay parade. That was a symbol. He’d advocated on [the gay community’s] behalf. That was a catalytic moment.”

Taras concedes that the gay vote could have some influence on this election, especially in light of the fact that Harper has stated he doesn’t support same-sex marriage. Taras also says that Calgary South Centre is unique not only due to its large queer population, but also because of its high percentage of young and ethnic voters.

“My sense is this riding is more like other ridings in Canada than other ridings in Calgary or Alberta. What’s significant is the rainbow. It has a diverse population.”

Still, he expects the Conservative Party will sweep every riding in Calgary without much of a fight.

“I don’t think it will even be close.”

Taras says the sponsorship scandal “knocked the stuffing out of the Liberal Party” and he says voters will not opt for the NDP because the party has never been a political force in the province.

Lock agrees that even if the queer community banded together against Richardson, it wouldn’t be enough. He points out that Calgarians have elected conservative party candidates in every riding since the 1970s. And since the former Calgary Centre riding was split into two, Calgary South Centre now has a larger percentage of hardline Canadian Alliance supporters living in the more suburban neighbourhoods within the riding.

NDP candidate Keith Purdy is relying on hope-hope that voters will think differently this election.

“I am getting a great response specifically from the gay community,” he says. “I’m very very confident the gay vote will look very specifically to the candidate and not the party. With the support of the gay community we could win the riding. I think in this election people are going to vote in what they believe in, rather than strategic voting like in 2000. They’re voting for a candidate that reflects their views.”

Purdy says the Conservative Party is no different from the Reform or Alliance parties and gay voters will realize that.

“They still hold these very staunch, arrogant, very rightwing values, which are religion-based,” says Purdy.

Liberal candidate Julia Turnbull says she’s counting on the support of gay voters to help her beat Conservative candidate Richardson.

“I think many [queer voters] will be convinced to vote Liberal because a vote for the NDP will mean the Conservative candidate will win,” she says.