Preaching the spirit of the West

NICHOLAS KÖHLER December 31 2007

Preaching the spirit of the West

NICHOLAS KÖHLER December 31 2007

Preaching the spirit of the West

Does Craig Chandler’s nomination spell trouble for Alberta PCs?



Earlier this week, • Earlier this week, Craig Chandler, a portly but pugnacious Christian conservative—on his website he can be seen striking a boxer’s pose, not turning the other cheek—bulldozed his way yet again into Alberta’s headlines. In a sky-blue dress shirt, Chandler announced his intention to run as an independent in the provincial riding of Calgary Egmont. A month prior, Chandler had won the Progressive Conservative nomination for the same seat by a wide margin—only to be turfed by the party two weeks later because, as Premier Ed Stelmach explained it, the nomination was “not in the best interests of the party.”

It was little wonder. Chandler, 37, is notorious for loudly advocating against same-sex marriage, abortion and big government. As host of a Christian radio show and head of a right-wing business advocacy group, who has several quixotic runs in various political races under his belt—including a $250,000 bid against Peter MacKay for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 2003—Chandler seemed destined to remain a marginal player,

a case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Then, last month, Chandler found himself at the centre of a political battle pitting him against Stelmach, who sat on the decision to can his nomination for two weeks. It’s not yet clear Chandler has lost that battle; Stelmach, meanwhile, has much to lose.

“The Christophobic mentality of the Ed Stelmach government will stop with me,” promised Chandler, who will launch a lawsuit against the PC party seeking back the money he spent on his nomination race. (The PCs don’t have a mechanism to reject nom-

ination candidates prior to an election.) He also said he’d lodge human rights complaints against the PCs, arguing the party discriminated against him as a Pentecostal Christian, and threatened a defamation suit against at least one journalist. “I’m not anti-gay,” he told Maclean’s. “I have friends who are gay, we golf all the time and we have one rule—I don’t talk about my religion, they don’t talk about their lifestyle.”

Chandler is, no question, a master showman. Born in Brampton, Ont., he moved to


Calgary a decade ago to nurse a heart broken by a woman he’d met at church. In Alberta, Chandler, always active in party politics—including a stint with the Reform party— gleefully took to the firebrand legacy of the conservative Prairie West. In 2001, during municipal elections in Calgary, his Progressive Group for Independent Business posted signs reminding voters that Dave Bronconnier, a mayoral candidate, had once campaigned as a federal Liberal—an unforgivable sin for some. Soon after, Chandler reported a mysterious phone call to police. “Too bad you didn’t die in the World Trade Center,” he claimed a female voice said. “Be careful the next time you start your car.” Chandler later told reporters police traced the call to a cellphone owned by Arline Bronconnier, Dave’s mother. (A lie detector test suggested she’d never made the call and police dropped their investigation; Dave Bronconnier is now mayor.)

During Belinda Stronach’s run for the Conservative leadership, he seized on her support of gay marriage, telling a reporter: “Is this a takeover from the militant homosexual movement?” Last summer, an Edmonton newspaper quoted Chandler warning new Albertans, “This is our home, and if you wish to live here, you must adapt to our rules and our voting patterns, or leave. Conservatism is our culture. Do not destroy what we have created.” (Chandler contends the passage comes from an early draft of an op-ed piece he sent a reporter by mistake; it was, however, available online prior to its appear-

ance in that Edmonton newspaper.) His credentials as a social conservative don’t stop there. At one fundraiser he invited attendees to rent guns to shoot at Liberal logos. A raft of complaints led him to post, as bull’s eye, copies of the federal gun control legislation instead (for the record, Chandler says this had been the plan all the time).

His most astonishing public appearance was as the subject of God Only Knows: Same Sex Marriage, a documentary first aired in early 2006 that plays on the familiar reality TV convention of household swapping: Chandler, who is married with two young children, welcomes a gay Vancouver pastor to his home before spending time at his. “I’m the minority now,” Chandler says at one point before breaking down in tears. “I’m the persecuted.” In the film’s most unlikely revelation, he says of a former business partner: “I found my friend... dead in my garage... He committed suicide and I found out through going through his stuff and other things that he was in love with me. Wow! That was like a heavy hit—to take that this guy killed himself and he was gay and he was attracted to me.”

Last year, Chandler agreed to post an apology for an anti-gay letter uploaded to a website connected to his radio show, as per a settlement with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This month—a day before his fate as the PC nominee for Calgary Egmont was to be decided by the party executive—the Alberta Human Rights Commission deemed that the letter, written by former pastor Stephen Boissoin and published in the Red Deer Advocate under the headline “Homosexual agenda wicked,” contravened Alberta’s human rights law and may have had a “circumstan-

tial connection” to the beating of a gay teen two weeks later. Though Chandler had nothing to do with the letter, Boissoin was a member of Concerned Christians, of which Chandler was then CEO. Hence his PC slap-down.

Chandler had thumped his rivals in Calgary Egmont, a conservative riding of affluent and working-class neighbourhoods, pulling in over 900 votes to his closest rival’s 485. By all accounts a talented political organizer, he spent $127,000 on the race, an unheardof sum for a nomination battle. “I knocked on every single door in the constituency,” he says. The victory was also a triumph of stealth political manoeuvring. Chandler, formerly associated with the right-wing Alberta Alliance Party, swooped into the Calgary Egmont PC riding association with a number of his Alliance friends, one of whom soon became


association president. Chandler’s campaign included targeted appeals to Christian, Mormon and Alliance groups identified through the gang’s old databases. It was a deliberate overthrow of the PC riding’s traditional leadership by a group of outsiders.

Stelmach, likely facing an election in March, was immediately skeptical of Chandler. “I really don’t tolerate intolerance,” he said—an unusually precise aphorism for the premier. Stelmach later presided over a meeting of the PC executive, when party officials grilled Chandler for hours. “I felt like it was the McCarthy hearings,” Chandler says. A reporter later emerged from a debrief to tell him

he’d been nixed. A note scrawled on a scrap of paper and handed to him by a PC party lawyer confirmed the decision. Now Chandler will augment his run as an independent with a slate of other candidates, many of them his Alliance chums. Though he promises he’ll make efforts to avoid splitting the vote, it’s clear he’d relish PC losses. “The dynasty’s done—Ed Stelmach has started the beginning of the end of the PC party,” he says.

Indeed, some see Chandler’s nomination win as an indication the PCs are fraying at the edges. Former premier Ralph Klein’s great achievement as leader was keeping the party broad enough to accommodate all of its component parts. But Stelmach’s support is eroding on both sides of the spectrum. His royalty scheme, which raises the dues paid by oil and gas players, has hurt his chances with Calgary’s urban sophisticates. Chandler’s win, meanwhile, “shows me that the extreme right is seeking representation within the party,” says University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble. “If Stelmach wants to massage the right flank of the party, he’s going to have to think about how to do that.” University of Calgary communications expert David Taras notes Klein was forced in the 1997 election to contend with a resurgence of the Social Credit party, which won seven per cent of the popular vote. “It’s always dangerous if you’re bleeding to the right,” he says. “Klein could give up five or six per cent of the vote and be laughing. It’s not so clear Stelmach can.” Many, including Taras, downplay the support among Albertans for conservatives of Chandler’s ilk. But just as many forget the role Ted Morton, another social conservative, played in the PC leadership race last year. When Morton’s team appeared poised to succeed, many Albertans rushed to vote for a rival. The result was Stelmach’s leadership victory. “The party underestimated Ted Morton—didn’t expect him to do as well as he did,” says Chandler. “The party underestimated people like me.” M