The battle for the identity of the UCP is being waged in nomination races across Alberta

United Conservative Party nomination hopeful Dusty Myshrall stands on the back porch of Larry Henkelman’s Ponoka house, listening to Henkelman’s concerns about access to health services in central Alberta.

Henkelman, a former Ponoka mayor and a provincial conservative party member for decades, is upset that helicopter ambulances can’t land in the city because the local helipad is closed.

Myshrall, a flight paramedic, is one of three people vying to be the next UCP candidate for Lacombe-Ponoka.

He’s campaigning on health-care reforms and improved accountability for Alberta Health Services. But he’s worried that the 2,600 UCP members in the constituency will be choosing a candidate based on alliances, not ideas.

“My concern with any special interest group is that if you start selecting a candidate, and propping up a candidate, then those candidates typically will become beholden to the special interest group and not to the voters that voted them in,” Myshrall said in an interview earlier that day.

The political dynamics in Lacombe-Ponoka are a microcosm of a provincewide tussle within the UCP.

There are 102 days remaining until the province’s fixed election date. And while the NDP and UCP trade partisan rhetoric, localized battles for control of the UCP are rumbling across the province.

“The party’s a teenager, in terms of parties. And it’s going through an identity crisis,” said David Parker, executive director of a third-party political advertising group called Take Back Alberta (TBA). “I’m not worried about that identity crisis. I think most of the party are very strong advocates for the values that we care about.”

On its website, TBA says it led the fight to remove Jason Kenney from the premier’s office. Kenney stepped aside last October when UCP members voted in Premier Danielle Smith as party leader.

TBA chief financial officer Marco Van Huigenbos said in an interview that last fall, the organization recommended supporters elect representatives onto the UCP board of directors who most aligned with their values.

They’re now focused on much more localized challenges.

Parker is travelling the province, hosting community meetings from Milk River to Spruce Grove, and encouraging people to get involved in conservative provincial politics at the grassroots by voting in local nomination contests or running for constituency association boards.

And that, they have — sometimes by the hundreds.

Parker says many TBA supporters are new to politics. Some are motivated by their outrage at what they perceived to be provincial and federal government overreach by the imposition of public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says.

But it’s a movement that some conservatives see as an attempted takeover of the party that was formed in 2017 by the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

Freedom-focused citizens and long-time conservatives are now wrestling for control of UCP constituency associations and vying for party nominations ahead of the May 29 election.

Van Huigenbos said TBA encourages supporters to vote for nominees who prioritize respect for Charter rights, but there is no formal endorsement or financial backing.

Van Huigenbos, a Fort Macleod town councillor, is facing a charge of mischief over $5,000 in connection with his participation in the 2022 Coutts border blockade.

His long-term goal, he says, is to hold politicians accountable to people’s wishes more consistently than in a four-year election cycle.

“Brick by brick we take down the political establishment that has had so much power,” he said.

As of Feb. 9, UCP candidates had been nominated in 58 of 87 ridings, party spokesperson Dave Prisco said. Some contests have yet to open.

One of the nominations still up for grabs is Lacombe-Ponoka, where two of the three candidates say the race has taken some strange turns.

The battle for Lacombe-Ponoka

Vying to replace incumbent MLA Ron Orr, who isn’t seeking re-election, are three candidates: Jennifer Bender Johnson, Myshrall and Chris Ross. The vote is on Friday.

The area has been represented by conservative politicians since at least 1944, which leads to competitive nominations.

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Lacombe city councillor Chris Ross is running in the Lacombe-Ponoka UCP nomination leading up to the 2023 provincial election. (Janet French/CBC)

Ross, a Lacombe city councillor and farm equipment salesperson, said he’s gravely concerned about the efficiency of the health-care system, particularly ambulance use, and worries about the province training enough health-care workers.

Ross didn’t print any flyers, isn’t door knocking, and campaigns mostly by himself online.

The state of health care also motivated Myshrall to run. The former president of the Alberta Paramedic Association is flummoxed by Alberta Health Services’ bureaucracy and decision-making.

He wants a third party to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing by AHS. He’s also proposing that workers be able to earn overtime pay tax-free.

Jennifer Johnson’s website and Facebook page say she is a former nurse who home-schooled her four children. She has previously served on the UCP’s board of directors and the Bentley and District Agricultural Society.

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Jennifer Bender Johnson is running for the UCP nomination in Lacombe-Ponoka in advance of the May 2023 Alberta provincial election. (Facebook)

Johnson’s website says biology belongs in classrooms and sex education belongs in the home, and parents must know what their children are being taught.

People should be free to choose what goes into their bodies, the platform says, along with “No more vaccine mandates or lockdowns.”

Her personal Facebook page includes posts that say ivermectin can help with COVID-19 infections. Facebook has tagged several posts she’s shared as misleading or “false information” as verified by fact-checkers.

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Rashmi, left, and Rahul Mendhiratta co-own the Hitchin Post bar and grill in Ponoka. They’re looking for an MLA who will help them resolve local issues. (Janet French/CBC)

Johnson did not respond to interview requests or questions sent by emails and a phone message.

Van Huigenbos says Johnson is involved with TBA, but she doesn’t hold an official post with the organization.

Parker said TBA hasn’t provided money or organized volunteers for Johnson.

But Ross and Myshrall say external forces are influencing the local campaign. Both say they’re trying to dispel false rumours that they support vaccination mandates.

“It’s almost kind of frustrating being a one-person campaign,” Ross said. “You feel like you’re in an episode of Survivor, like, who’s your alignments? Who’s supporting you?”

Van Huigenbos says TBA won’t expect special treatment from candidates who share their views, should they be elected.

“To say that we have some sort of sway over them? No,” he said.

Party spokesperson Prisco said the UCP won’t comment on any active nomination contests.

“It is not uncommon for members of political parties to organize themselves based on their interests and concerns,” he said.

Localized matchups dot the province

Beyond the battle over party leadership, symptoms of the UCP’s identity struggle have popped up elsewhere in the province.

In Livingstone-Macleod and Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, UCP constituency association members voted in new boards when they lost confidence in the previous members.

Parker said those efforts weren’t about ideological differences, but concerns that boards weren’t listening to party members.

The new board in Rimbey is now pushing to re-open candidate nominations, after a farmer associated with Take Back Alberta was disqualified. Incumbent MLA and former key Kenney cabinet minister Jason Nixon is the current candidate.

In Red Deer-South, business owner and once-PC candidate Adele Poratto is challenging incumbent MLA Jason Stephan for the nomination. Stephan was one of the first UCP MLAs to publicly say he’d lost confidence in Kenney as premier. People involved with Take Back Alberta have endorsed him online.

The Livingstone-Macleod constituency re-opened candidate nominations after the party last fall disqualified Nadine Wellwood. She has said she was disqualified because of her social media posts.

Also last year, the party disqualified Jodie Gateman from challenging Cardston-Siksika MLA Joseph Schow for that nomination. She said the party also told her it was because of controversial social media posts about Muslims.

But in Ponoka, it’s local problems — not political wrangling — that some people have on their minds.

Rahul and Rashmi Mendhiratta co-own The Hitchin Post bar and grill. They want improvements in health care, and better post-secondary opportunities and transportation choices in the area. They say the street lights outside the bar on Highway 2A haven’t worked for years, and no level of government will take responsibility to get them working again.

Parker says many people misunderstand the movement he’s leading. He said it’s not about freedom fighters trying to seize control. It’s about forcing a political party to be accountable to its grassroots members and preventing a corrupting concentration of power.

And he doesn’t see it creating a chasm among conservatives as long as they have a common enemy.

“At the end of the day, Albertans are going to divide over whether or not they need to defeat the NDP,” he said. “Because there’s a pretty big consensus that no matter how bad the UCP is right now and how much work it needs, the NDP would be catastrophic.”

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