EDMONTON — Alberta Wildrose leader Danielle Smith says it was the right decision to stand by two candidates in the last election campaign despite their racist and anti-gay remarks.
But Smith says that even though she believes in standing up for her candidates, the values of Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech are not Wildrose values, and she says the party must do a better job at vetting candidates.
“I believe people of strong religious conviction of any religion should feel welcome into the public arena,” Smith told reporters at the Wildrose party convention Saturday.
“But every single person who runs for office has to be able to state their views in a way that is respectful to all Albertans (and) in a way that if they are to be elected, their constituents believe they will be able to represent every person who comes into their constituency office.
“There are a couple of candidates who fell short of that for us.”
Polls suggested Smith’s Wildrose party had a chance to end the four-decade dynasty of Premier Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives in the April 23 election.
But in the end the Tories won 61 seats to 17 for the Wildrose, in part to late-campaign controversy over the remarks by Hunsperger and Leech.
Hunsperger, an Edmonton candidate, said in a blog that gays need to renounce their sexual orientation or face an afterlife burning in hell’s “lake of fire.”
Leech, a Calgary candidate, told a radio interviewer that as a white man he was best suited to talking with and mediating disputes among people of all races.
Smith said the Tories ran with the controversy by successfully painting the Wildrose as pro-bigot.
“I thought that people would understand that having a couple of candidates who make controversial comments does not cast a pall on all 87. I was mistaken,” she said.
“Next time, we’re going to be far more careful with our candidate selection.
“I think our local candidate selection committee is going to do their work, and I’m going to be confident going into the next election that we’ve got 87 people who can win.”
Smith admitted she took an earful from some candidates for Hunsperger and Leech staying on board, though neither was elected. Some candidates felt bruised, she said, that the actions of others impeded their ability to succeed.
She said in the future, candidates themselves have to shoulder some responsibility and take it upon themselves to quit if necessary.
“If a candidate has created such a controversy that it’s going to bring down the entire party, that is going to affect other candidates, that it’s going to affect our ability to form government I would hope that they would have the respect for their colleagues that they would choose to step out of the race,” she said.
The weekend meeting in Edmonton is the party’s first convention since losing the spring election.
Earlier Saturday, Smith delivered a blistering denunciation of Redford’s Conservatives.
Smith said Redford’s legacy will be broken promises and corrupt behaviour, starting with the party’s plan to balance the operating budget but run a deficit for capital projects. She accused the government of “economic flim-flam” and said it kept “two sets of books,” adding it’s the way crooks do business.
She said the Tories have grown so accustomed to power the only way they know how to govern is to deliver grants and gifts to those who do their bidding and punish those who do not.
“Three and a half years from now we’ll see Albertans heave this wreck of a PC government onto the ash-heap of history,” Smith told 700 cheering supporters, echoing former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s 1982 comments on the fate of Marxism-Leninism.
“This is the party that in the past election campaign grossly mischaracterized the Wildrose program and party. Let’s never let them do it again.”