Former Stelmach supporter set to run against him in 2012

When Shannon Stubbs saw the empty chair, she decided she had to take the seat.

Wildorse Alliance candidate Shannon Stubbs.

Wildorse Alliance candidate Shannon Stubbs.

EDMONTON — When Shannon Stubbs saw the empty chair, she decided she had to take the seat.

Stubbs, who had supported the governing Tories since her teens, was sitting in the Vegreville Social Centre in late August with 500 or so others in Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s home riding.

They wanted answers and wanted to voice their anger over a proposed monster power line that could cut through their prime farmland.

All the opposition party leaders were there — David Swann of the Liberals, Brian Mason of the NDP and Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance.

There was one empty chair, left for local legislature member Stelmach, who was actually down the road holding a news conference saying he couldn’t attend because there was a potential conflict of interest — he owns land that may have a line run through it.

Stelmach also suggested there were signs the Wildrose had helped organize the event, leaving him with the unpleasant option of being skewered in person or mocked in absentia.

Still, for Stubbs, the empty chair was the turning point.

“I just couldn’t believe he wouldn’t show up to be accountable,” said Stubbs, who has now been nominated as the Wildrose candidate to take him on in the next election, slated for the spring of 2012.

Stubbs, 30, grew up in the Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding east of Edmonton — farm country of hardy souls descended from Anglo, Ukrainian, German, and French settlers.

The Ed Stelmach she remembers was the cabinet minister who returned to her tiny community of Chipman every Remembrance Day to lay a wreath.

He could have made a bigger splash by going to the ceremony in nearby Vegreville, maybe even get his photo in the paper. But Stelmach always went to Chipman.

“That’s the Ed I knew and supported, the person who would be there even at the smallest communities,” said Stubbs.

The Stelmachs were family friends, coming over for dinner. She voted for him, worked for his Progressive Conservatives and staunchly supported his fiscal hawkishness.

In university, she studied political theory.

Her bookcase was lined with everything from John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

She worked in Ottawa for the federal Conservatives and manned the phones for almost three years in former MP Deborah Grey’s constituency office.

She was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Conservative MP Chuck Strahl’s son.

There, she met another of the bridesmaids, Danielle Smith.

They talked politics and found they were kindred spirits on property rights, fiscal conservatism and decentralized decision making.

They kept in touch.

In 2004, Stubbs ran as a provincial PC candidate against the NDP in Edmonton-Strathcona — a riding of university students, working class folk and artists. She got hammered.

She continued to work within the provincial party to reform policy that she felt had drifted under then-premier Ralph Klein.

The fiscal hawks had become free-spending doves as petro-dollars brought billions into the treasury.

Resolutions from grassroots members were praised by the politicians, then ignored.

“The policy process was a farce,” she said.

When Stelmach came in, she hoped the Conservatives would again be conservatives, but said she was appalled by Stelmach and cabinet giving themselves a pay raise of 30 per cent.

Soon after, Smith was elected leader of the Wildrose Alliance, and Stubbs made the jump, becoming her senior adviser.

Her story is Smith’s story, which is also Rob Anderson’s and Heather Forsyth’s and Hal Walker’s and Shayne Saskiw’s — Tory supporters who became disillusioned and walked away.

The 2012 contest is now shaping up as something of a uncivil civil war — conservatives once comrades in arms now taking up election signs against one another.

The Alliance has just four members in the 83-seat legislature, compared with 68 Tories. But it has strengthened itself as the party of second choice in polls for more than a year.

Three of the legislature members — Anderson, Forsyth, and Guy Boutilier — all crossed the floor to join Paul Hinman, who rocked the Tory boat a year ago when he won the Alliance’s first seat in the PC stronghold of Calgary-Glenmore.

Both the Tories and Alliance aim to have all candidates in place by June.

Smith said Stubbs is not simply a place holder, someone willing to take a political bullet on election day.

“For someone who is only 30 years old, she has more than a decade of political experience, and what goes with that is incredible sound judgment about how to handle certain issues, what is resonating with the public,” said Smith.

“We’re not going to run weak candidates against anybody. We’re in this to win government.”

That process began last month, when Stubbs and friends were in Vegreville knocking on doors in a riding where Stelmach took four votes out of five in 2008. Doorstep reaction was mixed: some said good luck, others said good riddance.

The hard part is over, said Stubbs, referring to the decision to take on a family friend and her former party.

“The whole thing was difficult, but that’s how deeply I feel that the direction of the government is wrong.”