Everything you wanted to know about the St. Albert election (but were afraid to ask)

Retiring Councillor Lorie Garritty, right, commiserates with defeated incumbent James Burrows at the St. Albert Inn Monday night. Below: Burrows, Wes Brodhead, Cam MacKay and James Van Damme.

“What I really want to know,” a comment on a previous post says, “is what happened in your home town of St. Albert?”

The short answers are easy. The analysis may be a little harder. But it’s probably worth the trouble because it may contain useful tidbits for candidates and campaign managers contemplating municipal election runs in suburban Alberta communities, indeed, suburban communities anywhere.

The easy answers first: St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse was overwhelmingly reelected as predicted. Your blogger’s record on predicting the success of council candidates was more mixed. In the public prints, I predicted only that the four incumbents who were running – Len Bracko, James Burrows, Gareth Jones and Roger Lemieux – would all be reelected, largely on the strength of name recognition.

In the event, I was half right. Mr. Bracko, a former Liberal MLA with deep roots in St. Albert’s community of Liberal voters and great respect among many others, was re-elected. So was Roger Lemieux, who has strong connections to our city’s historical francophone community and ran a business here for many years. But both could be fairly described as having scraped back into office.

Messrs Burrows and Jones were swept away, presumably the result of voters dissatisfied with St. Albert’s relatively high taxes, but perhaps because of other factors too. Mr. Burrows was controversial, and was disliked by more than one group of voters. This setback will do no good to his reported plan to seek the Wildrose Alliance nomination for the next provincial election. It is harder to pinpoint a single reason for Mr. Jones’s lack of success beyond, perhaps, his age.

Now, it is dangerous to read too much into these things. Most St. Albert candidates, incumbents or not, ran lazy, uninformative campaigns. Those who got out and door-knocked – including Cam MacKay, Malcolm Parker and Wes Brodhead – all won council seats.

Can the St. Albert election be called civic referendum on taxes, the purchase of municipal art, the checkered history of the Servus Place recreation centre, the future of the public library or whether or not that notorious lot in the Akinsdale neighbourhood should be the site of a Habitat for Humanity development? You could fashion almost any answer you like to these questions from the confusing data emerging from this election. No doubt folks of all persuasions will do just that.

Turnout was embarrassingly low – a pathetic 34 per cent, down from 37 per cent three years ago. That may have magnified the impact of disaffected electors who were willing to vote for a single candidate.

Judging from the strength of the mayor’s majority over his only challenger, Akinsdale resident Shelley Biermanski, the controversial Arlington Drive development that made headlines around the world did not stir many voters locally. Still, for a low-key, lightweight campaign, Ms. Biermanski’s final tally was none too shabby. As a seasoned observer of political affairs in this community commented to me outside the mayor’s celebration at the St. Albert Inn Monday night, a stronger candidate with a better campaign organization could have made much more serious inroads into the mayor’s majority.

Privately, I circulated a list to a few friends of the order in which I expected the 13 council candidates to place. My prognosticating abilities were not too horrible. Readers who wish to compare my bets to reality may click here.

Some quick observations and opinions about the meaning of the St. Albert election results, in no particular order:

  • The Akinsdale Habitat-for-Humanity brouhaha didn’t have much impact on most voters, and there were at least as many people embarrassed by the affair as upset at it. I say that votes flowed both ways as a result.
  • Taking a hard line on taxes is an overwhelming issue for a group of voters, but not a majority of St. Albertans by any means. The candidate most closely associated with the St. Albert Taxpayer’s Association – Mr. MacKay – did well. SATA members likely “pumped” their ballots for Mr. MacKay by voting only for him, an entirely legitimate technique in my opinion. But there were other factors in Mr. MacKay’s success, and support for SATA was not the only reason.
  • Low turnout helps special interest groups – including anti-tax groups like SATA – if they are willing to pump for a single candidate. As noted, the turnout of eligible voters in this election, typical of municipal elections across Canada, was at 34 per cent pathetically low.
  • St. Albert voters – and not just women – want women on council. They considered the three female candidates, concluded that Cathy Heron was the strongest, and made absolutely certain she was elected. Ms. Heron topped the polls with close to 10,000 votes.
  • Door knocking counts – as noted, candidates known to have actually gotten out and met voters did better.
  • Social media did not have a particularly big impact. Who knows, maybe there are just not enough young people in St. Albert? Maybe the pundits are misinterpreting the impact of social media in the Calgary civic election. Whatever is going on, the candidates who tried to use social media sites heavily – James Van Damme and Aisling Pollard-Kientzel, for example – did not do particularly well.
  • Money alone will not buy an election – at least not in St. Albert. Mr. Van Damme spent a heck of lot on advertising over a very long time. It didn’t get him past the No. 10 spot on a list of 13 candidates.
  • Age does not seem to be a particular factor one way or the other. Voters turfed one candidate in his 70s and kept another. They elected mostly people in their middle years, elected one young woman but generally rejected younger candidates.
  • Signs still matter. When you door-knock, voters often complain about “sign pollution.” But they tend to vote for candidates with lots of signs. It seemed to me that some candidates who had a lot of signs last time had fewer this time. Candidates with many signs – like Malcolm Parker and Cam MacKay – did well. Incumbents who had fewer signs than last time saw their vote totals slip – it looks to me as if that’s what happened in part to Mr. Burrows and Mr. Jones. Mr. Lemieux’s extra signs may just be what saved him, allowing him to slip into the last spot a mere 14 votes ahead of Mr. Burrows.
  • Notoriety gets you about 6,000 votes in this town, which happens to be home to about 60,000 people. It seems to me as if there may be a nice neat formula in that for the managers of suburban electoral campaigns. If merely being a council incumbent gets you about 10 per cent of the vote, you’d better get out and knock on doors, go to events, talk to journalists, put up signs, buy advertisements, persuade your friends to pump the ballot and be responsive and respectful when it comes to voters’ concerns if you expect to be re-elected. In other words, run as if you were in third place!

A modified version of this post can be found on rabble.ca.

One Comment on "Everything you wanted to know about the St. Albert election (but were afraid to ask)"

  1. Davis Harrigan says:

    Good post.

    I would be very interested in your thoughts – more expanded – on the effects of social media.

    Was the really a difference between Calgary and St. Albert.
    (I suspect yes)

    If so, why?

    The topic seems made for you!

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