Former Alberta Conservative Brent Rathgeber to go up against one-time supporter in 2015 election
OTTAWA – When Brent Rathgeber decided to pursue federal politics as a Conservative candidate in the Alberta riding of Edmonton-St. Albert in 2008, one of his initial champions was a young lawyer named Michael Cooper.
“Michael encouraged me to put my name forward and was one of my earliest and strongest supporters from that day on until, well, until my decision last June to quit the caucus,” Rathgeber says.
“It didn’t terminate our friendship but it certainly terminated our relationship in that he didn’t support what I did – which is obvious because he’s running against me.”
Rathgeber quit the Tory caucus in June 2013, protesting the government’s “lack of transparency and open government,” after the Conservatives gutted his private member’s bill that would have required salary disclosure for top bureaucrats and political staffers.
READ MORE: Alberta Tory MP Brent Rathgeber quits caucus
Since then, he has rallied against the control of the Prime Minister’s Office and the role of the backbencher in Ottawa – insisting he can better represent his Edmonton suburb as an independent MP.
“We have a situation in Ottawa where partisan matters take almost complete priority over the formulation of good policy and Members of Parliament tend to represent their parties and their party leaderships, often at odds with what’s in the best interest of their constituents,” he says.
Whether an independent can win in Conservative-rich Alberta will be put to the test when Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls an election this year – either on or before the set date of October 19.
(The riding will subsequently be called St. Albert-Edmonton in the riding redistribution for 2015 as a majority of residents will reside in the bedroom community.)
Rathgeber, who as a provincial MLA has represented the area on and off for almost a decade, will go head-to-head with Cooper, a past president of the riding association and at 30, already a political veteran.
“Brent has been a long-standing friend of mine and I respect him personally,” Cooper said in an email.
“That being said I believe that the people of St. Albert-Edmonton can best be served by electing a Conservative Member of Parliament and not an Independent.”
Rathgeber acknowledges the friends-turned-competitors are in a “unique” position.
“Michael and I are friends, and we’ve worked together in the last two elections,” he says.
“So it’s an odd and interesting situation.”
‘New model’ versus old
Rathgeber, who is 50 and also a lawyer, says he’s going to bill himself as a “new model of representation” during the 2015 campaign.
“In many ways Alberta has not been well served by having as many government backbenchers as it currently has.”
Rathgeber says some Conservative policies, such as changes to the temporary foreign worker program and failing to address infrastructure funding and transfer payments, have hurt his province.
As an independent in what could very well be a minority Parliament, Rathgeber says he will be free to vote with whichever party best serves the interest of his constituents.
And if the race is tight, he believes independents will be even more powerful.
“If there were four or five or six of us, they could easily control the balance of power, determine a government’s fate on a confidence vote, and determine whether bills pass or fail.”
He says Alberta needs a strong leader to keep taxes low and get energy to market – and that leader is Harper.
“I am disappointed with Brent’s decision to leave a Conservative government caucus that has consistently stood up for Albertans and all Canadians,” he wrote.
“The Prime Minister has shown strong, serious leadership on issues that are important here and across Canada, and St. Albert-Edmonton is better served under his leadership.”
Still Rathgeber – who won with more than 60 per cent of the vote in 2011 – doesn’t anticipate a personal campaign.
“We both want the same thing, but we have different ways of how we want to get there.”
‘He has a chance’
Rathgeber knows what will hurt him most is money.
As an independent, he can’t officially declare his candidacy until the writ is dropped, and therefore can’t offer the same 75 per cent tax credit to donors as a political party.
Plus, he’s working against a multi-million-dollar machine that is the Conservative party, which pulled in $13.5 million in the first nine months of last year – about $50,000 of which Rathgeber estimates he raised himself.
“They’ll be using money that I raised to campaign against me,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s hard to point out the irony, the sad irony in that.”
Still, observers say Rathgeber is not out of the race.
“I think he has a chance,” says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Most independents don’t, but there are certain circumstances where independents can do well, and I think Brent hits most of those targets.”
Watch: Backbench MPs are not doing their job: Rathgeber
Rathgeber’s name recognition, his incumbency, and the fact that he left caucus out of principle, may all work to his advantage, Bratt says.
“He didn’t leave out of scandal, he didn’t leave because he was thrown out of caucus. He left on a point of principle and he’s maintained that principle.”
Bratt notes that other former party-members-turned-independents, such as former Reform and Canadian Alliance MP Chuck Cadman in British Columbia and Liberal John Nunziata in Ontario, have gone on to win seats in previous elections.
Paul Quantz, the outgoing chair of St. Albert’s chamber of commerce who spoke only about his personal views, says Rathgeber has been an “excellent representation” in Ottawa.
But he’s heard concerns that community members don’t want an independent MP.
“(Rathgeber) has to convince this electorate, or this constituency, that as an independent he would have more clout than a government representative, who could very well be eligible for a cabinet post,” said Quantz.
Regardless, he says he’s “looking forward to a good battle” between Rathgeber and Cooper – perhaps the first true contest in years.
“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk for either of them.”
© 2015 Shaw Media