CALGARY - Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith has offered her staunchest defence yet of two candidates whose race-based comments and anti-gay writings have seized the agenda during the last week of a pitched Alberta election campaign.
With the mayors of the province's two largest cities calling on Smith to denounce the two hopefuls and the Liberals labelling her party a bunch of "bigots," Smith fired back Friday, saying she refuses to throw anyone "under the bus."
"I take it personally when accusations of racism and bigotry are aimed at me and at my party," Smith said at a campaign stop in Calgary. "Let me be perfectly clear — a Wildrose government will not tolerate discrimination against any individual on the basis of ethnicity, religion, beliefs, background, disability or sexual orientation ... period."
Alberta is in the grips of one of the most intense election battles in decades as the Wildrose tries to topple 40-plus years of Progressive Conservative government. Voters head to the polls Monday.
Polls put Smith's party in front. But a handful of recent surveys suggest the Wildrose's large early lead over Premier Alison Redford's team has slipped somewhat. Feeling the squeeze, the Opposition Liberals have started calling the election a choice between "a bunch of bullies" and "a bunch of bigots."
At the centre of this week's controversy are Wildrose candidates Allan Hunsperger, who is running in Edmonton-Southwest, and Ron Leech, who is running for the Wildrose in Calgary-Greenway.
Last weekend, a year-old blog post surfaced from Hunsperger, in which he wrote gays and lesbians would end up in an eternal "lake of fire" if they didn't change their sexual orientation. He took aim at "godless" public education and the Edmonton Public School Board's policy of protecting sexual minorities from bullying.
Hunsperger took the blog down and said his remarks represented his work as a pastor and not party policy. Smith stuck by him, saying Hunsperger knows those views are not acceptable in the party.
Leech apologized this week for suggesting on a Calgary radio show last weekend that he had an "advantage" in the race because he is Caucasian.
"When different community leaders such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community," Leech said on CHKF-FM, a multicultural station in Calgary.
He clarified Tuesday that he was trying to say he wasn't at a disadvantage being a white man representing a multicultural community. Smith stood by him, too, saying one mistake should not erase 30 years of serving people in his community.
But another video surfaced Friday on YouTube in which Leech makes similar remarks about having an advantage because he is Caucasian.
"I believe as a Caucasian I have an advantage that for the Punjabi community I am able to speak for the whole community and to lift the whole community up in our region...When a Punjabi leader speaks for the Punjabi, the Punjabi are listening, but when a Caucasian speaks on their behalf, everybody is listening," he told the interviewer, who said he agreed with him.
The video does not indicate when Leech did the interview or how widely the interview aired, but there was an election poster with Leech's name in the background.
In Edmonton, Premier Alison Redford said she would have removed the two candidates from her team.
"The candidates that we want to have elected from our perspective as Progressive Conservatives are people that are talking about the future of the province, moving past issues that were decided 20 years ago," she said.
"I was quite surprised to see (Smith's) remarks today. I've been continually surprised this week and perhaps I just shouldn't be anymore."
Outrage has festered in some quarters for most of the week.
On Wednesday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticized Leech for apologizing for what he said without saying whether he believes it. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel spoke out the same day against Hunsperger, saying homophobia has no place in the capital city.
On Friday, a group calling itself Proud of Alberta ran a half-page ad in Edmonton's largest newspaper citing Hunsperger's blog and asking people to "read this and pray for Alberta." The ad backs Redford's stance on human rights.
Smith was accompanied at her event Friday by Leech and members of several Calgary ethnic communities.
"We believe that what happens in Alberta is when you make a mistake, you acknowledge it, you apologize for it. You move on. You don't just keep using it as a political football," Smith said accusing her critics of "fearmongering."
Smith also defended Hunsperger.
"I know Mr. Hunsperger's a good man. He's been engaged in public service for a long time. His private, personal religious views would not interfere in his role as an MLA."
Smith said she firmly believes in the separation of church and state and Hunsperger is entitled to his religious views.
"If I feel there's a problem, I will do something about it. If I don't feel that there's a problem, I will defend them and that's what I've done with both Mr. Hunsperger and Dr. Leech," Smith added.
"We'll find out on Monday. I think that people actually respect the fact that we're not just going to throw our candidates under the bus at the first sign of controversy."
Highlights Of The Alberta Election
Here's a look back at some of the most memorable moments from the campaign.
Wildrose Anti-Gay Blog Revealed
A blog post saying that gays were destined to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/15/wildrose-anti-gay-blog-alberta_n_1427008.html" target="_hplink">burn in a "lake of fire" for eternity was brought to light on April 16.</a> Allan Hunsperger, a pastor who's running as a Wildrose candidate in Edmonton South, also referenced Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way': "You see, you can live the way you were born, and if you die the way you were born then you will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering." Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said she was aware of Hunsperger's religious views.
Smith Booed, Mocked
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith found herself <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/20/danielle-smith-booed-climate-change-alberta-election-debate_n_1439858.html" target="_hplink">on the receiving end of booing and mockery at a debate on April 19 for questioning climate change .</a> "There is still a debate in the scientific community," said Smith before being drowned out by a chorus of boos and catcalls. PC leader Alison Redford said Smith leading the province would be an embarrassment.
Candidate Makes 'White Advantage' Comment
Wildrose candidate Ron Leech <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/17/ron-leech-wildrose-candidate_n_1432653.html" target="_hplink">made some controversial remarks about race on a South Asian radio show.</a> "I think as a Caucasian I have an advantage. When different community leaders such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community," said Leech. He apologized for his remarks on April 24, saying that his comments did not come out the way he intended.
Redford Under Seige
During the April 12 debate, the candidates for the Wildrose, Liberal and NDP took the opportunity to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/12/alberta-election-debate_n_1419850.html" target="_hplink">gang up on Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford</a>. It was an unsurprising tactic given that the Tories have held power in Alberta for 11 consecutive majority governments, although polls reveal the Wildrose may have a fighting chance.
When the Wildrose first rolled out their campaign bus, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/23/alberta-wildrose-campaign_n_1375998.html" target="_hplink">there was something distinctly odd about the wheel placement </a>in relation to Smith's image. Late night host Jay Leno even poked fun at the busty bus before a new, less suggestive design rolled out.
Closing The Gap
An April 10 poll showed that Danielle Smith's Wildrose party was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/11/alberta-election-2012-poll_n_1417267.html" target="_hplink">neck and neck with the Progressive Conservatives</a>. The Leger Marketing poll showed the Wildrose has the support of 36 per cent of Albertans, compared to 34 per cent for the governing Tories.
22 Minutes Pokes Fun At Candidates
This Hour Has 22 Minutes gave their own take on the Alberta election by poking fun at the similarities between Alison Redford and Danielle Smith. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/03/alberta-election-2012-22-minutes_n_1400747.html" target="_hplink">CLICK TO WATCH</a>
PC Staffer Gets Personal
Progressive Conservative staffer<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/31/pc-staffer-resigns-danielle-smith-wildrose-tweet_n_1393807.html" target="_hplink"> Amanda Wilkie "resigned" on March 31 after tweeting</a> "If @ElectDanielle likes young and growing families so much, why doesn't she have children of her own? #wrp family pack = insincere." Backlash came swiftly from the PC, the Wildrose and Twitter users alike. Alison Redford herself issues an apology, but not before Smith revealed that she didn't have children due to fertility issues.
In a moment of levity, but mostly embarrassment for Danielle Smith, the Wildrose leader's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/31/danielle-smith-dogs-wildrose-alberta_n_1394069.html" target="_hplink">dogs got frisky during a photo op in Calgary</a>.
The Other Guys
In a province where conservative values dominate politics, Brian Mason's NDP and Raj Sherman's Liberals are left to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/06/alberta-election-liberals-ndp-edmonton_n_1408884.html" target="_hplink">duke it out in left-leaning pockets such as Edmonton</a>.
On April 10, for the second time, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was called out for her<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/10/danielle-smith-pro-choice-gay-marriage_n_1416319.html" target="_hplink"> supposed opposing stance on abortion and gay marriage</a>. Smith however snuffed out the controversy: "When our members elected me they knew they were electing a candidate that was pro-choice and pro-gay marriage." The issues came up earlier in the election when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/07/alberta-election-abortion-social-issues_n_1409963.html" target="_hplink">Smith was less forthcoming</a> on the subjects.
Tory Candidate Assaulted
Alberta's education minister Thomas Lukaszuk claimed he was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/07/thomas-lukaszuk-assault_n_1410308.html" target="_hplink">assaulted while canvassing in an Edmonton neighbourhood</a>. He said he knocked on the door of a residence with a Wildrose support sign and, once recognized, was punched by the resident within. The resident, Al Michalchuk, says he merely nudged Lukaszuk when he refused to leave.