CALGARY - The mayors of Alberta's two largest cities injected themselves into the fevered provincial election battle Wednesday, blasting the race-based ramblings of one Wildrose candidate and the biblical, anti-gay writings of another.
It was a two-pronged front by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel. They suggested the comments of the candidates are making their cities look like backwaters to the rest of the country.
In Calgary, Nenshi called out Wildrose candidate Ron Leech, who is running in the multicultural constituency of Calgary-Greenway. 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.
That wasn't good enough for Nenshi, who took to Twitter to express his dismay.
"It's not that he shouldn't have said it. It's that he shouldn't believe it. He has not yet said whether he does," said Nenshi.
"His clarification did not in any way address the content of his comments. Does he believe ethnic (politicians) speak only to some?"
That set off Leech's supporters, chief among them Rob Anderson, one of four incumbents running for the Wildrose. Anderson is up for re-election in Airdrie, just north of Calgary.
Leech has been serving new Canadians in northeast Calgary for 30 years, Anderson said. The party has pointed out Leech runs a private school which has a large number of people with different ethnicities.
"Surely forgiveness for a verbal flub-up has been earned over those 30 years, no?" Anderson tweeted.
"All I'm saying is don't say 'I shouldn't have said offensive thing,'" Nenshi fired back. "Say 'I don't actually believe it!'"
In Edmonton, Mandel lashed out at Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger, a pastor who wrote on his blog last year that gays and lesbians would end up in an eternal "lake of fire" if they didn't change their sexual orientation. The Edmonton-Southwest candidate later said his remarks represented his work as a pastor and not party policy.
Mandel said those comments make the city and province look bad.
"I don't think there's any place in our province for homophobia and or diminishing the value of any group to the greater good of our city and our society," Mandel told reporters.
"It's a bit disappointing about what was coming out ... I really believe we are a multidimensional, dynamic province and we believe it's the same of our city. We're accepting and open and we don't want people to think that this a place that people are not welcome ... We want them to see Edmonton as a place for their future."
To this point, Calgary's Nenshi has tried to stay above the fray of the election.
The mayor had a news conference earlier in the campaign at which he went to great pains not to endorse any one party in the provincial race that will be decided Monday. His officials went so far as to issue a clarification when stories in the local media suggested he favoured one party over another.
After his election victory in 2010, attributed by many to his mastery of social media, Nenshi was widely held up as the first Muslim mayor of a large Canadian city. His victory was especially significant to some because it came in Calgary, a city that has long dealt with being stereotyped as conservative.
Nenshi said he still considers himself neutral, but he feels Leech should be more specific in his apology.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith has said she doesn't have a problem with Leech's remarks. She has also defended Hunsperger.
At a campaign stop in Chestermere east of Calgary on Wednesday, Smith reaffirmed her support for all of her candidates.
"I don't expect Albertans expect politicians to be perfect. I do think they expect them to be people of goodwill and they do expect them to believe that they have the public interest at heart, and that's why I have such confidence in my candidates," Smith said.
"They are good people. They are in this for the right reason. They may not always be able to express themselves well in the media or in their public ridings. I stand by our candidates. I think that they're terrific."
David Taras, a Mount Royal University political scientist, said Smith should have reacted differently to the views put forward by her two candidates.
"When it comes to political leaders, Albertans expect their leaders to come out against individuals who make statements that would be considered offensive by some," he said. "It's what Albertans expect.
"Because she didn't do that, it puts a question mark next to her leadership."
— With files from CHED in Edmonton