Now that Guelph MP Brenda Chamberlain has retired from Parliament, speculation has begun about a possible by-election in the Royal City. NDP and Tory opponents have shamelessly flogged the former MP over her attendance record over the past year, chomping at the bit to fight for the seat.
As a Guelph native and former co-chair of Chamberlain's 1993 election campaign, I can say I know a bit about the local Guelph political scene and its voting history. Guelph had been a bellweather riding, always voting in a government member, in every election since 1974. The only recent exception was 2006 when Chamberlain won again by over 5,000 votes. Chamberlain was always a well-respected MP, noted for her hard work and dedication to fighting for local issues. She had previously won by huge margins: 10,000 votes in 2004, 15,000 in 2000, 14,000 in 1997, etc., etc...
I'll have much to say about this riding as a possible by-election approaches. Of the three current vacancies - Saint-Lambert, Westmount-Ville-Marie and now Guelph - I'd say the latter is the only one the Tories have any hope of taking. They placed a distant second in Westmount in 2006, and a distant third behind the Liberals in Saint-Lambert in that same election. Thus, we can expect the Tories to pour tonnes of resources into Guelph, which lies just outside of the Greater Toronto Area.
The local Tory candidate, Gloria Kovach, is going to need that outside support as many local Tories are still miffed the candidate they actually elected to carry the nomination again, Brent Barr, was mysteriously removed by party central. After losing to Barr in the first round, Kovach quietly won by acclamation late last year. Barr has promised not to interfere with Kovach's efforts this time, but there's little doubt her campaign will be hampered much like Don Meredith's in Toronto Centre, who replaced fired Tory candidate Mark Warner. Let's not forget, Meredith polled only 12% in the subsequent Toronto Centre by-election, down from 18% in 2006.
Frank Valeriote, the new Liberal candidate, is the consummate local guy. Well-known, he served for 18 years on the local Catholic School Board as a trustee and Chair. Both of my parents taught in that school board and had the highest regard for him and his abilities. Valeriote would also be Guelph's first MP of Italian descent if he wins, something I'm sure is not lost on the large local Italian community.
Plus, Valeriote has turned out to be an excellent, hard-working candidate. As the Guelph Tribune notes, he's been virtually everywhere in the run-up to a possible vote. No doubt his team will launch a very visible and strong local campaign. I think this will make the difference against a Tory machine populated largely by recruits from Ottawa and elsewhere.
The NDP's Tom King is a strong candidate, although probably not as well known locally as either Valeriote or Kovach. He'll draw some votes, however he starts off the race clearly in third place. The last NDP candidate won only 22% of the vote.
It's true that Chamberlain was seen as one of the most socially conservative members of the Liberal caucus and local Guelph voters knew it. Her initial opposition to same sex marriage (something I wasn't too pleased about), plus her stands on other issues didn't endear her to local progressives. That's why the NDP polled as well as it did in Guelph in 2004 (with 20%) and in 2006 (with 22%.) But now with Chamberlain gone and the Green Party on the rise, I think the NDP is going to see a drop, not a rise in its Guelph support, despite King's best efforts.
At this point, I'd say King has a solid shot of holding onto third place over the Greens' Mike Nagy, who I expect will see his vote rise considerably from the 9% he got in 2006. Last October, the Greens took 3rd place with 20% of the vote in Guelph in the provincial election with a stronger candidate. Still the Greens have been doing very well in by-elections lately, so I'd expect Nagy to get at least 15% this time.
That'll cut into support for all three major parties. In the end, I suspect and hope Valeriote's strong local organization will pull out a victory for the Grits. Of course, we'll have to see what happens between then and now in Ottawa.
I would describe Guelph as a progressive town and not just because the University of Guelph is the city's biggest employer. I'd say that Guelph voters are generally more progressive than their neighbours in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and London. The Tories would, no doubt, love to win it. However, considering their nomination shenanigans, I'd say they've shot themselves in the feet.