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BC Election 2013 Hot Riding: Chilliwack

The New Democrats are now a factor in the formerly rock-solid Liberal heartland.

By Doug Ward 19 Apr 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee election reporting team member Doug Ward formerly reported for the Vancouver Sun.

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Patti MacAhonic, former executive-director of the local Chamber of Commerce, rallies NDP supporters in her bid to take Chilliwack. Source: MacAhonic Facebook page.

CHILLIWACK -- It's true that the straight-laced, farm-bred, God-fearing influence of the Bible Belt still lingers in the political culture of the two Fraser Valley ridings here.

The BC Conservative candidate in the Chilliwack constituency, for example, is Chad Eros, a 37-year-old father of nine kids who once helmed a Christian Rock group called Drill. Eros is competing against BC Liberal John Martin and New Democrat Patti MacAhonic.

A local BC Liberal rebuked Eros on Twitter for seeking an MLA post in Victoria that would leave his wife back home looking after their large brood.

Eros replied on Twitter: "And that folks is how to earn an unfollow and nuke a bridge.

"Insult a man's commitment to his wife and kids."

Eros' election pamphlet has a political spectrum chart in which the BC Liberals are situated on the left and the NDP is located closer to communism and fascism than it is to the centre.

There are also still plenty of evangelical churches here, including the influential Alliance Church, which is attended by Eros -- and by Laurie Throness, the BC Liberal candidate in the adjacent riding of Chilliwack-Hope. Throness, whose father and brother have been pastors at the Alliance Church, hopes to unseat NDP incumbent Gwen O'Mahony.

But Chilliwack and other Fraser Valley towns are no longer dominated by the traditional values of evangelical Christianity.

Population growth has brought secular, big city, middle-class concerns to the Bible Belt -- a change that set the stage for the breakthrough NDP victory in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection last year.

The New Democrats are now a factor in the eastern part of the Fraser Valley, which has forever been a rock-solid part of the Social Credit and now BC Liberal heartland.

"There is a misconception of the Fraser Valley that is rooted in an image of what it was 20 or 30 years ago," said Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Telford said that there remains a strong religious, small-c conservative bloc in the Fraser Valley. "But its proportion is shrinking."

The Fraser Valley has had tremendous population growth in recent years, added the political scientist. "And with that has come a lot of young families with concerns about things like health care, schools and daycare -- and these are issues that are NDP issues."

A 'more open-minded' Chilliwack

This is why Premier Christy Clark and NDP leader Adrian Dix campaigned here on Wednesday. Clark, her party nearly 20 points behind in the polls, came to shore up two previously safe seats. Dix, his party in the ascendancy, is going to places where the NDP have only known defeat.

Speaking to supporters in Chilliwack, Dix said that his party's local candidates -- O'Mahony in Chilliwack-Hope and MacAhonic in Chilliwack -- "are changing the way people see politics in the Fraser Valley."

The NDP believes that O'Mahony has established enough of a profile that she could retain her seat in a very close race with BC Liberal Throness, who is expected to do better in this general election than he did in the byelection.

The New Democrats are also optimistic that MacAhonic, former executive-director of the local Chamber of Commerce, can squeak out a victory in Chilliwack, a riding previously considered more favourable to the NDP than Chilliwack-Hope where they won.

"I think we're getting different demographics out here," said MacAhonic, after Dix's speech. "We have a lot more small businesses. And people are just becoming a lot more open-minded."

Local people want government action on a range of issues, including Chilliwack's ailing city centre, added MacAhonic. "The downtown is just dead. The life has been sucked right out of it.  We need to look at doing different things."

Among the migrants to Chilliwack supporting MacAhonic is Anne-Marie Owen who owns a coffee shop in the city's Five Corners area. "There are more people here now who want to see things progress. And they want change and a new face. Everybody I know are former Liberals who've switched to the NDP, including myself."

MacAhonic's campaign manager Bryan McIver, a veteran NDP organizer, remembers when New Democrats were a rare breed in the area.

"The Fraser Valley has been Socred or BC Liberal almost since the beginning of time. But Chilliwack has changed. People are moving here. They are commuting into Vancouver or Surrey for work," said McIver.

"It's not just the Bible Belt anymore. It's become suburbia. Housing is cheaper out there. I live in the eastern part of Chilliwack and there are a fair number of lower-income people there. It's very much like East Vancouver."

A beachhead byelection

McIver said that O'Mahony's win in the Chilliwack-Hope byelection established a beachhead in the region for the NDP. "That byelection really shook things up and I can imagine the BC Liberals are really uptight about it."

No one doubts that the NDP will do better in the Chilliwack riding than ever before. But MacAhonic will only win if there is a huge collapse of BC Liberal support. The NDP trailed by over 2,200 votes last time -- a daunting gap.

582px version of BC Conservative Chad Eros
Chilliwack Conservative candidate Chad Eros, a 37-year-old father of nine, refuses to be called a vote splitter. Source: Eros Facebook page.

Criminologist John Martin, the BC Liberal candidate in Chilliwack, is warning about the danger of the Conservatives splitting the right-wing "free enterprise" vote. And he should know.

Martin was the Conservative candidate in the 2012 Chilliwack-Hope byelection. He took 25 per cent of the vote, allowing New Democrat O'Mahony to slip up the middle.

Martin, once denounced as a vote-splitter, is now attacking his Conservative rival Eros for doing the same thing. On his website, newly-converted BC Liberal Martin said his Chilliwack-Hope byelection loss forced him to wise-up.

"Two important lessons were learned during that byelection. First, when the free enterprise vote is split between two parties, the NDP wins. End of story. The second lesson is that free enterprisers in the riding made it abundantly clear they were sticking with today's BC Liberals rather than supporting an upstart third party."

Conservative Eros, a business consultant, rejects the vote-splitter label (just as Martin did last year), saying that BC Liberals and the NDP are both "huge-government" parties of the left -- and that true small-c conservatives will give him their vote.

"A conservative wants to vote for a Conservative candidate. They are self-sufficient, business-owning, do-it-myself people. They don't need a nanny state."

Eros, in his campaign pamphlet, recalls how Martin, when he was the Conservative candidate, said of the BC Liberals: "Theirs is a legacy of deceit, incompetence and financial mismanagement."  [Tyee]

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