Written by Amy Gregson
“Hi. I’m Kirk Schmidt and I’m running as an Independent in the Federal election. I’m here to see if you are looking for a change in representation or a change in policies.” Some people laugh, others congratulate him.
photos: David Bell
It’s a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon in September. The sun is bright and the sky is clear. In the neighborhood of Christine Park in Calgary’s southwest, just off of Sarcee Trail, you see a perfect view of the downtown skyline from the main street. People are outside cleaning their cars or doing yard work. It’s a lovely day for a federal candidate to get out and garner up some votes for the 40th Canadian federal election.
Kirk Schmidt, 26, is dressed in a black suit, and armed with pamphlets about his campaign. At every door, Schmidt rings the doorbell and waits for someone to answer. When the door opens, he says, “Hi. I’m Kirk Schmidt and I’m running as an Independent in the Federal election. I’m here to see if you are looking for a change in representation or a change in policies.” Some people laugh, others congratulate him. Some tell him he doesn’t have a chance.
Last fall, Schmidt took on an impossible task, running alone without the recognition and financial support of a major political party in a Canada. Only three independent in Canada have been elected to Parliament since 1997. The majority of candidates who run with the support of a major political party don’t get elected. But running as an independent in an election against an incumbent of 11 years is even tougher.
Schmidt ran in the Calgary West riding. It hosts a number of major Calgary landmarks including the Alberta Children’s and Foothills hospitals, the University of Calgary and McMahon Stadium. Stephen Harper won in this riding with the Reform Party of Canada in 1993. Holding the seat since 1997 is Rob Anders, BA, political science, the University of Calgary. During this time, Anders was a member of the Reform Party on campus as well as the debate and speech society. Prior to being elected, Anders directed the Canadians Against Forced Unionism, a project of the National Citizens’ Coalition. He founded the Laissez-faire Club, a forum for political debate, and in 1995 and was the spokesperson for the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Speaker’s Bureau. Anders was first elected to the House of Commons with the Reform Party of Canada and then in 2000, with the Canadian Alliance. In the past three elections, he has been elected as a member of the Conservative Party. Anders has always received more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Kirk Schmidt was the first Independent to run against Anders. It was said that Anders was not well liked by some residents in the riding. While going door to door in Christine Park many residents expressed this concern. “I want to vote Conservative,” said one homeowner, “but I don’t like Rob Anders.” During the campaign, Anders had also been criticized for not attending a senior’s debate at the Spruce Cliff Community Association because he said he was double-booked. “In Calgary West, there is an incumbent who is not well-like by a lot of people,” said Schmidt. “But, people felt that there has been a lack of opportunity for change. They don’t necessarily want to vote for a Liberal or NDP or Green. It provides me an opportunity to be an independent, to try and offer the change that we weren’t able to do last time.”
Schmidt felt like he didn’t fit into just one party, so he ran as an Independent. He said that sometimes he would agree with one and other times with the other. “I can vote how the people here want me to vote.” His wife, Robyn, said she always knew he wanted to be in politics, even before they got married and wasn’t surprised when he was going to run as an Independent. “The financial part was a bit scary, especially taking a leave from work. I knew it would be tough, but I know that he like challenges.”
Schmidt classifies himself as a small-c Conservative and usually agrees with the Conservatives. “My whole thing running as an Independent is that I can work with the NDP, the Greens and the Liberals on environmental things, work with the Conservatives on crime and justice and not be pigeon-holed to one party.” As an Independent candidate, Schmidt felt like he could offer people an alternative voice in the House of Commons. People felt like he would be splitting the vote, which he didn’t see as an issue. “The only vote I am splitting is the conservative vote, which is precisely what I’m out to do.” Also running in the Calgary West riding was Jennifer Pollock for the Liberal Party, Green candidate Randy Weeks, NDP’s Teale Phelps Bondaroff, and Marxist Leninist candidate Andre Vachon.
Offering change as an independent is difficult. Duane Bratt, a political science instructor at Mount Royal College, said that it’s tough to win as an Independent. “Even if they are known, people vote based on party affiliation. They don’t care who their local candidate is.” It was tough for Schmidt despite visiting approximately 5,000 houses, dropping approximately 40,000 brochures and raising $17,000 to pay for costs. The campaign office was run out of Schmidt’s garage, which made getting volunteers difficult. The financial situation was also challenging. Schmidt took a leave of absence from his job as an IT Analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society to focus on the campaign, which he said was hard on the pocketbook. The rules about collecting donations as an Independent are also different. Independents can only raise $1,100 per donor and issue tax receipts during the actual campaign. This differs from political parties who can raise $1,100 per donor per year.
Bratt said that even if an Independent gets elected to Parliament, they have very little effect on the House of Commons. They also don’t get to sit on committees or get research staff. “The only chance that an Independent really has at winning is if they are the incumbent and they have left the party for one reason or another.” If he did win, Schmidt said that he would sit as an Independent in Parliament and not switch parties. “Being able to sit as an Independent is really important for being able to do what the riding wants me to do. If I were to go against that I would do what I find horrible in modern politics.”
Friend and campaign manager Gerry Hart said when Schmidt said he was going to run independently he knew it would be an uphill battle. “Kirk has a mind of his own and his own life strategy, so I was very supportive,” said Hart. He describes Schmidt as a very committed person, to people, his wife and his family, and as a hard worker with a high level of integrity. “One downfall is that he doesn’t sleep much, but he will grow out of that.” Hart said Schmidt had a lot of ideas about what he wanted to achieve in the campaign and they worked to make it happen. “I think he is very good with debates and connecting with the people that connect with him. He’s a bit on the shy side. He is not aggressively outgoing. But he is very much committed to the political process and that’s what he believes in.”
Kirk Schmidt grew up in Lethbridge and studied at the University of Waterloo, receiving a math degree in 2004. In his second year of university, there was a disagreement between the university and the student union. Schmidt posted his ideas about what should happen next between the two on an opinion board, and everything happened the way he said it would. People started looking to Schmidt for political advice. Schmidt then ran for president of his residence but lost by 12 votes. The following year he was the treasurer for the student council. After finishing his degree, Schmidt moved back to Alberta and settled in Calgary so his wife could complete a master’s in biomedical engineering at the U of C. They have lived in the Calgary West riding for two of the last four years.
Schmidt was Gerry Hart’s campaign manager when Hart ran as a Liberal in Calgary Fort during the 2004 provincial election. Hart went to school with Schmidt’s father, but said they connected as adults. This was the first campaign for both. They weren’t expected to win, but increased the Liberal vote from the previous election. The campaign showed Schmidt how a party needs to run from a political perspective, how a campaign needs to be run, and what’s important and what’s not. “You have your hands in everything. You’re working with volunteers and then getting signs out. I went door knocking a few times, worked the phones a few times. You’re dealing with the media. It’s very busy, very stressful but just really interesting because you get to know so much about campaigning in such a small amount of time.” Hart said Schmidt was excellent as a campaign manager. “He has strong strategy skills, strong technical skills from a website development and strong analytical skills. He brought a lot of skills and commitment to the campaign.”
Schmidt said he learned the tricks politicians used, especially for door knocking. He found that Sundays were an unproductive day and that certain communities wouldn’t open their doors after dark. He found that main streets had already been door knocked by politicians or parties. “We noticed that people are door knocking the main street to try and get signs for visibility, but weren’t talking to people deeper in. You think you would try and talk to everybody rather than just the people who make it easiest to show off your campaign,” he said. Schmidt found that people on side streets are appreciative to see a politician at their door and more willing to tell people about him. Yet this may mean, not having a sign on every main street.
Schmidt said he considered running in the 2006 election, but decided not to because of Christmas and he didn’t want to ask people for money. He said he wasn’t prepared to run and started setting everything up for the next election. Talk of an impending election happened in October 2007. Schmidt organized a speech in the community of Silver Springs and went out door knocking. An election wasn’t called and Schmidt slowed down. This spring, election talks started again when the government was dealing with the budget and John Manley’s environmental report. The Schmidt campaign started getting ready, but nothing happened and they slowed down again. Schmidt saw the signs again in the summer of 2008 when Stephane Dion started preparing the Green Shift Plan.
When Parliament didn’t resume on September 15, 2008, and Stephen Harper called it dysfunctional, Schmidt and his team did some last minute planning. When the election was officially called, Schmidt said the groundwork had been there for such a long time everything went according to plan. “You can plan for as many years as you want, but that day’s called and butterflies are in the stomach and you realize that this is it. It brings out every emotion possible.”
Schmidt said the main difference between his views and those of the Conservative party had to do with environmental policies. Schmidt said that the Conservative Party basically has no environmental plan, yet it is something he cares about. “It’s very obvious to me that there are easy solutions by doing small things. I don’t think you need massive carbon-taxes. I think there are lots of things you can do before we start heading to those harsher solutions.” Schmidt said he has seen the benefits from using compact fluorescents and front-loading washers and it’s about working with technology that already exists and works within the economy. He wants to see more money put into research and development for green technology to help build Canada as a green leader. Schmidt agrees with the Conservatives on having tougher sentences for violent crimes and better legislation for Internet and computer based crimes.
On October 9, 2008, an all-candidates forum was held at the University of Calgary. Students eating lunch gathered with community members in the renovated part of McEwan Hall to hear Schmidt along with Anders, Pollock, Weeks and Bondaroff competed in a 90-minute debate on important issues. Schmidt realized early that he was at a disadvantage. The majority of the questions were based on what your party has done or what kind of funding will be promised. Schmidt said he was able to answer all the questions, reframe them and talk about what the implications are in other parts of society. “I ended up doing well, but it’s very difficult to compete against massive research teams with more official numbers.” In responses to questions asked, Schmidt expressed that he would like to see more funds for student loans, polling stations on campus and accessibility for anyone who wants to attend post-secondary schools. In non-education related issues discussed, Schmidt said he would like to see investments towards affordable housing, proper sentences for crimes, rehabilitation for under-age offenders and to make sure we keep our stance on staying out of Iraq.
At the debate, one onlooker kept saying that Anders had no personality. He mainly kept his head down, kept to his notes and read off the Conservative party platform. Schmidt said that he had caught sight of two highly-positioned people in the Conservative party in attendance that day and believed that Anders was told to stick to the notes. Schmidt had a reaction when Anders read off the policy saying they would put young offenders in adult jail for break and enters.
“It completely confused me. It wasn’t about calling him out. It was about calling out the policy and making everybody go ‘That was dumb.’” Schmidt and Robyn both felt his strongest point was his closing statement. “An MP only represents you half of the year in the House of Commons, the other half it’s about advocating for you,” he said. “It’s about being active in the community and finding out what you want. So as an independent, I can represent your voice directly. I’m not beholden to a party’s policy, they don’t tell me what I say and I say exactly what needs to be said for this riding. I represent you all the time.”
October 14, 2008, was Election Day in Canada. Kirk and Robyn Schmidt said they woke up early and voted when the polls opened at 7:30 a.m.
“It was a little bit odd seeing my own name there,” said Schmidt, “especially putting it in the ballot box right after that, knowing there was at least one vote for me.” Robyn said voting for Schmidt was probably the best part of the campaign for her.
“I have never been so emotional for doing something so easy as putting an X,” said Robyn. “I’m standing there waiting, they are checking our I.D., and I have butterflies and in my head I’m like, ‘Okay, It’s not that hard.” Then it was a lot of waiting, until 7 p.m. when friends and family gather at their house to watch the results and celebrate.
“As the votes started coming in, we realized very quickly I wasn’t even close to contesting it. We just started celebrating every hundred mark. Oh, 500 votes. Yah! Have a drink.” Andres won the riding for the fifth consecutive time with approximately 57 per cent, receiving more than 34,500 votes. Schmidt received 1,790, about 3 per cent of the vote, behind the four main party’s candidates. “I was hoping for closer to 10 per cent of the vote, so three per cent was a little bit hard to take.” Schmidt said, “We realized we pulled off something pretty incredible,” when comparing his campaign to the other 71 independent candidates. Schmidt ranked ninth out of 71 in terms of percentage of votes received. Two of the top eight were elected in as Independents by their riding, Andre Arthur from Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier southwest of Quebec City and Bill Casey from the Nova Scotia riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit riding. (Casey had been kicked out of the Conservative party for voting against the party’s budget in a protest over offshore energy money in June 2007. This was the fifth time Casey has been elected to the House of Commons.) Two Independent candidates in Alberta were in the top eight, Calgary Northeast candidate Roger Richard and Edmonton-Sherwood Park candidate James Ford, who was narrowly beaten by the Conservative candidate Tim Uppal. Both had a lot of supporters. Other independent candidates were either well known in their community or had been kicked out of their previous party.
Schmidt placed the best out of the unknown Independents. After running, Schmidt realized that even though there was talk of wanting change, not enough people actively wanted change. One of his goals was to split the Conservative vote, which didn’t happen. Anders only lost about one per cent of his vote from the last election. The only people who gained percentage of votes in were Schmidt and Randy Weaks.
As for his future plans, Schmidt realized that he wanted to join the Conservative party and help develop policy. He bought his Conservative membership because he always aligned closest to the Tories and felt he could invoke the most positive change within the party system.
“I think he is pretty awesome,” said Robyn. “It was a dream of his to be in politics and he just worked towards it and did a good job.” Schmidt said that he likes background and campaign strategy and only put himself in the candidate’s position because he didn’t think anyone else would. “I don’t need to be in the front. I would be perfectly fine staying in the background the rest of my life. I might run again, I might not. It really would depend on the circumstance.”