Relatives say the Wildrose leader has many pioneer-like qualities, such as resilience and persistence, along with the belief that change comes only from hard work, and hurdles are there to be overcome.
She also inherited much of her drive from her parents. Mother Sharon raised five children while studying first for a management certificate and later a commerce degree. She worked evenings at the post office while her husband, Doug, worked at Firestone until he, too, had a commerce degree. They both turned to jobs in the oil patch. Their tenacity wasn’t lost on their daughter.
“The family doesn’t take anything for granted,” says Elaine Smith, Sharon’s cousin. “They know the hard work of a rural life as well as a city one.”
Danielle’s first job was babysitting her younger siblings, Amber, Troy and Shane, sometimes with her older brother, Doug Jr., looking on. Then she moved to looking after neighbourhood kids. At 15 she graduated to better pay and work at the local bingo hall.
Her first interest in politics came at an early age, but from a surprising source. Inspired by her Grade 8 social science teacher, she came home extolling the virtues of communism.
Her father reminded his kids that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and that their great-grandfather was lucky to escape before his reign of terror began. Mr. Smith later had a few spirited words with the teacher, and then decided that everything should be open for discussion at the dinner table, especially politics. This was where his daughter learned the importance of free speech, and that facts were needed to win arguments.
A recent Wildrose campaign video features her reminiscing about those lively discussions: “The more kids there are, the more kids there are to fight with.” Today, she has persuaded every sibling save one to support Wildrose.
“I’ve got one brother I have to convince,” she says. “He has an EverGreen candidate in his riding. It’s a tough battle to get him to vote for me. The other three are very supportive.”
She enrolled at the University of Calgary to study English and political science, and was elected president of the campus Progressive Conservatives. It was like the Smith dinner table all over again, except this time her political siblings were future federal MPs Jason Kenney and Rob Anders, Sun TV pundit Ezra Levant, and Naheed Nenshi, now Calgary’s mayor.
University was also where she met her first husband, Sean McKinsley, a businessman who once worked as executive assistant to Mr. Kenney. The marriage ended in divorce, but the two remain cordial – Mr. McKinsley recently donated $5,000 to Wildrose.
The U of C also offered up two high-profile political mentors: Economist Frank Atkins and political scientist Tom Flanagan would jump-start her imagination, prompting her to look beyond preconceived political notions as she explored her free-market conservative values.
After Ms. Smith graduated, Mr. Flanagan urged her to take an internship with the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the high-profile conservative think tank. While at a Fraser event, she met one of her heroes, Margaret Thatcher. The former British prime minister was giving a lecture while on a sales tour for her memoir, Path to Power. Ms. Smith recalls being captivated by the woman who inspired French president François Mitterrand to comment that she had the eyes of Caligula, the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.
Mrs. Thatcher also knew that the best way to get attention in a room full of politicians, usually male, was to lower her voice – a trick that Ms. Smith has used to avoid appearing too strident.
In 1998, at 27, the future politician returned to Calgary, ready to put her conservative views into action. She became a trustee on the Calgary Board of Education, hoping to make the board more responsive to the public, especially to parents, and far less bureaucratic.
But her conservatism clashed with the Liberal majority and hostilities ran so deep that, in August, 1999, provincial Learning Minister Lyle Oberg fired the entire board, whose own chair had described as “completely dysfunctional.”
Today, Ms. Smith acknowledges her role in the board’s public breakdown, saying she was “more strident” and “not as open-minded.” The experience, she says, provided valuable lessons in what not to do as a politician – teaching her to listen to views she doesn’t share and to be more collegial.
CAREER IN THE MEDIA
Next, Ms. Smith caught the eye of then-Calgary Herald editor Peter Menzies, who hired her as an editorial writer. She joined an editorial board made up of men and women with strong views.
The reigning personality was the formidable Catherine Ford, who strode into the boardroom in her impressive attire and even more impressive left-liberal intellect. I, too, was a member of the board, and Ms. Ford and I sometimes sat together as we often had similar views. Across sat the 29-year old Ms. Smith, who by then had learned to lower her voice, along with her hemline (it was the age of Ally McBeal), as she honed her debating skill as well as her fashion sense.