British Columbia has a well-deserved reputation for politics that regularly wander off into the realm of bizarro-land. But rarely, if ever, has such strangeness found its way into the pristine, south Okanagan landscapes of Boundary-Similkameen.
Now, it has. Earlier this year, the political firewall that kept area ridings reasonably regular for so many years came tumbling down.
Within an hour or so of each other, both NDP candidate Marji Basso and Liberal incumbent John Slater, who had opted to run as an independent after party officials nixed his candidacy, abruptly announced they were withdrawing from the coming race for "personal reasons."
Neither provided further details, although Mr. Slater let loose a blast against unspecified "smear- and fear-based politics" and a "continual barrage of innuendos," which he continues to believe came from people inside the Liberal party.
Since Ms. Basso and Mr. Slater knew each other from their time in municipal politics, the rumour wagon was soon out in full force, as tongues wagged excitedly in local coffee shops about the sudden loss of two high-profile candidates on the same day.
"Everybody was talking, everybody had a scenario or story, some with really juicy kinds of stuff," says former Oliver mayor Linda Larson, subsequently acclaimed as the new Liberal candidate.
"But there was never anything that came out publicly. We're a small town, and we all live together. Twice a week, I take muffins up to the high school where Marji's husband works. I see him every time, and we always exchange pleasantries."
The unexpected resignation of Ms. Basso, an Oliver school teacher and two-term councillor who had been campaigning tirelessly since 2011, knocked the NDP for a loop. Boundary-Similkameen was considered a swing seat, and the party had high hopes of taking a riding in an area where it has won in the past.
After scrambling to organize a second nomination contest, local New Democrats chose 65-year-old, retired teacher Sam Hancheroff, a lifelong resident of the riding, school board member and trustee of the Kaleden Irrigation District, to replace Ms. Basso.
Like everyone, Mr. Hancheroff says he was taken aback by events, but opted to toss his hat into the ring "because I believe I can effect change. I've got a thick skin. Things bounce off me, and I'm going to work very, very hard."
Conservative hopes rest with Mischa Popoff, a professed libertarian who took a look at the shenanigans embroiling the other two parties and decided to run. "First, Christy Clark dumped John Slater, then the NDP lost their candidate. I thought: 'That's it. I'm in.' "
Last election, the pre-John Cummins Conservatives took 20 per cent of the vote in Boundary-Similkameen, their best result in the province, though that may have been more of a personal endorsement of standard bearer Joe Cardoso, a disgruntled Liberal rejected as the party's candidate for criticizing then-premier Gordon Campbell.
Ms. Larson remains unruffled by all the commotion. "When the smoke cleared, I was still standing. There are no marks on me. I have my own profile." In fact, Ms. Larson, a retired businesswoman who speaks with great frankness, can't imagine how she could lose.
"I'm told Sam's a nice man, but he knows absolutely nothing about politics," she says. As for Mr. Popoff: "Obviously he had 75 people sign his nomination papers, but I don't think anyone would vote for him."
The big local issue in Boundary-Similkameen is water. With three distinct watersheds in the riding, preserving the supply of quality water is critical to rural homeowners and to the many who make a living from the soil, as Mr. Hancheroff does with his organic vineyard. "That's why I'm a water trustee," he says.
The Liberals, however, have put off legislation to replace the province's century-old Water Act. That angers both Mr. Hancheroff and Mr. Slater, who says he was cut from the legislative committee looking at the Water Act by Ms. Clark. "I don't know why they've dropped the ball on fixing legislation that is so outdated," he says. "It's a huge deal here."
Meanwhile, still bitter at being "deep-sixed" by the Liberals, Mr. Slater says he doesn't know how he will vote May 14. "I'm undecided."
Riding Snapshot: Boundary-Similkameen
2013 candidates Mischa Popoff , B.C. Conservatives
Sam Hancheroff , B.C. NDP
John Kwasnica , Green Party of B.C.
Linda Larson , B.C. Liberals
2009 election: Liberal John Slater won the riding with 37.45 per cent of the vote; NDP candidate Lakhvinder Jhaj came in second with 32.91 per cent; Conservative candidate Joe Cardoso was third with 20.16 per cent
Seniors, 65 and older, in private households: 26 per cent (B.C. average 14 per cent)
Average household income, before tax: $50,419 (B.C. average $67,675)