Sean Upshaw is sitting in a small but bright meeting room in his West Kelowna real estate as he reads out e-mails addressed to him.
The authors of the notes, some of them prominent community leaders in the South Okanagan, all say albeit in different words the same thing: We are outraged that the Conservative Party would circumvent democracy in denying you a chance to run for the official nomination and we wish you well in your run as an Independent Conservative against the official party candidate, Dan Albas.
This message gives Upshaw the appearance of a courageous underdog who has become the victim of a party that once ran on ridding the political system of cronyism, only to practice the very thing it had once preached against.
The question of whether local Conservatives around riding association president Doug Sharpe committed a wilful act of hypocrisy in nominating Albas through a shortened nomination process will receive a partial answer on May 2, when local voters go to the polls.
Albas, for his part, has denied all wrongdoing and it is not clear whether this controversy has registered in any significant way outside the circle of local Conservatives sympathetic towards Upshaw.
It has certainly generated some attention outside the riding. MacLean’s Magazine recently featured Upshaw’s story as part of large expose on the Conservative nomination process in ridings across British Columbia.
The article, which paints a less than flattering picture of the Conservative Party, quotes Simon Fraser University political scientist Alex Moens who called the various nomination controversies a “tremendously distasteful show of inside corruption,” a harsh indictment by any measure, but even more so if it comes from a Conservative party member like Moens.
“What we have now is a gap in the democratic process,” Moens told MacLean’s.
While Upshaw appreciates this kind of coverage, he realizes that his challenge of the nomination process can only carry him so far.
On one hand, it is the ultimate cause that led Upshaw to enter the race.
On the other hand, it could become the cause that could overshadow the candidate. Upshaw frames this dilemma like this.
“They (voters) need to understand why I’m here. But they also need to understand who I am.”
Upshaw was born in Edmonton, Alta. as the youngest of five children.
He said his parents divorced when he was just three years old and he ended up in foster homes and between parents.
At the age of 18, Upshaw said he nearly died when he was stung by more than 60 wasps after stepping on a yellow jackets nest.
Wasps swarmed him and he went into anaphylactic shock. “It was transformational and made me look at what I was doing and where I was going,” he told the Penticton Western News.
“It was a realignment of my values, and from that point forward it was a catalyst in what I found important,” said Upshaw. “It helped define me. There has been other moments that have defined me, but it certainly was a contributing factor. You start to realize I’ve got one life to live and I’ve got to live it right.”
Naturally, it doesn’t take much to link this message of integrity with the nomination process.
But it could also threaten to turn Upshaw into the political equivalent of a band that rises to stardom with one major hit, only to define it for the rest of their career.
Upshaw has tried to counter this perception by appearing to be more knowledgeable about the Conservative platform than Albas. He is also upfront about his desire to join the Conservative caucus should voters elect him.
But Upshaw’s stated desire to sit with the Conservative caucus raises a series of tricky questions: if Conservative insiders in Okanagan-Coquihalla thwarted his nomination process, as Upshaw claims, what role did party leaders in Ottawa play?
More importantly, why would the Conservatives welcome Upshaw into their ranks after he would have defeated their chosen nominee, Albas, whom he has called a “pawn.”
Upshaw has also criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper for being “harsh,” hardly a sure-fire path into his embrace.
Upshaw acknowledges this, but believes he can find his way into caucus.
“The Conservative Party should be like a family and if a family cannot confront itself in a professional . . . then they are dysfunctional,” he says.
For one, it not clear whether senior party leaders, including Harper himself, had any direct role in the nomination process. Party leaders might have also lacked all the information.
“I don’t think they were realizing whom they had elevated (to the nomination),” says Upshaw. “This said, I am forgiving person.”
In fact, Upshaw suggests it might be in the interest of the party to forget and forgive him in spelling out this scenario.
Should Upshaw win the riding, but the Conservatives fail to win a national majority, he could well end up holding the political fate of Harper in his hand.
“I could well be the balance of power,” says Upshaw. “He (Harper) gets me whether he wants me or not.”
But Upshaw knows he has to do something before he gets there.
“I want to move past being the quote, unquote disgruntled guy,” he says. “I’m bigger than that.”
— With files from Penticton Western News.