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Incumbent MP in solid Tory riding takes nothing for granted

If history is any guide, the riding of Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies is Bob Zimmer's until he doesn't want it anymore. With 39 days until Canadians go to the polls, the Conservative incumbent leads the race in most every way.
Conservative candidate and incumbent MP Bob Zimmer at the opening of his Dawson Creek office Wednesday.

If history is any guide, the riding of Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies is Bob Zimmer's until he doesn't want it anymore.

With 39 days until Canadians go to the polls, the Conservative incumbent leads the race in most every way.

No pollster has sampled voters in the riding, probably because Zimmer won by a 36 per cent margin in 2011.

His riding association had $21,000 in the bank going into the race, compared to the second-place NDP's $0.

He has campaign offices in Prince George, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek — his NDP and Liberal challengers have one apiece. The lawn sign war isn't even close.

But if Zimmer feels sure of his chances, he doesn't say so.

"I don't assume anyone [who voted for me last time] will vote for me again," he said, in an interview with the Alaska Highway News at his newly-opened Dawson Creek campaign office on Wednesday.

"We have one of the strongest ridings for the Conservatives in the province, but I don't believe any of us are safe, we need to work hard."

With his party sagging in the polls as the race ramps up, Zimmer may face a tougher battle this time around.

Zimmer won his first campaign in 2011, but his political roots stretch back to when he joined the Reform Party at age 19.

Born in Dawson Creek, Zimmer described his family as "longtime Socreds (Social Credit Party members) from back in the day" who encouraged involvement in politics.

Early in his career, Zimmer worked in the oil patch and as a carpenter before taking a rugby coaching job and a degree at Trinity Western University. During that time, he got involved with the local Reform party riding association, and when he moved back to Fort St. John for a job as a shop teacher, he quickly became president of the local riding association.

He still remembers the day he joined the Reform Party in Jay Hill's office in 1988.

"I believed in the cause, in cleaning up Ottawa and having honest people in government," he said.

Hill held the riding for both Reform and the Canadian Alliance from 1993 to 2010, when he retired from politics.

Before that, the region's MP was Frank Oberle, Sr., a former Chetwynd mayor and immigrant who, as a child growing up in occupied Poland, was forced into a Hitler Youth indoctrination camp and fled the advancing Red Army at the war's end.

A one-time Mulroney cabinet minister, Oberle retired from politics before the 1993 rout that reduced the party to two seats. So while Zimmer takes nothing for granted, there is no example of a Conservative MP losing an election in northeast B.C.

His opponents hope to break that precedent. They include former Fort Nelson First Nation chief Kathi Dickie for the NDP, educator Matt Shaw for the Liberals, former Fort Nelson activist and environmentalist Liz Biggar for the Green Party, and Todd Keller, who is running on Zimmer's right as a Libertarian.

Zimmer will likely face tough questions on his support for Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terror legislation. The bill is already creating trouble for Conservatives in Northern B.C. In the Cariboo-Prince George riding, National Firearms Association president Sheldon Clare opted to run as an independent, citing disillusionment over the bill.

Zimmer defended his vote, saying the new powers granted to law enforcement are frequently overstated. He said a terror arrest in Fort St. John earlier this year showed the need for new legislation.

"We're in a world where we need to be paying closer attention to some of these cells in Canada ... it was just a matter of time before it popped up in Fort St. John," he said. "It's not a police state where we can see everything all the time."   

Zimmer also responds quickly to the common critique of party politics: that MPs end up representing the views of Ottawa back to their ridings rather than vice versa.

Asked to give an example of a time he advocated for regional issues, Zimmer cited a recent decision to relax federal taxes on liquefied natural gas projects. The so-called accelerated capital cost allowance will save LNG companies around $50 million and, he hopes, encourage investment.

"I've stood before the prime minister many times asking for a change from the way things are going," he said. "There are times I can't speak about what happens in caucus, but that's what caucus is for."

On the allowance, "[Harper] listened to me specifically and [B.C. Senator] Richard Neufeld as well, and that's why we have it. The prime minister wants to make sure that ... he understands local issues."

Zimmer is also one of the more socially conservative members of the Conservative caucus, describing himself as a "pro-life guy" who supports traditional marriage.

Open debate on the issues are not encouraged in caucus, but Zimmer says he and more liberal members of the party "get along" well.

"There are a lot of us in caucus with the same views [on marriage and abortion], but within the Conservative camp, there are traditional marriage folks and people who are more liberal and think it's a more open thing. That's all under the same banner. We learn to get along."

The election is Oct. 19.