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Now It’s Nenshi’s Party

With no seat or clear agenda, the Alberta NDP newbie won an ‘incredible’ mandate to lead. Here’s why.

Graham Thomson 24 Jun 2024The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

Alberta’s NDP is no longer the party of Rachel Notley. Now it belongs to Naheed Nenshi — an assessment that will no doubt rankle some longtime New Democrats.

But the former Calgary mayor didn’t just win the party’s leadership race on Saturday; he crushed his opponents, including two who were part of the old Notley government.

All the talk during the four-month-long campaign of a troubling split between traditional NDP members and newcomers never materialized. Any doubt evaporated the moment the results were announced. Of the 72,930 members who voted, 62,746 (86 per cent) supported Nenshi — a number that Nenshi said was the largest number of votes for any provincial party leader in Canadian history.

“This is no longer Notley’s party,” said one longtime party insider who worked for one of the losing campaigns and spoke to The Tyee on condition of anonymity. “We couldn’t counter his argument that he was the one who could beat Danielle Smith.”

That’s what the race came down to: who is the candidate most likely to defeat Smith and the United Conservative Party government in the 2027 election?

Nenshi, the best-known of the candidates by far, who drew in crowds by the hundreds, offered a vision that managed to be anti-Smith but also pro-Alberta.

“The stories I was hearing from our premier and our government, the place they were describing, didn’t feel like our home,” said Nenshi in his victory speech. “They were describing an Alberta where everyone is against us, an Alberta where we need to fight outsiders all the time, an Alberta where we should be scared to change instead of embracing and leading the future. That is not Alberta. Alberta is not small. Alberta is not small-minded. Because as we all know, it is impossible to think small under a sky that big.”

Also playing into the political math of Nenshi’s leadership victory was a lingering frustration, even anger, that the NDP lost the 2023 election to someone as controversial and unpopular as Smith. “Members were mad; the feeling was visceral,” said the insider, who added that although party members adore Rachel Notley, many felt she “blew it” by announcing a corporate tax hike during the campaign.

The NDP leadership race wasn’t about policy promises or even loyalty to the NDP. Nenshi has been critical of the NDP in the past and during last year’s election said he would vote for the party as a way to stop the UCP.

In fact, he joined the party only this year to enter the race.

However, his outsider status helped persuade non-aligned progressives like himself to buy a membership with the understanding that the NDP is much more mainstream than its critics claim. “I talked to so many of you, to members of this party in every corner of this province, and I realized I do have a political home. My political home is here in the Alberta NDP.”

Before a clapping audience, a man with dark hair, dark-rimmed glasses and medium-toned complexion stands with dozens of people of different ages and ethnicities on a stage with an 'Alberta NDP' sign behind them.
‘My political home is here in the Alberta NDP,’ said Nenshi after winning the leadership. ‘We couldn’t counter his argument that he was the one who could beat Danielle Smith,’ said one insider, echoing others. Photo for The Tyee by Graham Thomson.

One issue that did divide the leadership candidates during a largely collegial campaign dealt with Nenshi’s argument that it is time for the Alberta NDP to cut formal ties with the federal NDP.

The candidate most opposed was Sarah Hoffman, a veteran NDP MLA who was health minister during the one-term Notley government.

However, Hoffman received just 3,063 votes (four per cent of all ballots cast).

Likewise, another candidate and longtime party member, MLA Kathleen Ganley, did not perform nearly as well as predicted by collecting only 5,899 votes (eight per cent). First-time MLA Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse received 1,222 votes (two per cent).

Even though many members didn’t seem to care about the federal NDP as an issue, “those who do care are very loud,” said the party insider. It could yet create a headache for Nenshi.

A more immediate headache is getting a seat in the legislature.

Nenshi says he’s in no rush and doesn’t seem interested in contesting a yet-to-be-called byelection in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge currently held by about-to-retire NDP MLA Shannon Phillips.

It’s more likely a Calgary-based NDP MLA will step down to give Nenshi a much more winnable seat. There’s now even speculation he could run in Notley’s riding of Edmonton-Strathcona if she steps down as MLA relatively soon.

It is an understatement to say Nenshi’s emergence as leader has energized the NDP.

“We come away united, we come away united behind one person who has an incredible mandate to move forward,” said Cheryl Oates, a former communications director for Notley who admitted to feeling a profound sadness that “Rachel’s era is over.”

But it’s not clear what Nenshi’s leadership mandate means to the future direction of the NDP.

He made a point during the leadership campaign to not make policy promises, saying that would be premature with the next election more than three years away.

The only thing clear for the NDP, and Alberta, is that the Notley era is over, and a new, unknown Nenshi era has begun.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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