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Naheed Nenshi’s First Smooth Moves

The new Alberta NDP leader makes smart picks for top jobs in the party and aims for the road.

David Climenhaga 25 Jun 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on X at @djclimenhaga.

In a sure-footed move, Alberta NDP Leader Naheed Nenshi today named Christina Gray as leader of the opposition until he wins a seat in the legislature.

Gray, who has represented the Edmonton-Mill Woods riding since 2015, will serve as opposition leader in addition to continuing in her previous role as NDP House leader, Nenshi told a brief early afternoon news conference Monday in the Queen Elizabeth II Building on the legislative building grounds in downtown Edmonton.

As everybody understands, for strategic reasons Nenshi is in no hurry to seek election to the House when he can leave that job in Gray’s capable hands and get on with the important work of campaigning in every corner of Alberta, which, after all, is how to actually win elections.

The new NDP leader also named former candidate Rakhi Pancholi, who stepped out of the race and endorsed his candidacy on March 26, as deputy leader of the NDP, his official sidekick.

This was also a shrewd move that rewards the support of the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud with a prestigious position while leaving the arguably more important parliamentary job to an experienced MLA who is respected and liked among NDP caucus members and staff.

Pancholi, a well-spoken lawyer who was first elected in 2019 and lacks cabinet experience, will be needed in the months ahead outside the legislature. Nenshi told the news conference that talking to Albertans in their communities will become the focus of greater emphasis than during former leader Rachel Notley’s tenure.

Wearing an Edmonton Oilers jersey under a conservative grey suit jacket and exuding confidence, Nenshi told a reporter: “I’m in no rush to get a seat, I don’t much care about titles.... I actually think that having not been in the legislature before, having been in politics in a different way, I bring a set of fresh eyes to the situation.”

What he really meant, as he went on to admit, is “I really want to ensure that we’re out in the community talking to Albertans.”

“We’re going to be less focused on having the perfect question period zinger and much more focused on… building a vision of a better Alberta with the rest of Albertans,” he said, adding, “I likely will not run in Lethbridge-West.” A byelection is expected in that riding soon as a result of the resignation of MLA and former NDP minister Shannon Phillips.

If this doesn’t worry Premier Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party government, it should, as Nenshi has already proved repeatedly he knows how to win elections and is now laying out a strategy that is more likely to engage voters than one that emphasizes what he dismissively summed up as dome disease.

And this does seem to have thrown the UCP into a panic, at least for now, judging from the frenetic buzzing and hysterical cries emitted by the army of anonymous bots turned loose on social media today. It’s only Nenshi’s first full day on the job and already the UCP online auxiliary is starting to sound as if it works for the opposition.

Alberta NDP Leader Naheed Nenshi at Monday’s news conference flanked by Christina Gray, left, the new leader of the opposition, and deputy party leader Rakhi Pancholi, right. Screenshot via NDP livestream video.

As for Gray, she is not a showboat, just one of the most competent MLAs in the NDP caucus.

Many New Democrats were disappointed when she didn’t run for the leadership after pondering the idea for a spell, and they will be glad to see her in the role. Her appointment will please many traditional New Democrats who worried Nenshi might drift too far from the party’s roots, even if it’s not enough to completely satisfy what some insiders call the Strathcona mafia.

The former computer software developer also has cabinet experience, as holder of the difficult labour portfolio in Notley’s government, where she earned the respect of the province’s union leaders without giving them everything they wanted.

On her watch, she restored some sanity and balance to Alberta’s labour legislation, only to see it mostly dismantled in Jason Kenney’s Trump-like post-election spree of undoing anything that had been touched by the NDP, his so-called “Summer of Repeal.” In cabinet, she pushed hard for an increase in the minimum wage.

Unlike some other former ministers, who could be extremely difficult to work with, Gray is also well liked by her former political staffers, who even say nice things about her behind her back.

More changes will be coming in the next few weeks, Nenshi said. The legislature is not scheduled to sit again until Oct. 28.

Earlier in the day, Nenshi met with Notley, who has now resigned that post although she remains an MLA, posing for photos in their Oilers jerseys — orange and blue for the former leader and white for the incoming one. I’ll leave it to readers to puzzle out the implications of that.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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