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Nenshi Braves Edmonton. He Needn’t Have Worried

Stumping to lead Alberta’s NDP, the former Calgary mayor got a warm welcome from what might have been a tough crowd.

David Climenhaga 28 Mar 2024The Tyee

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

Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi may have started his campaign to lead Alberta’s NDP with harsh words about Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party, but he adopted a softer tone Tuesday night for his first campaign meeting with Edmonton New Democrats.

Nenshi repeated his signature shot at the United Conservative Party from his March 11 leadership campaign launch — “this government is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, they’re not only incompetent, they’re dangerous, and they’re immoral.”

But the point of Tuesday’s Edmonton visit was clearly to make a positive impression on what could have turned out to be a critical audience of Edmonton New Democrats.

In the event, it seems as if he needn’t have worried.

Nenshi probably didn’t even need to struggle into an Edmonton Oilers jersey and tell his audience that “you may not often see me in this, but I promise you this: I’m gonna show up for Edmonton.” (He was loudly and cheerfully applauded, and not just for that line.)

The man’s a natural comedian and a fine orator, so he got lots of laughs and didn’t struggle to speak without notes or a teleprompter.

But standing alone on an unadorned stage — without even the driving music typical of contemporary political campaigns — he did try hard to touch on all themes that would warm the hearts of old-style New Democrats and appeal to newcomers to the party as well.

And there were plenty of old-style NDPers there — so there was no shortage of grey hair in last night’s audience.

As leader and premier, Nenshi promised, he’d listen to experts, pay attention to science. He’d respect health-care workers and find ways to show it. He’d try to broaden the NDP coalition but remember to be grateful for the remarkable talents of retiring NDP Leader Rachel Notley and the traditional New Democrats who supported her.

He covered all the topics you’d expect a New Democrat leadership hopeful to touch on — the environment, health care, the Canada Pension Plan, inclusion and minority rights — without too many details on policy questions.

He didn’t touch topics that might be less popular in Orange Edmonton — like severing the provincial party from the federal NDP or changing the name of the party.

When he showed up, looking tired, Nenshi was greeted by a packed house at the Polish Hall across the street from the Royal Alexandra Hospital. The room has a capacity of 600 with theatre seating, but with standing room only around the edges and a full gallery at the back, it looked like at least 100 more than that came out for the dinner-hour meeting.

Quite a few were merely curious, naturally, but there was real warmth in the hall — and it wasn’t just the heat generated by 700 people in a single room.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact former candidate Rakhi Pancholi, MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud — who had dropped out of the race earlier Tuesday and urged her supporters to vote for Nenshi — was there with her family and her campaign team.

But if any old-style New Democrats distrustful of a guy wearing purple socks and an orange tie at the same time were in the room, they were too polite to show it with catcalls or even frowns last night.

Likewise, for those right-wing columnists who predicted dreamily that the Orange heartland of Edmonton would turn against Nenshi for being too closely associated with the Alberta Party of yore, or not enthusiastic enough about the NDP in last year’s provincial election, it didn’t happen yesterday.

It sure looked, for one night anyway, as if Nenshi is as popular in Edmonton as he is in Calgary, maybe even more so given the preponderance of NDP voters in this town.

So what was heard Tuesday night was a message that emphasized hope and inclusion — more Barack Obama than Donald Trump, more Jack Layton than Pierre Poilievre — and his audience at the Polish Hall responded enthusiastically.

Nenshi spoke for almost 40 minutes, and the crowd didn’t seem to flag or grow impatient.

Can he keep this up until June 22? Almost certainly not.

His remaining challengers — Kathleen Ganley, Sarah Hoffman, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and Gil McGowan — will doubtless sharpen their attacks and may even draw a little blood.

And as Alberta’s Conservatives have certainly demonstrated more than once, frontrunner isn’t necessarily the best place to start a party leadership race — and that’s the spot Nenshi most certainly occupies at this moment.

But it’s sure hard to argue he isn’t riding the crest of a wave right now.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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