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Naheed Nenshi eyed as front-runner as deadline looms in Alberta NDP leadership race

Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on Monday, March 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on Monday, March 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
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As a key deadline looms Monday in the leadership contest for Alberta's New Democrats, numbers and opinion suggest it remains Naheed Nenshi’s race to lose.

Members have until Monday night — with a midnight deadline — to buy a membership in order to cast a vote on June 22 on who will replace Rachel Notley as NDP leader and head of the Opposition.

Nenshi, a former Calgary mayor, has been drawing hundreds to party events and has already seen leadership rival Rakhi Pancholi read the numbers and quit the race to join his team.

He’s the outsider challenging party mainstays Sarah Hoffman and Kathleen Ganley.

Nenshi, a three-term mayor, does not have a track record with the NDP. He has promised his brand of purple politics – a mix of conservative blue and liberal red – is the common-sense hue Albertans seek.

He's been running a campaign primarily on what he opposes rather than what he proposes.

He has criticized Premier Danielle Smith’s governing United Conservative Party for regressive social politics on transgender youth and for picking partisan fights with the federal government.

Nenshi said he is depending on party members to develop an agenda ahead of the 2027 provincial election.

"We don't really know what additional hell the UCP is going to wreak on us over the next three years," Nenshi said in an interview.

Smith says Albertans lose no matter who wins given the provincial NDP takes orders from the federal wing and — given the NDP-Liberal power sharing deal in Ottawa — makes Notley’s successor yet another compliant errand runner to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"There's nothing that differentiates them,” Smith told reporters last week in answer to a question about her criticism of Nenshi’s campaign.

Nenshi said the party, which swept Edmonton and captured the most seats in Calgary in the 2023 election, is poised to grow quickly.

"They (Smith’s party) ought to be scared," he said.

But before taking on Smith, Nenshi must defeat four candidates, including Hoffman, a former health minister, and Ganley, a former justice minister and fellow Calgarian.

Hoffman said sales are only one leg of the race.

When the deadline passes, she said, the “persuasion phase” begins.

“Just because somebody bought a membership through one person's website, or through one person's door knocking, doesn't mean that they're entitled to their vote,” said Hoffman at a news conference last week.

Ganley, who has focused on economic issues in her campaign, acknowledged Nenshi "might be the front-runner" but said her membership sales have skyrocketed.

"At this point, it's anyone's game," she said, noting there could be a shift in the base of the party's support from its traditional stronghold of Edmonton.

"People are being persuaded by ideas," she said.

The remaining two candidates are considered long shots. Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse is a rookie NDP legislature member and Gil McGowan is head of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

In interviews, both said they are turning heads once members hear their ideas for moving the party forward.

The party plans to publicly update its membership list by May 12.

As of December, it counted just over 16,000 members.

Party executive director Garett Spelliscy said in a statement Sunday, "This leadership race will be decided by the largest membership in the Alberta NDP’s 62-year history.”

Pancholi dropped out of the race in late March after saying she had seen figures indicating memberships had doubled since Nenshi put his hat in the ring.

Political observers say Nenshi is in the driver’s seat.

"If the vote happens tomorrow, it's a coronation," said political scientist Duane Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"The only way that I think Hoffman can pull this off, or Ganley can pull this off, is if they put enough doubt in the minds of those who bought memberships for Nenshi either to not show up or change their mind over the next two months.”

University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said it's unlikely those who buy a membership by the deadline will shift their vote.

"It's Nenshi's to lose,” said Young.

"I suspect that he knows that he has won this, and he's already looking forward to his next challenge, which is uniting the party behind him.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2014. 

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