Ex-mayor Nenshi loathes partisan politics. He may run for NDP leader anyway

Then-mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks while Patty Hajdu, the former federal health minister, looks on in 2020. He's currently sizing up a provincial run, to replace Rachel Notley as NDP leader. Notley announced last month she's stepping down.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Then-mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks while Patty Hajdu, the former federal health minister, looks on in 2020. He's currently sizing up a provincial run, to replace Rachel Notley as NDP leader. Notley announced last month she's stepping down. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Former Alberta justice minister Kathleen Ganley kicked off her bid Monday to lead the NDP, stressing her Calgary roots. By this time next week, Edmonton caucus mates Rakhi Pancholi, Sarah Hoffman and David Shepherd will likely have joined her in the race to replace the departing Rachel Notley.

That lineup of leadership candidates has been reported publicly for some time now, and campaign teams have been quietly jostling for support since at least last autumn. With no clear front-runner, it's shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and interesting NDP leadership contests anywhere in Canada in some time (they tend to be relatively sleepy affairs with little competition or none at all).

But the intrigue that seems to have gripped NDP-land and parts beyond is whether another figure jumps into the fray and injects even more excitement — one who just delivered his own head-turner of a political speech without formally saying a thing about whether he wants this job.

'We will fight!'

Naheed Nenshi, arguably Alberta's most compelling political speaker in recent memory, delivered the address that got folks talking at a Calgary rally against the Danielle Smith government's newly proposed restrictions affecting transgender people.

The former Calgary mayor's voice began with disappointment in the compassionate tone the premier used in her announcement, then he elevated it to a roar as he seethed at her promise to bolster child protection services in case parents react abusively to their outed teens.

"Let me tell you what that means — what that means is 'we'll deal with y'all later,'" he told some 1,000 protesters. "Later after you've been beaten up. Later after you've been kicked out of your house … later after you've died by suicide. Later is not good enough. We protect everyone, we protect every kid, and we protect them right now."

He closed his nine minutes by leading rally-goers in a chant: "We will fight! We will win!"

No less a figure than Nenshi's own sister suggested it should serve as prelude to an NDP leadership bid.

Helen Pike/CBC
Helen Pike/CBC

He publicly states he's thinking about it, and that appears true. Nenshi and politicos from his municipal life have for weeks done meetings and phone calls with New Democrats and other progressives, gauging their interest in the idea of the politician with the purple trademark seeking the orange crown.

The rally could have galvanized his own interest in three more years of more rabble-rousing speeches full of Smith critiques, before the 2027 Alberta election. Then, if this leadership contest is as focused as it appears to be on setting the NDP on track to win that election, why wouldn't progressives flock behind a three-term mayor who would take on the job with instant name recognition and debating chops to take on Smith?

But behind the scenes, the questions determining if he runs will likely have two varieties: does the party want him, and does he want the party?

Nenshi's nonpartisan or post-partisan philosophy has embodied his purple branding, a mixture of Liberal red and Conservative blue (little thought was given to orange). Even when he endorsed Notley's party in the last election, it was a "loan" vote, and he offered praise mixed with much criticism of past NDP positions.

"I need to engage with politics and elections fluidly and based on the context of the moment, as well as who is running," he wrote last May in an endorsement column.

He revelled in the fluidity of city politics. As mayor, he wasn't leader of the 14 other councillors, and could variously appeal to the conservative members or liberal members for votes to ensure passage of his initiatives. (Or, sometimes, he wasn't persuasive or crafty a politician enough to win those votes.)

Were he to run and become NDP leader, he'd suddenly find himself at the helm of a 38-member caucus of elected partisans — some not much newer to the system than he would be, but many who are longtime and loyal New Democrats.

It's grown from the union-oriented party it used to be. The 2014 leadership race allotted 25 per cent of its votes to organized labour, but this spring's contest won't. There's still an unabashedly and consistently left-of-centre tradition that Nenshi would likely have to abide by.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

There's policy consistency and message discipline a party leader must instill (and enforce) in his team, and he's previously enjoyed not even having that rigidity himself, sometimes on council arguing around both sides of an issue before eventually landing somewhere.

Four years ago, while he was still mayor and I wasn't at CBC, I asked Nenshi how he'd manage the expectations of a partisan political system at the federal or provincial level. He suggested he didn't need to change to fit that mould — maybe the combative system itself needed to change, and he could help forge a "new model" of politics.

"You're working out of a paradigm of the way it works now. Maybe it could work differently in the future," he said in that interview.

Nenshi had chafed against partisanship and ideological rigidity at city hall, and he couldn't fix that. Inserting himself into an established UCP-vs.-NDP slugfest and trying to transform it on the fly is a big ask. But would asking him to conform to it be equally daunting?

The former mayor would have to revive a political network that last sought votes and donations in 2017 — and features many moderate conservatives who might blanch at buying an Alberta NDP membership that includes a stake in Jagmeet Singh's federal party. He'd have to build an organization in Edmonton and elsewhere; and he'd have to get assurances that the MLAs would be comfortable with him as leader, whether or not they've already chosen another hopeful to support.

Nenshi would need special permission from the NDP to run for leadership if he has not been a card-carrying member for six months, but insiders expect that to be a formality, a rule more designed to keep out rogues who are further astray from the party's political core.

He might also want some guarantees that he'd be able to overtake Ganley as the ranking Calgary candidate, as well as Shepherd, Pancholi. Getting in this contest to risk losing in June's vote may be a disappointing political return.

Thinking, thinking

There's no indication from Nenshi's camp that he's racing into this decision, and almost definitely wouldn't launch anything this week.

As recently as Thursday, he was promoting an apolitical event in support of CBC's Canada Reads on Feb. 18, and has given no indication he's dropping that book debate series set in early March for a different sort of debate. The deadline to sell memberships for the leadership race is April 22 ahead of a June 22 vote, so waiting too long would dampen his chances.

Speaking of dampen, the party faces a dilemma on par with Nenshi's own: what if this outsider doesn't run?

While that decision may come down to his own personal considerations and comfort level, if the most high-profile potential candidate bows out, it might signal to the public that the NDP leadership isn't seen as an exciting political vehicle, or that the party isn't all too welcoming to outsiders.

If he bows out, the contest stands to appear as an all-MLA affair, a hunt for the most viable member of caucus whose name doesn't rhyme with Motley. If Nenshi's entry would bring some national-level sizzle to this race, his absence after much speculation could make it more lukewarm.