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Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi announces bid for Alberta NDP leadership

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, known for his 'purple' brand of politics, entered the race to replace former Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley on Monday. (CBC News - image credit)
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, known for his 'purple' brand of politics, entered the race to replace former Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley on Monday. (CBC News - image credit)

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi confirmed Monday he will seek the leadership of Alberta's New Democrats, changing the trajectory of the race to replace Rachel Notley.

Nenshi's candidacy has fuelled the Alberta political rumour mill for more than a month.

In early February, the 52-year-old wrote in a statement to CBC News that he had been "listening to a lot of pitches from party members and other Albertans" and suggested he would have more to say in the coming weeks.

In an interview with CBC News on Monday, Nenshi said he was entering the race based on his concerns that the governing United Conservative Party is "not only incompetent, but they're actually immoral and they're dangerous."

He said too many Albertans can't find doctors, classrooms are overcrowded, and he suggested the UCP can only "pick fights and waste money."

"They punch down on the vulnerable and they've left us completely unprepared for a world that is changing," he told the CBC's Scott Dippel in an interview.

"Ideally, we need to build an Alberta that is a beacon of hope for everyone around the world."

Nenshi joins a field of five candidates that includes Edmonton NDP MLAs Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Sarah Hoffman and Rakhi Pancholi, as well as Calgary MLA Kathleen Ganley and long-time labour leader Gil McGowan.

Some of those fellow candidates were asked by reporters for comment on Nenshi's bid.

"He's saying, like many of us are, many Albertans are, that the Alberta NDP are going to be the next government in 2027," Pancholi said. "I'm happy to hear that he wants to join the race and exchange some very bold ideas."

"I think everyone's been talking about this for quite a while. I guess now it's official," Hoffman said. "I've never felt more excited or hopeful about my campaign. And I think he will make a great second place candidate."

A former business professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University (MRU) with a master's degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Nenshi secured an unlikely come-from-behind victory in the 2010 Calgary mayoral election. He was the first Muslim mayor of a North American big city, serving three terms until 2021.

Over his 11 years in office, Nenshi received international attention for his handling of the 2013 Calgary floods and was in the mayor's chair for four states of local emergency, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the economy faltered, Nenshi's poll numbers dropped and he announced in April 2021 he wouldn't seek another term.

Purple trademark

Nenshi has long been known for his purple trademark — a mix of Liberal red and Conservative blue. He'll join the NDP leadership race as a sort of outsider, given his stated long-time aversion to partisan politics.

But he said his values and the Alberta NDP's values were closely aligned, suggesting they were fundamentally Alberta values.

He acknowledged his lack of deep roots in the party but said that perspective might help the party move past what had hindered its success in previous elections.

"I want to bring back an era of optimism, a sense that the NDP stands for a better Alberta, an Alberta for all of us, which is my campaign line," he said.

"But really, a sense of joy and pride in Alberta instead of a sense of we're always under attack, and a bunker mentality, and we've just got to defend what we've got instead of opening ourselves up to an even better future."

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, celebrated Nenshi's endorsement at a campaign event three days before last spring's election.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, celebrated Nenshi's endorsement at a campaign event three days before last spring's election.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley celebrated Nenshi's endorsement at a campaign event three days before last spring's election. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nenshi offered an endorsement to Notley's NDP three days before the May 2023 provincial election, writing in a column for CTV News that he considered Notley's years in power to be times of lost opportunity — but said it was preferable to the alternative.

"I truly believe Smith is an existential threat to our province. There's never been anyone like her in power in Alberta before. We simply have no idea what she will do as premier, and that scares me more than a few years of a potentially not-great NDP government," Nenshi wrote.

On Monday, Nenshi said he believes the entire constitution of the NDP needs a modernization, including its relationship with the federal NDP, adding his analysis was that the costs vastly outweighed the benefits of being affiliated with the party.

But such decisions would be left up to the members of the party, he added.

"This party is a formidable political force. It doesn't need a saviour. I'm not coming in to save it. Three quarters of a million Albertans voted for it last time," he said.

"It is no longer a tiny little branch plant of a federal party that needs that support."

Political analyst Lori Williams at MRU noted that as a former University of Calgary classmate, Nenshi has known Premier Danielle Smith for decades.

In February, the former mayor attended a Calgary rally against the government's newly proposed restrictions affecting transgender people.

"Premier Smith, I want you to understand that votes aren't worth a few dead kids," Nenshi told the rally.

Mount Royal University political science assistant professor Lori Williams says the documents show a lot of strategizing and media savvy by the Alberta NDP government.
Mount Royal University political science assistant professor Lori Williams says the documents show a lot of strategizing and media savvy by the Alberta NDP government.

MRU associate professor Lori Williams, a political analyst, says Naheed Nenshi joining the contest to lead the Alberta NDP has raised the profile of the entire race to a national level. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Williams said such moments might suggest Nenshi as a viable option for Albertans without a political home right now. However, Nenshi's long municipal record will bring with it both positive and negative prospects in a provincial contest.

"He has a record for bringing [together] people on council who were very different ideologically and finding middle ground," Williams said, adding that at the same time, not all Calgarians were fans.

The Alberta NDP has long enjoyed a strong base of support in Edmonton. Though the party picked up a majority of seats in Calgary when the NDP won the 2015 election, it was nearly wiped off the board in 2019.

In 2023, the party saw growing support in Calgary, but expanding it is understood by political observers as being a key priority in the next election.

Notley announced in mid-January she would step down as NDP leader when members chose her replacement. Under the rules of the leadership contest, which kicked off Feb. 5, candidates who want to run must enter the race before this Friday.

Members must purchase or renew a membership by April 22 to vote in the race. The new leader of the party will be announced on June 22.