Just add Nenshi, and it's a whole different Alberta NDP race

Alberta NDP leadership candidate Naheed Nenshi drew an oversized crowd to a volunteer orientation gathering during his first week in the race. (X/@nenshi - image credit)
Alberta NDP leadership candidate Naheed Nenshi drew an oversized crowd to a volunteer orientation gathering during his first week in the race. (X/@nenshi - image credit)

Naheed Nenshi and his Alberta NDP leadership team didn't intend to organize a rally on Tuesday.

They'd put out calls for a volunteer orientation, for a group largely composed of people who'd supported his mayoral campaigns — but knew little of NDP membership sales, and had just become party members themselves.

Five hundred people showed up, Nenshi said.

The buzz in the room reminded him of the final days of his first run for mayor, 14 years ago. A virtually unknown business professor and pundit had suddenly vaulted to the top of the pack in a crowded race, and support was growing atop support.

"That feeling at the very end of 2010, that people got so excited and it's multiplied and multiplied exponentially," he said in an interview Friday.

"That's exactly how it felt in the room."

The energy and vibes he felt at the end of his first successful election bid are the same ones he senses at the start of this campaign toward hopeful victory when the New Democrats tally the leadership votes on June 22.

Party leadership races are notoriously hard to poll, though one survey conducted has shown that Nenshi's name recognition clearly overwhelms that of chief rivals from the NDP caucus, Rakhi Pancholi, Sarah Hoffman and Kathleen Ganley.

CBC News/Alberta NDP/Instagram
CBC News/Alberta NDP/Instagram

If name recognition translated into leadership votes, businessman Kevin O'Leary may still be in charge of the federal Conservatives today, instead of mulling an investment in premium kimchi on reality TV.

A better sense of whether Nenshi's late entry into this contest has fully reshuffled it comes from background conversations with key organizers for other candidates.

Each believes that the race has come down to Nenshi versus their own candidate. Or they'd like it to be that way.

Nobody is handing the crown to Nenshi just yet. But rival organizers are wrapping their heads around how to overtake the early surge of new members and attention Calgary's former three-term mayor has garnered.

There's now a sense the race to replace ex-premier Rachel Notley has its Goliath, and the others must try for the David upset.

But to some extent, Nenshi has carved into each of their own natural advantages in the race and diminished their candidacies.

Ganley no longer has cachet as the Calgary candidate. Pancholi can't claim to be the quasi-outsider to NDP orthodoxy. Hoffman, the former health minister, isn't the clear leader in terms of administrative experience, not with the 11-year mayor of Alberta's biggest city on the ballot.

(Insiders had questions about whether the other candidates, rookie MLA Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and labour leader Gil McGowan would produce the initial $18,500 entry fee and signatures needed for Friday's registration deadline. Both did, making it a six-way race — though Calahoo Stonehouse and McGowan are widely considered long shot candidates.)

A big question is whether, beyond bringing in Nenshi fans in Calgary — and past fans from afar, in other Alberta cities — he can court many of the 16,500 Albertans that, unlike Nenshi himself, were already NDP members before Notley announced in January she was resigning.

That may not matter much if membership swells to 45,000 or beyond by the sales cutoff for leadership voters, but his legitimacy in this party may hinge on earning the respect of NDP veterans and not just insurgents.

Most people in the top rungs of Nenshi's campaign lack roots in the party he wants to lead, including his longtime aide and campaign director Chima Nkemdirim (a longtime Alberta Party stalwart) and campaign manager Jessie Chahal, a former aide in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office and a relative of Calgary Skyview Liberal MP George Chahal.

Nenshi showed he can win credit among New Democrats by emerging with four MLA endorsements. Three are Calgary rookies, but the fourth is Edmonton veteran Rod Loyola, who ran against Notley for the party leadership a decade ago.

The ex-mayor boasts that he has support from the NDP's most right-leaning MLA (financial analyst Samir Kayande) and the most left-leaning in Loyola. As a self-identifying socialist, Loyola embraces Nenshi's description of him, and said he backed the race's most arguably moderate candidate in large part for a pragmatic reason.

That's a desire to win and form government.

"What's very important for me is that we be a party that speaks to all Albertans," Loyola said. "The party has a great foothold in Edmonton … my concern is Calgary and the rest of Alberta."

Nenshi didn't leave office as the same popular mayor he was earlier in his tenure. But one wonders if memories of frustrations with council decisions or the flubbed 2026 Winter Olympics bid have faded with time — his last election was seven years ago, a lifetime in politics. (Notley was premier and Smith was an election-night pundit.)

The charismatic speaking approach may not have changed, but he's tipped that now, at age 52, he wants to run a more low-key campaign than his whirlwind style in the past.

And while he stormed into politics on a wave of detailed policies in his "Better Ideas" campaign, Nenshi told CBC News he'll be far lighter on platform positions in this race, leaving that for later party deliberations if he wins.

However, Nenshi has signalled he's interested in loosening ties with the federal NDP — a party he's had even less relations with than the branch he just joined and wishes to lead — and potentially even a full rebrand. And asked about his position on rent controls, Nenshi said he's open to them on a temporary basis to cool skyrocketing rents.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Now that he's in, he'll be pushed to answer more, and three forthcoming debates will let his opponents draw clearer contrasts on core NDP policies like health care, climate and labour issues.

The politician who prefers lengthy answers and knows little of party-line sound bites could always find his tongue getting him in trouble — and certainly Smith's UCP will be ready to pounce on any potential opportunity to attack, be it recent or somewhere in his loquacious history.

This week, the contest to find Alberta a new Official Opposition leader reckoned with a wholesale reorganization around one candidate. But in politics, halos fade, and buzzes die down.

Except when they don't. Two years ago, Smith caught fire early in the UCP leadership contest and never lost ground, even when nearly everyone else attacked her Sovereignty Act.

Nenshi states that he earned 10 times more new membership sign-ups in the first few days than his team had projected, and that 3,000 volunteers are in his corner — which would amount to more NDP member votes than Notley got when she became leader.

But one strong week of momentum only means he has 15 to go before anything is settled.