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Naheed Nenshi considers running for Alberta NDP leadership, a high-risk gamble for both him and the party

Doug FirbyThere’s been a lot of buzz around the possibility that former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is seriously considering a run for the leadership of Alberta’s NDP. If he were to commit, it would be a high-risk, high-reward gamble for both Nenshi and the party.

The notion of this oddly charismatic figure at the head of Alberta’s Opposition party is, at the very least, intriguing. Even his critics have to admit there is something magic to the Nenshi touch.

I was in Calgary when Nenshi, a nerdy policy wonk, mounted his amazing come-from-nowhere victory in 2010 to become mayor. It’s hard to overstate how much of a stunning upset this was, as this “progressive” – whatever that means – post-partisan non-politician foiled the ambitions of two high-profile conservative opponents.

Naheed Nenshi ndp alberta

Naheed Nenshi

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Nenshi talked about “politics in full sentences,” the notion that politics is about more than 30-second sound bites, and the bland and cynical platitudes crafted by faceless party sausage-makers. His message reignited many politics-weary citizens, including younger Calgarians who might have otherwise not bothered to vote.

The new mayor was both a national and international sensation. As a member of a visible minority and a Muslim, his embrace by Calgarians took a wrecking ball to every cliché outsiders had of our supposedly redneck city. It was glorious.

His superhero status was reinforced by calm and courageous leadership during the floods that devastated parts of Calgary in 2013. It truly was a political honeymoon for Calgary’s improbable mayor.

But honeymoons end, and by the time the three-term mayor announced he would not run in the 2021 civic election, a lot of former fans had begun to focus on his political shortcomings and signs that he was no longer fully engaged in the job. The city seemed almost relieved to see him step aside.

A run for the NDP leadership could re-energize Nenshi and do much for the party. Maybe.

Nenshi brings a lot of value to the table for a party that aspires to regain government. He is a powerful, articulate and impassioned speaker. He is likeable and personable. He has the ability to lift the conversation out of the mire of ideology-laden thought traps. He has a better sense of what voters care about than most polling firms can ever conjure.

He is also a fiscal conservative, which is pretty much the price of admission for any Alberta politician who hopes to gain office. And, of course, he is socially progressive, as his recent emotional campaign-style speech at a Calgary rally against the United Conservative Party’s proposed restrictions affecting transgender people so clearly showed.

These are all positives, but they also reveal some of the major hurdles Nenshi would face in a run for the NDP leadership.

Provincial politics is a much different game than civic politics. Unlike at City Hall, provincial politicians are tied to parties that have clearly defined policies and beliefs. If Nenshi truly is non-ideological, and I believe he is, it will be difficult for this square peg (forgive the inference) to fit into the round hole of the NDP’s leftist tendencies.

It would also be difficult for the party faithful to accept a rock star outsider parachuting into the most important job in the party without having paid his dues in the back benches. For an illustration of how ugly that can get, just think back to the train wreck of Michael Ignatieff as leader of the federal Liberals.

Alberta’s NDP operatives seem to like the idea of a Nenshi run. The party is said to be ready to waive a six-month membership requirement if Nenshi decides he’s in.

But he would also have to step over several highly respected NDP members who are rumoured or have announced their intention to run for the leadership. The names include former Alberta justice minister Kathleen Ganley of Calgary, former deputy premier Sarah Hoffman of Edmonton (both of whom are officially in) and potentially Rakhi Pancholi and David Shepherd of Edmonton. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, has also been a rumoured contender.

Keep in mind that Edmonton is the NDP’s strongest hold, and Nenshi would have to contend with the suspicion some party members hold towards some upstart from Calgary.

These are quite significant issues that need to be resolved, and I hope they are. Much as the list of other candidates includes respected NDP leaders, none show the dynamism that could trigger a new orange wave. Nenshi would also help keep the party on the centrist path set by outgoing leader Rachel Notley.

Mostly, though, I relish the thought of Nenshi going head-to-head with the UCP’s Danielle Smith in the legislature and public debates. Smith, whom I and others have dismissed as a flake (at least on policy), is a polished public speaker who, let’s face it, outperformed Notley in the 2023 general election, especially in a critical televised debate.

Naheed Nenshi would not make for such easy pickings. And Alberta politics would be in fuller sentences than it has been in many years.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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