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Unfortunately for Nenshi, he doesn’t match up well against Danielle Smith

Michael TaubeAfter weeks of speculation, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi announced on Monday that he’s entering the Alberta NDP leadership race to replace Rachel Notley.

Does he stand a good chance of becoming the next leader? Yes.

Could he become the next Premier of Alberta? I strongly doubt it.

The 52-year-old Nenshi was born in Toronto but lived most of his life in Calgary. He was educated at the University of Calgary and has a Master of Public Policy from Harvard University. He worked for the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He was an instructor in non-profit management at Mount Royal University. He wrote a regular column on municipal affairs for the Calgary Herald.

Most people became familiar with Nenshi during his three terms as Calgary Mayor. The first-ever Muslim to hold this position in a large Canadian city, he was elected on a platform dubbed the “Purple Revolution.” Why purple? According to an Oct. 23, 2010 Calgary Herald piece quoting his then-communications director Richard Einarson, it was “a mix of red and blue – two colours typically associated with different sides of the political spectrum.”

Naheed Nenshi ndp alberta
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In a city like Calgary, which then had a distinctly Conservative bent but often tilted in a more Liberal direction municipally, the political formula worked. He won a close three-way race in 2010, and followed up with over 50 percent of the vote in both 2013 and 2017. He mixed and matched different policies, including free market principles in the housing market, supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, raising and lowering property taxes, devising a city charter, promoting the arts community and opposing urban sprawl.

When he left municipal politics in 2021, some political observers wondered if he was going to jump into the provincial or federal arena. He appeared to have a good working relationship with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Then again, he publicly called out speculation in 2019 of his becoming an Alberta representative or adviser in the federal cabinet as being “silly.”

Which brings us to Nenshi’s bid to win the Alberta NDP leadership.

It wasn’t a big surprise. He knew he’d become the immediate frontrunner in a race that mostly contained political lightweights. With the Mar. 15 deadline looming and no other major contender seemingly on the horizon, he jumped back into political life.

One potential problem in the early going? Nenshi isn’t a lifelong New Democrat.

As he admitted in a May 26, 2023 piece for CTV News, “I have voted for at least four different parties provincially and federally, and for municipal candidates all over the ideological map.” He also acknowledged that he “struggled with Notley’s government over many issues, from its amateurish stumbling on the electricity file to their massive fumble that cost Calgary the 2026 Olympics,” while taking partial blame for the latter.

His decision to enter the race will not sit well with some NDP partisans. They may view his decision to run as nothing more than opportunism. Others may not desire a purple revolution with their provincial orange crush. Nevertheless, Nenshi endorsed the NDP in last year’s Alberta election – and that’s what his team will focus on.

Unless something strange occurs, Nenshi should comfortably win.

That’s as far as he’ll likely go. A Nenshi-led NDP will struggle mightily against Premier Danielle Smith and the United Conservative Party. The chances of him winning the 2027 general election are pretty slim.

Most municipal politicians have historically struggled when taking the plunge into provincial or federal waters. It’s a very different political environment, and more of a dog-eat-dog approach to getting things done.

There have been exceptions to the rule. Ralph Klein, a former three-term Calgary mayor then identified with the Liberals, went on to become Alberta Premier as a Progressive Conservative. In fairness, Klein was a unique politician with fiscal conservative sensibilities, some dashes of populism and an ability to connect with everyday Albertans.

Those are qualities that Nenshi doesn’t possess.

Nenshi acts, looks, and plays the part of a left-leaning political elite. He often appears professorial when discussing politics and economics. He doesn’t have the common touch, in spite of his purple revolution credentials. To call him a populist would be laughable.

It’ll be difficult for Nenshi to rein in the NDP’s far-left elements if he becomes leader. Selling himself as a New Democrat in Alberta, especially after Notley’s mediocre one term in office – which was a complete fluke based on voter frustration after decades of right-leaning provincial rule – will be equally difficult.

Finally, Nenshi doesn’t match up well against the Premier.

Smith is a conservative with libertarian principles and a moderate approach to social issues. She has intelligence, wit and political savvy in spades. Her former roles as a columnist, media commentator and radio/TV host give her a unique advantage to develop issues and proper messaging that resonates with the public. She may also be a policy wonk who supports private enterprise, free markets, trade liberalization and economic liberty. Still, she has populist appeal and an uncanny ability to sell herself to the common man (and voter).

We’ll see how Nenshi does in the NDP leadership race. After all the votes are counted on Jun. 22, the hard work begins. Don’t count on anyone in the Premier’s office, which he described as “incompetent … immoral and dangerous” in his launch video, to be shaking in their boots.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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