Calgary·Analysis

The newest New Democrat won leadership easily. Nenshi's next moves? Likely harder

Naheed Nenshi wooed progressives keen to win against UCP's Danielle Smith. But it's unclear how the devoutly non-partisan former mayor will adjust as a partisan team captain.

The provincial opposition party is now led by a devoutly non-partisan former mayor

With a black background, Nenshi looks out to a crowd
Naheed Nenshi delivers his acceptance speech after being named as the new leader of the Alberta NDP, a party he had joined only months earlier. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

An awkward topic came up during the final NDP leadership candidates' debate this month in Edmonton, especially for a former three-term Calgary mayor.

The Edmonton Oilers.

Naheed Nenshi admitted that growing up in Calgary in the 1980s, he had a "grudging respect" for the Wayne Gretzky-era championship dynasty.

"But here's the true story," he added. "I'm a huge Oilers fan. Always have been."

He then unfurled from behind his lectern a Connor McDavid jersey. "Oh. The price tag is still on."

It's been a series of sudden uniform changes for Nenshi in the last few months. He's gone from Mr. Calgary to a provincial politician. He's moved from his trademark purple — his decidedly non-partisan or post-partisan hue — to New Democrat orange, or at least scoured online stores for neckties with both colours.

Even his Alberta NDP membership is a new look on him, acquired earlier so he could run to become Rachel Notley's successor. And now, not only has the proverbial price tag come off that new party card — he's in charge of the entire enterprise.

He's become leader with a towering mandate that will silence traditionalist skeptics in the NDP tent, or at least buy their goodwill.

The 62,746 members who selected him, more than 86 per cent of party voters, represents nearly quadruple the number of active New Democrats before Notley announced her departure.

That's more than 10 times the votes for runner-up Kathleen Ganley, a Calgary MLA.

More people voted for Nenshi on the first ballot than chose Danielle Smith on the final UCP leadership ballot in 2022, despite that party having a larger membership.

It's widely understood in NDP ranks that Nenshi brought in the vast majority of that new membership base, greatly expanding the potential volunteer army for the party's fight to take on Premier Danielle Smith's party.

This leadership race often seemed like a one-issue campaign: picking the candidate with the best chances of defeating the UCP in the 2027 election and returning the NDP to government after two Notley-led losses.

WATCH | Nenshi celebrates landslide victory:

Naheed Nenshi delivers victory speech

20 days ago
Duration 35:39
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi received over 86 per cent of the votes cast in the NDP leadership race. He delivered his victory speech at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Calgary Saturday afternoon.

There appeared to be an obvious answer to that question, for NDP newcomers and veterans alike, shortly after Nenshi registered to run in March.

"He's putting winning on the table, and that's just intoxicating to people," said Leah Ward, a former Notley aide.

The Edmonton-based Ward admits they weren't initially sure Nenshi, as an outsider, could assemble a movement to overtake more established competitors — a repeat of his Calgary mayoral win in 2010.

But he did.

And now he's leader, tasked with shepherding a 38-MLA team in a political fray he's unfamiliar with, and nurturing the sort of party he's never been involved with into a victory-ready force over the next three years.

It all may make Saturday's victory seem like the easy part. 

Class of '93

The lives of Nenshi and Smith have intertwined before.

They both got their bachelor's degrees at the University of Calgary in 1993 — he in commerce, she in English. They were both in the campus debate society, and shared a political science course taught by none other than former premier Peter Lougheed.

She went into media commentary and business lobbying. He got a Harvard degree in public administration, worked for management consultant behemoth McKinsey & Company, and taught business at what was then Mount Royal College.

By 2010, Smith and Nenshi were both in politics — she on the governing Tories' right flank as Wildrose Party leader, and he as the Calgary mayor who campaigned as an ideological enigma to outgun veteran councillors from conservative and progressive wings.

A mayor and opposition leader don't interact much, though Nenshi sounded off on a Wildrose candidate's racially explosive comments on the 2012 provincial campaign's pivotal final week. Smith's poll lead evaporated on election day.

About a decade later, both seemed to be spent forces in politics, only to race into big comebacks. Smith had become a conservative pariah after her Wildrose-Tory floor crossing and retreated to broadcasting — but then she seized the UCP zeitgeist once COVID restriction opponents pushed Jason Kenney out of the leadership.

As for Nenshi, his mayoral halo grew tarnished, to the point he came closer to losing in 2017 than any sitting Calgary mayor had since 1980. He'd become so disillusioned with his job near the end that he admitted to sometimes not wanting to show up to council.

A "GOOD TIMES" sign in the foreground of an election night celebration for Nenshi.
Nenshi won elections as Calgary mayor in 2010, 2013 and 2017, but by his final term his popularity faded and he'd grown frustrated with the job. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

He stepped down in 2021 to take his rhetorical flourishes on the public speaking circuit, never hinting at any interest in returning to politics.

After Notley lost the 2023 election, longtime allies began urging him to run to replace her. The cajoling took months, to sketch for him a compelling roadmap from candidate to leader and eventually Alberta premier, to wear down his allergy to partisan politics.

What he vastly preferred about municipal politics was the lack of parties and that he could find voting alliances with anybody, instead of the brinkmanship he'd deride as "blind partisanship."

In 2013, on the Twitter platform where he made his mark, then-mayor Nenshi got into an exchange about his disdain for ideological labels. The question of him one day running for prime minister came up.

"He would lead the Purple Revolution Transpartisan Party of Awesome that Everyone Loves!" an ex-Calgarian chimed in.

"I like it," Nenshi replied. "Can I use that if I ever go insane and consider federal politics?"

As of Saturday, he leads the Orange Decidedly Left-leaning Party of Notley That Less Than Half of Albertans Would Consider Voting For.

During his victory speech at a Calgary hotel ballroom, supporters waved signs that on one side were orange with his campaign slogan — "for Alberta, for all of us" — and on the other showed his name on a purple backdrop.

"You know me. Still wearing the purple," he said, pointing to his tie and pocket square.

"The purple is an invitation to say: set aside who you are and let's define ourself by our common humanity. And I thought to myself: I've got no political home. But then I talked to so many of you … my political home is here in the Alberta NDP."

While finding a home in party life is novel for him, it isn't for the 38 New Democrat MLAs. They're a mixture of first-termers (mostly elected in Calgary) and veterans who've set their watches to Notley Standard Time since 2015 or 2019.

Many will be enthusiastic about how he's grown the party membership and volunteer corps, and that will buy goodwill among the MLAs who didn't endorse him or were skeptical about his insurgency, NDP insiders say. But many will expect him to respect the traditions and hard work that came before him, even as he pushes to erase the gap between his new party and the UCP.

"That last mile should not be confused with jettisoning all the miles that have gone before," said Shannon Phillips, the former NDP environment minister who will resign her Lethbridge seat in July.

But while there were questions about how he'd woo the NDP's old guard, Phillips said: "A lot of them are voting for him. Because they want to win."

People stand on a stage in front of a colourful circle.
Nenshi pulled in six times more votes than leadership candidates (from left) Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Sarah Hoffman and Kathleen Ganley combined. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It's a different realm than in Nenshi's decade on council, working with 14 essentially independent councillors. He often struggled to maintain loyalists among them, preferring to let the power of his ideas and debating win the day (which didn't always work, as evidenced by his eight-year slog to legalize secondary suites throughout Calgary).

Can he build that consistent consensus? To Gian-Carlo Carra, an inner-city councillor throughout Nenshi's tenure, that task may come easier now, where partisanship breeds teamwork.

"In some ways it's a better hand than he was dealt when he was mayor," Carra said.

While there are factions, shades of progressiveness and regional differences, the NDP lacks the tendency toward fractiousness that has notoriously consumed the UCP and the old Tory regime.

Nenshi inherits a party predisposed to solidarity behind its leader. But, Carra noted, he's also one who prefers his own speeches, devising his own talking points — and even political positions — rather than having staff devise them or MLA opposition critics speak on his behalf.

"Learning to rely more on a team now that he has a team will be an interesting journey for him," Carra said.

Insiders will watch, likely with anxiety, how Nenshi builds his opposition leader's staff and puts his own imprint on the party apparatus and caucus roles. (His team is trying to quell fears of a mass purge of veterans in favour of Nenshian outsiders, though his inner circle will stick around as consultants to guide the early transition months.)

All in the family

New Democrats will also keenly watch how fast the new leader pursues some kind of split with the federal NDP. Conservatives constantly attacked Notley over the formal relationship with the federal branch, and Nenshi said at the Edmonton debate he's constantly running into supporters who say the bond is a drag on the Alberta party's popularity. 

"My opinion is pretty clear: I want to be in control of our own destiny and not tie ourselves to people whose values we may not share," he said.

The party's new wave of Nenshi fans has undoubtedly diluted the share of NDP members who hold fast to the federal NDP ties.

But there remains a sizable chunk, especially where the NDP MPs reside in Edmonton, who would be miffed and perhaps alienated by a leader who rushes toward disaffiliation. That likely includes the 3,063 leadership backers of former minister Sarah Hoffman, and many veteran party activists — Rachel Notley among them.

The new leader told reporters Saturday that he'd prefer members to decide on loosening federal ties sooner rather than later, possibly at a party convention next spring.

Nenshi has strived to build bridges between his post-partisan style and NDP orthodoxy, often saying that he's realized his values are NDP values — belief in equality, strong public health and education systems — and that they're Alberta values, a common refrain from party activists.

He's even spun his oft-criticized lack of clear policy positions into a grassroots-friendly virtue, arguing that he'll develop the NDP platform by listening to activists and grassroots members.

Promises to listen could serve to counteract the rap he's developed as someone who's better at talking.

"He's been described by some as arrogant, not a team player, struggles to get consensus," Ward told CBC News. "Those are reputational pieces he'll have to work against."

It's a safe bet that Smith's UCP will try to amplify some of those perceived weaknesses as they bid to frame their new chief rival.

"He's an early Christmas present to the UCP, as he's the candidate with the most baggage, and easily serves as a baseline for what could take Alberta backwards," said Erika Barootes, a former UCP president and senior advisor to Smith.

She predicts her party will hit Nenshi on his taxation record; the amount of municipal property taxes a typical Calgary homeowner paid rose by about 60 per cent between 2011 and 2021

A woman stands at a podium
Nenshi's win sets up a political showdown with Danielle Smith, his old university classmate. They're savvy communicators with a keenness for policy details, and both have made political comebacks. That may be where the similarities end. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC)

Nenshi, Barootes added, "has a tendency to be isolating and condescending — too academic in nature. Albertans don't need to be lectured on what they'll want." 

United Conservatives will also watch for the new NDP leader's habit of pokey insults for which he's had to apologize. They pounced on Nenshi calling governing MLAs "monkeys" during a May leadership debate; at another, he compared the premier's analysis of the electricity system to "nails on a chalkboard."

The thrower of many punches isn't renowned for being good at taking punches, leading critics to give him the tag "thin-skinned" over the years. The UCP could savour the chance to bait him into short-tempered bursts once Nenshi gets into the legislature.

That's the other big question for the rookie leader's early months: when will he seek a seat in a byelection, and where?

There are different schools of thought among NDP insiders.

Some argue he needs to become an MLA quickly, to best ingratiate himself with caucus and understand the inner team-building game, with the legislature's fall session likely to feature intense debates about Smith's transgender policy reforms.

Others reason that there's so much fundraising, organizing, listening, and touring all corners of the province — that running for office can wait, perhaps until 2025 or later.

Then there's the where

Lethbridge-West will be open shortly, with Phillips' resignation. But it's not a safe NDP seat, Nenshi is so inextricably associated with Calgary that he could risk backlash as a parachute star candidate. Plus, just ask some of Smith's team how challenging it is to juggle schedules between Edmonton, the premier's Calgary-area home and a riding several hours southeast of there.

"I don't want to represent a constituency I show up to once or twice a year," Nenshi told reporters after winning. He added that he's not rushing to seek his own legislature seat and added that ultimately in the next election, he'd prefer to run in Calgary.

Rachel Notley holds Nenshi's hand and cheers.
Now-former Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley celebrates her successor. He'd endorsed her party in the last provincial election, a first for the typically non-partisan politician. (Emmanuel Prince-Thauvette/Radio-Canada)

Will a Calgary MLA step aside for him, most rumoured among them Calgary-Buffalo veteran Joe Ceci and Calgary-Varsity rookie Luanne Metz? What about Notley's safe riding of Edmonton-Strathcona?

Part of that question will be answered by the former Calgary mayor's reception by Albertans elsewhere. He won this race in part because nearly half of the party's membership is Calgary-based, although results suggest he clearly won in other regions as well.

Any new leader might struggle to break through in the small towns and rural areas the UCP now dominate, as Notley did in two election losses. But Nenshi might face even more resistance as the big-city mayor showing up to listen and lecture to his new non-Calgarian audiences.

He's pledged to try.

As mayor, he showed boundless energy to attend 10 or more community events a day, leveraging the luxury of time possessed by a man without a spouse or children. Now aged 52, he has said he'd taper down his Mayor Nenshi pace, but it might be hard to keep him away from Alberta's many rodeos and folk festivals this summer. It's not just Calgary anymore.

Nenshi has three years to ramp up and hone a new NDP strategy before the next election, but first impressions will get made in these first months of his leadership.

What will Naheed Nenshi look like as a political party leader? The thing about a new, off-the-rack hockey jersey is that some fit perfectly, and some awkwardly. Some players were born to thrive as team captain, while others buckle under the pressure.

And purple and orange — it's a rarely attempted and bold colour combo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca