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Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi named new leader of Alberta NDP in resounding vote

Former Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, left, congratulates Naheed Nenshi after he was named as the new leader of the Alberta NDP in Calgary, Saturday, June 22, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s appeal to new members outside the traditional fold of the Alberta NDP has propelled him to the helm of the party.

Nenshi becomes the first from Calgary to lead the New Democrats, easily securing the win with 86 per cent of the vote on the first ballot of the party's biggest leadership contest.

The race was pegged as a battle between the NDP's ideological roots and political pragmatism in the traditionally conservative province.

Party members, who ballooned fivefold to 85,000 during the campaign, opted for Nenshi's sharp wit and far-reaching public profile.

Nenshi lost no time in launching attacks against his newest political foe, using his victory speech in Calgary on Saturday to describe Premier Danielle Smith's United Conservative government as small-minded.

"This extraordinary movement that we created together is an example of what is possible when we stop thinking small and start thinking big," he told the cheering crowd of party faithful.

He said the party's 85.6 per cent voter turnout is unheard of.

Nenshi encouraged members, staff and volunteers to embrace building a campaign-ready machine so that an NDP victory in the 2027 general election becomes inevitable.

"It will not be easy at all. We are going against a well-funded, well-oiled political machine on the other side."

"For us winning that election means having the opportunity to build that home for all Albertans," he said.

Nenshi made international headlines when he became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city in 2010. He served three terms before bowing out ahead of the 2021 municipal election.

He now becomes leader of the Opposition but doesn't hold a seat in the legislature.

Former leader Rachel Notley, who was premier from 2015 to 2019, announced in January she was leaving as NDP leader after the party lost its second consecutive election to the United Conservative Party.

Despite last year's loss to Smith, the NDP won 38 of the 87 legislature seats to become the largest Opposition in provincial history.

Also in the running for the job were Notley-era cabinet ministers Sarah Hoffman, who got 3,063 votes, and Kathleen Ganley, who received 5,899 votes, along with rookie legislature member Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, who pulled in 1,222 votes.

Nenshi has sparked debate on the future identity of the party, questioning whether it should retain membership ties with its federal counterpart.

Speaking to reporters, Nenshi said he will be looking to bring the affiliation question to members as soon as possible.

"Ultimately, it is the choice of the members on what they want to do. And there's no point in dilly-dallying about it," he said.

With the Lethbridge seat of NDP MLA Shannon Phillips becoming vacant in July, Nenshi said he's willing to keep an open mind about running there, but admitted he doesn't know the city very well.

"I think that every constituency in the province deserves an MLA that is present, deserves an MLA that speaks for their best interests," he said, adding that he would consider running outside of Calgary, but when it comes to the general election, he will be eyeing a Calgary seat.

"I would love to be able to run and represent my city," he said.

Nenshi came under fire by some in the party as opportunistic with Liberal leanings. He dismissed the criticism, saying his values are core Alberta ones.

His political brand has always been purple -- neither conservative blue nor Liberal red.

He has said it's an invitation for voters to set aside their tribalism. And during the NDP leadership race, he's added splashes of NDP orange to his wardrobe.

Jeromy Farkas, a conservative voice on Calgary city council during Nenshi's tenure as mayor, characterized him as a strong collaborator behind the scenes who has been able to galvanize the NDP in a way conservatives are right to be concerned with.

“I don’t think, at least beyond the surface level, many of the existing (NDP) members take kindly to this idea of a saviour riding in on his purple horse," said Farkas.

"That said, the membership is what you make of it. And in real time, we're seeing Nenshi reform the NDP to change what it means to be NDP."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2024.

Lisa Johnson, The Canadian Press

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