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The Alberta NDP Leadership Race Heats Up

McGowan is out and Nenshi is in front as the battle for the party’s future enters its final stage.

Graham Thomson 15 May 2024The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

The NDP leadership race is finally getting a little spicy.

Not red-ghost-peppers-setting-your-mouth-on-fire spicy. More like adding a little Tabasco sauce to your ice cream.

But something is definitely happening to heat up the dynamics of a race that for months has had all the spark of a spent match.

We saw it during a leadership debate in Calgary Saturday, when four candidates piled on frontrunner Naheed Nenshi. They took aim at his record as Calgary mayor from 2010 to 2021, suggesting he was anti-union.

“How is this not a trustbuster?” declared candidate Gil McGowan, who is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Candidate Sarah Hoffman accused Nenshi of evicting residents from a mobile home park in 2017.

Nenshi brushed off the attacks, saying Hoffman was “fear-mongering” and explaining he spent much of his time working as a pragmatic mayor warding off the worst impulses of a “super-right-wing council.”

Thanks to name recognition, a motivated team and diehard supporters, Nenshi remains the perceived frontrunner and thus, as the race enters its final month, the jabs from other candidates will keep coming.

But not from McGowan, who announced Monday he was reluctantly stepping down because he couldn’t raise enough money to pay the final instalment of the $60,000 entry fee.

That same day, NDP officials could be forgiven for popping the cork on the fair-trade champagne after announcing the party’s membership had hit a record 85,144.

For Alberta’s NDP, it is a staggering number, a fivefold increase since December and evidence the 2024 NDP leadership race is more impressive than the party’s customary tournament in a teacup.

A decade ago, Rachel Notley won her leadership race with 2,512 votes, 70 per cent of the total cast.

This time the crowds are bigger and the stakes are higher. With 38 seats in the legislature, the NDP is now the largest official Opposition in Alberta’s history.

The party is attracting record crowds to events because Nenshi entered the race as an “outsider” promising to shake things up by possibly cutting formal ties with the federal NDP.

The critical question for members is: Who is the best leadership candidate to stand up to Premier Danielle Smith and defeat her in the 2027 provincial election?

The answer won’t be determined by debates, even if they are getting a little more zesty.

The race has become one of numbers. And time. And geography.

Membership sales for people eligible to vote in the leadership ballot ended April 22. It’s an increasingly desperate dash to the finish line for candidates trying to catch up to Nenshi before the June 22 ballot-counting day.

Even though Edmonton is at the centre of NDP support, with all 20 of the city’s ridings represented by New Democratic MLAs, the membership numbers tell a different story.

Of the 85,000 members, 45 per cent are in the city of Calgary, with just 25 per cent from Edmonton.

Candidate and MLA Kathleen Ganley is suggesting that because she has 3,500 party members in her home riding of Calgary-Mountain View — the most of any riding in the province — she is actually responsible for the surge of new members in the city.

Perhaps. But then again perhaps it is because of Nenshi, whose team was so effective at selling memberships that on March 26, Rakhi Pancholi, an Edmonton MLA and leadership candidate, suddenly ended her own campaign and threw her support behind Nenshi, saying he was dominating membership sales.

But as the race enters its final month, candidates are not likely to get too negative, even with Nenshi in the lead.

In an interview with The Tyee, Sarah Hoffman said NDP members and the public are tired of the attack-style campaigning they saw in the 2023 provincial election.

“All we said was, ‘We’re not as bad as Danielle Smith.’ And it’s true. We weren’t as bad as Danielle Smith. But we had so much more to offer, and what I’m trying to do in this campaign is highlight what I have to offer.”

McGowan isn’t going negative or positive as he departs the stage. When asked during a Tyee interview which candidate he will throw his support behind, he said maybe nobody, even though he admires candidate Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse.

“The party has been drifting away from workers in the labour movement for a very long time,” said McGowan. “Now I’m afraid that drift is going to turn into a gallop and that will hurt their prospects in the next election no matter who leads it.”

Which could be taken to mean McGowan is afraid the NDP will become the NNP, the Naheed Nenshi party.

But that, in a way, is exactly where Nenshi is headed and where new non-traditional NDP members want to go.

If successful on June 22, Nenshi is promising to take the party in a new direction — and at a gallop.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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