Braid: Nenshi wins NDP leadership with giant majority, turns his sights on the UCP

Nenshi’s numbers are unprecedented for any recent contested leadership race anywhere in Canada

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It’d seemed like a crazy project at the start. Naheed Nenshi as NDP leader, really?

Rachel Notley’s tight-knit party would spit out this alien who’d never shown any interest in party politics.

But on Saturday the former Calgary mayor didn’t just win the party leadership. He overwhelmed it. He owned it.

The stunning victory ensures he’ll face little if any opposition from the party or the NDP caucus.

Nenshi attracted longtime NDP adherents, a broader range of people only loosely involved, and others who’ve never dreamed of voting NDP, let alone buying a membership.

Premier Danielle Smith and her legions dismiss him as a trifler with many flaws (the premier did offer pro forma congratulations on X).

But the vote suggests they should be very worried. The NDP suddenly looks like a social-political movement as much as a party. The voters swarmed to Nenshi with one dominant idea in mind — defeat Smith and run off the UCP

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They didn’t see that prospect in Nenshi’s opponents, MLAs Kathleen Ganley, Sarah Hoffman, and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse.

The detailed policies they offered had virtually no impact. None of the three showed much sign of Notley’s public appeal, for all their hard work and ardour.

Electing one of them looked like a route to gently fading support, not explosive growth.

And so, Saturday’s vote announcement arrived with nearly everybody expecting Nenshi to win, but not many (including his own campaigners) predicting the total blowout that was unveiled.

He won 62,746 votes. His competitors got only 10,184.

Ganley captured 5,899 votes, Hoffman 3,063 and Calahoo Stonehouse 1,222.

Nenshi got six times more votes than all three combined.

The turnout was also huge — 85.6 per cent of eligible members voted.

The results were almost embarrassing for the losers. Nenshi and his people might have wished more votes for them, just to recognize how hard they tried.

Naheed Nenshi
Naheed Nenshi is introduced as the new leader of the Alberta NDP with Kathleen Ganley, Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse standing behind him at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia

These numbers are unprecedented for any recent contested leadership race anywhere in Canada. Even Pierre Poilievre’s 2022 swamping of the federal Conservative Party didn’t reach that level.

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Nenshi was delighted to point out that when Smith won the UCP leadership in 2022, it took her six ballots to get to 53 per cent support, with 45,000 votes.

Much of the weekend was a nostalgia festival in honour of the departing leader. One speaker after another praised Notley, raising successive cries of “Rachel, Rachel.”

When Nenshi was about to speak there was a curious moment of silence as the crowd suddenly faced the new reality. There will be no more revered Notley, only this new guy who’s suddenly the future.

Rachel Notley introduces Naheed Nenshi as the new Alberta NDP leader
Naheed Nenshi is introduced by Rachel Notley as the new leader of the Alberta NDP at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia

The easy way out was for Nenshi to start with some choice UCP-bashing. He’s an expert at that and the New Democrats love it.

But Nenshi knew he had to win them over with something bigger. He built a picture of Alberta as home, a haven for everyone, chosen by his immigrant parents when he was still a child as the place in Canada they wanted to live.

“Alberta has always been home and it became a home for a poor immigrant family from Africa, as it has become a home for people who have been here for thousands of generations,” he said.

Naheed Nenshi with family
Naheed Nenshi is surrounded by family, including his mother (R), after being introduced as the new leader of the Alberta NDP at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia

After much more on that theme, he turned to the UCP.

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“The stories I was hearing from our premier in our government, the place they were describing, didn’t feel like our home.

“They were describing an Alberta that I didn’t recognize, an Alberta that is so very, very small. And in Alberta, we are many things but we are not small.

“They are describing an Alberta where everyone is against us and we need to fight outsiders all the time, where we should be afraid of change instead of embracing and leading the future.”

By that time Naheed Nenshi had the crowd in his pocket, along with all those votes.

Naheed Nenshi
Naheed Nenshi is introduced as the new leader of the Alberta NDP at the Hyatt Regency in Calgary on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Jim Wells/Postmedia

The three years leading up to the next election will be an epic struggle between Nenshi and Smith, who were once friendly acquaintances at U of C.

There are no enemies quite like former friends.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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