Former Calgary mayor shrugs off criticism at first Alberta NDP leadership debate: ‘Not a takeover’

Click to play video: 'How Nenshi’s Alberta NDP leadership bid could jolt province’s politics'
How Nenshi’s Alberta NDP leadership bid could jolt province’s politics
WATCH ABOVE: (March 11, 2024): After exiting politics, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is looking for a comeback as he hopes to become the next leader of the Alberta NDP. Heather Yourex-West looks at why Nenshi is running, his blunt assessment of Premier Danielle Smith's UCP government, and his chances of winning the race to replace Rachel Notley – Mar 11, 2024

The first debate in the Alberta NDP leadership race was mostly a civil affair Thursday but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Close to 500 people turned out at the Yates Theatre in Lethbridge to hear Nenshi, three current NDP members of the legislature: Calgary’s Kathleen Ganley and Edmonton representatives Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse as well as Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan.

Hoffman, the former health minister and deputy premier, made a veiled reference to Nenshi when she said she was “unapologetic” about being a New Democrat.

“Let’s elect a New Democrat as leader of the NDP,” she said.

Afterward she made reference to Nenshi’s suggestion that the Alberta and federal NDP should sever ties.

“A lot of people like to put up walls and blame Danielle Smith for putting up walls but there’s someone on this stage who wants to put up a wall with the federal party – that’s dangerous,” she said.

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Afterward she defended her comments.

“I just want to tell the truth. I want everyone on that stage to tell the truth and be open about what their plans are,” she said.

“Anyone who wants to lead this party shouldn’t be afraid to be bold and to be courageous.”

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McGowan saved his criticism of Nenshi for after the debate ended. He had indicated in the debate the party needed to be more Tim Hortons than Starbucks and to reach out to working class voters. He added the party has a reputation as being elitist and filled with over-educated people who look down on those outside the major cities.

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“Naheed Nenshi, I love the guy and he was a great mayor, but he’s sort of a living, breathing embodiment of that negative stereotype about New Democrats being sanctimonious, over-educated, urban people who look down their noses at working people and people in rural Alberta,” McGowan told reporters.

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“Is Naheed Nenshi really an asset or a liability?”

Nenshi, 52, was elected mayor of Calgary in 2010 and won three terms before deciding to bow out before the 2021 municipal election. He said the candidates have a lot of respect for each other and for their ideas.

“We’ve been doing this the last five or six weeks and we’re starting to sound like one another,” he joked as the debate dealt with health care, environmental and Indigenous issues.

He downplayed critical comments he says was just done for TV, but acknowledges not everyone is happy he’s an outsider.

“Sometimes a newcomer to the dinner table can help identify what some of the issues in the family are. I want to be very clear. This party does not need a saviour. This is not a takeover,” he said.

“The N in NDP should not stand for Naheed Democratic Party anymore than it stood for Notley Democratic Party.”

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Ganley outlined her economic policies during the debate and praised the other candidates.

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“Any one of us on this stage would be better placed to do a better job than the UCP is doing right now.”

Lori Williams, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, had expected sniping would be kept at a minimum.

“Negativity turns folks off,” she said.

“It’s a delicate balance in a leadership debate because you want to be supportive of the party and supportive of whoever becomes the leader. You don’t sort of want to kneecap them so they can’t serve effectively … but at the same time you’ve got to distinguish yourself.”

Current leader Rachel Notley announced in January her plan to step down after a decade at the helm of the provincial New Democrats. She is staying on as leader until June’s leadership vote.

The NDP’s May 2023 election loss was the second in a row under Notley.

The next debate will be in Calgary in May and a third is scheduled for Edmonton in June.

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