Why Nathan Cullen is my first choice for NDP leader

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This is a power moment in progressive politics. In addition to choosing a new leader for whom the voting is already under way, the March 24 NDP convention will also be a giant getting-to-know-you of a big swath of the grassroots in this country.

The voting process is so open and democratic, it's impossible to foretell how we'll collectively weigh in on the important conversations the leadership process has cracked open. That self-reflection alone will help progressives chart a more empowering future.

More momentous, those with voting rights are holding destiny in their hands. Their choice will have a huge impact beyond the party itself. The health and sharing of wealth in the whole country will be affected.

That's a huge testimony to how far the NDP has advanced in its quest for the heart of Canada. Of course, we have Jack to thank for that, but we also have to fully assimilate the gift Quebec voters gave the party. They've shown how bringing new supporters to the party can change everything.

NDPers need first and foremost to elect an exceptional leader who can continue to bring diverse allies into the fold, in particular among the vast younger demographic of non-voters. And luckily, there are two exceptional candidates with the political chops to do this.

Both Nathan Cullen and Thomas Mulcair are eloquent and command attention. They both have the potential to attract new energy to the party through their geographic roots -- Mulcair with his all-important Quebec connection and Cullen with his B.C. riding positioned right on the front line of Harper's northern pipe dream. Plus, they know how to look like winners, ready for power.

That idea was once speculative. Times are changing fast, though. Even the weather is changing fast. So, not surprisingly, the defining issue among the leadership candidates in the face of "violent agreement" on most things is change itself: whether or not the party needs to evolve.

Both Cullen and Mulcair have admirably stirred the fears of party insiders by putting themselves on the uncomfortable side of the change narrative. Good for them, because that's where we all need to be, not lulled to sleep, all cozy and warm in our clubishness. Bedtime stories aren't going to awaken the new voters Canadian progressives need to assemble to face down the Harper government assault force.

The archetypal storyline that we the grassroots need to see ourselves in is about who we truly are. We live in extreme times and are part of a dangerous (progressive) mission in which we're all called upon to be the heroes. Hopefully, if enough of us engage skilfully in energetic and surprising ways, we can end up bringing us all home to ourselves.

This is the narrative of our time. It's the spirit of Occupy, and it's eating its way through dictatorships around the world. The NDP must embrace this peaceful-warrior ethos if it's to grow into the role that voters handed the party last May.

Sure, the party needs to become a brilliant mouthpiece for oppositional ideas. But to fulfill its highest destiny, it must show itself to be what Quebeckers actually voted for -- a cross-country alliance of progressives that has the wherewithal to stop the Conservative steamroller in its petro-fuelled tracks.

Cullen and Mulcair embody that opportunity in different ways, and they both raise challenges to party orthodoxy at the same time. Mulcair opens our eyes to the immense growth possibility the party now has because, as Quebec's most talented native son in the race, he can bring the lessons of that vibrant political culture to the rest of us. His past as a Liberal cabinet minister provokes the party stalwarts who value lefty political purity over growth.

Nathan Cullen, meanwhile, embodies the youth to whom the party must appeal. Perhaps you agree with his cooperation stance, as I do. Perhaps not. But he's shown unbelievable courage in carrying this difficult conversation into the core of the party where it is so needed.

In politics as in life, without speaking the unspeakable, we're doomed to remain stuck in old patterns.

Which leader should we hope for?

This vote is an amazing foreshadowing of a possible better electoral future where we might be empowered to express our wishes in more nuanced and detailed ways than first-past-the-post. It affords the unusual opportunity for more than one choice on your mail-in ballot. And people who choose to vote at the convention virtually or in-person are almost certain to have more than one round of voting. Go, NDP!

If you agree that the party needs to open itself to discussions and ambitions that inspire and animate new communities of social change, Cullen should be your first choice.

A strong showing by the B.C. dark horse MP will send the message that progressives inside the NDP are available for the dialogue we need to keep having and the new generation of politicos we need to attract.

Then mark the obvious political pro and front-runner Thomas Mulcair as your second choice.

And if you stay your own hero, the party wins either way.

This article was first published in NOW magazine.

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