Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in his campaign launch video.
Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in his campaign launch video. Credit: Naheed Nenshi campaign Credit: Naheed Nenshi campaign

As expected, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has joined the contest to replace Rachel Notley as leader of the Alberta NDP, and his arrival yesterday with a slick video, a professional website, highly quotable opening lines, and some high-profile endorsements changes things dramatically. 

Say what you will about Nenshi’s qualities as a person or a politician, he is a national figure beloved by mainstream media all the way from Calgary to downtown Toronto and back.

His arrival in the race was greeted with an intense media buzz that is not going to go away until the votes are all counted.

A couple of headlines tell the story as the media sees it, and is going to keep on seeing it.

“Naheed Nenshi is sure to shake up the Alberta NDP leadership race,” said The Toronto Star atop a column by commentator Gillian Steward, a former managing editor of the Calgary Herald

“Naheed Nenshi’s entry into the NDP race is a jolt for Alberta politics,” said the Toronto Globe and Mail over Calgary correspondent Kelly Cryderman’s column.

Cryderman summed up mainstream media’s hopes for the race perfectly, now that the former mayor has added a little celebrity sparkle to the mix: If Nenshi becomes the leader of the Opposition and challenges United Conservative Party Premier Danielle Smith in the election expected in 2027, she wrote, “it will make for one of the country’s most riveting clashes of political ideologies and personas, ever.”

Well, It’s probably fair to say this means the media was bored with a bunch of candidates they didn’t know or care about and this spices things up for them considerably. 

But, really, it’s true – if Nenshi wins, the next election will be a riveting clash.

And who can blame a reporter for liking a good yarn? 

Nenshi’s a performer, he’s got great lines, and he knows how to deliver them. 

“This government is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said yesterday as soon as he’d kicked in the door and started taking potshots at Smith. “They’re not only incompetent, they’re dangerous. And they’re immoral.”

So, what do you really think, Nenshi? 

He has more. 

“We need to do better,” he continued. “We need to be better prepared for the future. We need better public services. Because this government only knows how to do two things: They know how to pick fights, and they know how to waste money. 

“And as they’re busy picking fights and wasting money, life gets harder. It’s getting harder and harder to live here. Our utilities and insurance rates are through the roof, too many of us don’t have a family doc, our kids are in larger and larger classrooms, you can call an ambulance and not know if there’s gonna be an ambulance available. …

“We’re still one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world and this is unacceptable. It is entirely because we have such a terrible government.” 

Who can argue with that? Who doesn’t love it that he’s actually saying it?

Nenshi’s slick opening video hits the same notes – and even has a little magic moment when Tommy Douglas briefly appears on the screen. (This isn’t quite Bernie Sanders’ America, though. It won’t make you actually shed tears. But Tommy might make your eyes a little damp. Why didn’t anyone else think of that?)

Whether or not Nenshi is really the front runner can be debated, but it can be taken as given that from today on, the national media is going to treat him as if he is.

NDP members – old ones, anyway – may not have made up their minds about Nenshi. 

Many fear, legitimately, that he’s not really a New Democrat and won’t honour the traditions of the party – one of which is that you’re supposed to do your time in the trenches before you get promoted to leader. 

But as I said yesterday, Rachel Notley created a coalition that can form a government again, but only with the help of people like the Calgarians to whom Nenshi appeals.

It certainly did no harm when former Calgary city councillor and NDP candidate Druh Farrell tweeted yesterday that “Nenshi governed with unwavering honesty and integrity, stood up for human rights and the health and well-being of his constituents, and showed incredible leadership and compassion during times of crisis. Those are all NDP values.”

Or that Calgary-Elbow MLA Samir Kayande, one of the star candidates MNotley recruited to win Calgary, tweeted: “I am proud to offer @nenshi my enthusiastic support for the Alberta NDP leadership. He governed Calgary capably, lives by his progressive values, and effectively communicates a strong vision for Alberta.”

It probably didn’t hurt either when the usual suspects in the right-wing Twittersphere started screeching about what a rotten person the former mayor is, promising exposés in their dreary house organs, and huffing that he’d be as easy as pie to beat.

The conventional wisdom in NDP circles is that Nenshi is going to have to sell a heck of a lot of memberships to overcome opposition from long-time NDP members uncomfortable with the idea of a leader with no history in a party in which until recently – until yesterday, that is – history was everything for would-be leaders. 

Well, the conventional wisdom is usually right, but I wouldn’t put it past Nenshi to find a way around it this time.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...