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Ex-Calgary mayor Nenshi expected to be focus of first Alberta NDP leadership debate

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is expected to be the centre of attention as the first debate in the Alberta NDP leadership race is held Thursday night.

But a political scientist is expecting the exercise to be more civil than civil war as the five candidates meet up in Lethbridge, Alta., to put their best foot forward.

“It’s going to be a tricky thing because each of them is going to want to distinguish themselves without hurting the chances of whoever wins,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“Negativity turns folks off. 

“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.”

Nenshi, 52, was elected mayor of Calgary in 2010 and won three terms before deciding to bow out before the 2021 municipal election.

Other candidates include three current NDP members of the legislature: Calgary’s Kathleen Ganley and Edmonton representatives Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse.

Gil McGowan, the head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, is also running.

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. 

Williams said she expects there will be questions directed at Nenshi during the debate but they won’t be personal attacks. 

“I don’t think it’s just about convincing people who’ve bought memberships. I think this is about reaching out and conveying to broader Alberta what this party has to offer,” she said.

“I just think the audience they are trying to appeal to doesn’t see negativity favourably.”

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

Williams said now that the deadline has passed for people to buy party membership and vote, it’s important for candidates to explain how their visions of the future are best for all Albertans.

“I think we’re basically in the beginnings of the next election campaign and they’ve got to start winning people over from here forward.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press


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