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Purple politician goes orange: Former mayor Nenshi vying for Alberta NDP leadership

CALGARY — Naheed Nenshi cloaked himself in purple — a mix of Liberal red and Conservative blue — during his dark-horse bid to become Calgary’s mayor in 2010, for the 11 years he stayed in the job and in much of his post-city hall life. 

The hue of the ties and shirts he donned for work was meant to symbolize his non-partisan approach to getting things done in public office. 

But on Monday, the purple ex-mayor entered the arena of ideological fisticuffs, running to replace Rachel Notley as the head of Alberta’s official Opposition NDP with the goal of standing across from United Conservative Premier Danielle Smith, a former University of Calgary classmate, in the legislature.

In an interview in 2021, after he announced he would not try for a fourth term as mayor, Nenshi showed little interest in running for another order of government but didn’t rule it out.

“Ultimately, I’m not sure if there’s a lot of room for purple in federal and provincial politics,” he said. 

“Maybe there is.”

Nenshi, in an interview before he announced his NDP candidacy Monday, said purple has many shades of meaning and the colour also symbolizes not being defined by one’s tribe during an “extremely divisive” time. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for common humanity,” he said.

“You know what? There has to be. We can’t continue to go on like this.”

Nenshi, 52, has kept his hands in discourse on the provincial scene since he left municipal office. 

He endorsed Notley’s NDP three days before the May 2023 provincial election, which the UCP won, albeit with major seat losses in Calgary.

Nenshi didn’t exactly ditch the purple and wrap himself in NDP orange in an opinion piece he wrote for CTV News announcing his voting plans.

In it, he lamented the “lost opportunity” while Notley was premier from 2015 to 2019 to make major strides in housing and mental health. He also called the NDP’s failure to support a Calgary bid for the 2026 Olympics — an idea he championed — a “massive fumble.”

But he called Smith an “existential threat” to Alberta.

“We simply have no idea what she will do as premier, and that scares me more than a few years of a potentially not-great NDP government.”

Nenshi has been a regular broadcast pundit and column writer in his post-mayor life. He remains a prolific poster on the social media platform X, which used to be known as Twitter and where his foray into city politics got much of its traction among young people.

He spoke passionately at a rally outside Calgary City Hall last month after Smith announced planned policies affecting transgender Albertans, including parental notification if children want to change their names or pronouns at school.

“Premier Smith, I want you to understand that votes aren’t worth a few dead kids,” Nenshi told the rally.

Nenshi was a little-known academic when he pulled off a long-shot win against two establishment candidates in 2010 to become the first Muslim mayor of a big North American city.

Hallmarks of Nenshi’s time in municipal office included expanding public transit, growing cycling infrastructure, building a new downtown library praised by many as an architectural gem and trying to rein in suburban sprawl. 

Toward the end, he became a polarizing figure as the wider economy faltered, tensions grew with the provincial government and his dream of Calgary again hosting the Winter Games after its famous 1988 turn fizzled. 

Nenshi, during his time as mayor, also garnered national attention for his handling of the 2013 floods that submerged several Calgary neighbourhoods.

People affixed pictures of his head on ads for the Superman movie “Man of Steel” and put up posters suggesting Calgarians “Keep Calm and Nenshi On.”

The phrase “Nenshi noun” became social media shorthand for someone doing something dangerously stupid after, at a news conference, he chastised someone he saw boating on one of the city’s swollen rivers.

“I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe people I saw on the Bow River today. I am not allowed to use any of them,” he said.

A self-described wonk, he has a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Calgary, where he was president of the students union. He also holds a master’s in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

In his 2010 victory speech, Nenshi said he hoped kids of all ethnicities would see him elected and think: “I can be anything.”

But Nenshi, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Tanzania while his mother was pregnant with him, has also said it shouldn’t have been a shock to see someone who looks like him winning political office in a city sometimes deridingly called “Cowtown.”

“How could a non-white person, a Muslim, get elected in a place like that?” Nenshi, in the 2021 interview, recalled people saying of his first mayoral victory.

“And all these people wrote these ridiculous thought pieces (that said), ‘This is the face of the new Calgary.’

“I thought to myself, ‘Jeez, I’ve lived here almost my whole life. This new Calgary’s been around for at least four decades and no one seems to have noticed.'”

Nenshi recounted how someone in his office was asked what it’s like to have a “chilled out” boss with one foot out the door.

“And his response was, ‘Have you met the mayor? He doesn’t have a chill gear.'”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2024. 

— with files from Bill Graveland. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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