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Nenshi already front-runner in Alberta NDP leadership race despite unconfirmed bid: expert

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has not yet confirmed his candidacy in the Alberta NDP leadership election scheduled in June but may be a front-runner in the race, according to one political expert.

In an emailed statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Nenshi said the former mayor will announce whether or not he will run in the Alberta NDP leadership race on Monday.

“I’ve been really touched by the number of people who are excited about the future of Alberta and asking me to run. I’ve thought about it hard, and I’ll have some more to say about it,” Nenshi said in an emailed statement to Global News on Sunday.

This comes after Rachel Notley decided to step down as Alberta NDP leader. Notley said she’ll stay on until there’s a leadership race and vote for a new Alberta NDP leader, and that she’ll support the new leader.

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“Having considered what I believe to be the best interests of our party, our caucus, as well as my own preferences, I am here today to announce that I will not be leading Alberta’s NDP into the next election,” she said on Jan. 16.

So far four MLAs — Kathleen Ganley, Rakhi Pancholi, Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse — have announced their candidacy, along with Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

Click to play video: 'Rachel Notley to resign as Alberta NDP leader'

Rachel Notley to resign as Alberta NDP leader

Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the possibility of Nenshi’s bid for Alberta NDP leadership generated “a lot of buzz.”

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“Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement in this because he’s got such a high profile. He is internationally known. He’s a former marketing (professor, and he’s doing a fair bit of marketing, by the looks of things,” she said.

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Williams said Nenshi’s moderate position may give him an advantage in the Alberta NDP leadership if he chooses to run. Nenshi calls himself purposely a centrist and could be appealing to people who don’t think of themselves as a member of the Alberta New Democrats nor the United Conservative Party, she said.

“Former Progressive Conservatives could really find a candidate like him quite appealing. He’s extraordinarily well-spoken, quick on his feet, and really able to engage the common touch, an ability to really connect with folks,” Williams said. “Those are all skills that will certainly suit him well during the leadership race.”

Nenshi may also help efforts to separate the Alberta NDP from the federal NDP, Williams said. In February, Edmonton MLA Rakhi Pancholi said buying a membership for the Alberta NDP should not automatically mean a membership for the federal NDP.

Before that, the Alberta and Saskatchewan New Democrats issued a joint statement denouncing federal NDP MP Charlie Angus’ proposal saying it is inappropriate and unhelpful along with anti-oil-and-gas.

The Alberta Progressive Future initiative launched in November last year aims to rebrand the Alberta NDP. The grassroots group of NDP members led by director Brian Malkinson said it’s time for the provincial New Democrats to separate from its federal counterpart after hearing feedback from door-knocking back in the spring of last year.

Click to play video: 'What’s next for the Alberta NDP?'

What’s next for the Alberta NDP?

“The NDP in Alberta has distanced itself from all kinds of policies and positions that are taken by the federal NDP. That might be something that’s appealing to general voters and folks who are particularly politically aligned at this stage of the game,” Williams said. “We’re also hearing people suggesting that changing the name of the NDP, sort of rebranding it, might be a good idea. Someone like Nenshi could do that. It might be harder for folks who have been associated with the NDP brand for a longer period of time.”

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However, Nenshi may have a difficult time swaying Calgarians to vote for him.

“Nenshi is going to have to get support in Calgary. That’s going to be key to any possibility of winning the next election, and of course, it’s precisely in Calgary that there are a number of people who don’t like a decision that he made or a statement that he made,” Williams said.

Williams added Nenshi will also need support from supporters in rural and smaller urban areas.

“You can’t just win votes in Calgary. You need to win seats outside of Calgary as well, and he’s got to reach across a lot of barriers to try to get people to support him,” the political scientist said. “There may be people who didn’t particularly support him as mayor but who might be willing to support him as an alternative to Danielle Smith. And he’s got to make that case, sell his vision, and make clear to folks what it is that he stands for, and that it’s a better alternative than what the conservatives are offering.”

– With files from Emily Mertz, Global News.

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