Today Alberta New Democrats overwhelmingly elected former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with 86% of the vote to be the leader of their party, ushering in an era of change on the Opposition side of the Alberta Legislature. 

With that in mind, we offer some reflection and speculation as we look ahead to how Nenshi will shape the Alberta NDP and his caucus in advance of the next provincial election. Although that election day is three years away, that time will disappear like a flash. 

Nenshi’s Team 

Politicians are only as good as their teams. It is reasonable to expect that smart people who have been with Nenshi since his election as mayor in 2009 will remain his key advisors and sounding boards going forward. 

While Nenshi has every right to bring in his own people in senior positions, he also must recognize the important role that current political staff have played in building the party up from four seats in 2014 to where it is now. While some will leave on their own, Nenshi needs to find a way to make those who want to stay feel like they have a place in his caucus and party. With that in mind, here are three names to know as Nenshi assembles his team: 

Chima Nkemdirim 

Chima Nkemdirim and Nenshi are long-time friends whose political collaboration goes back to their days as elected student leaders at the University of CalgaryWell respected and much admired, Nkemdirim served as Nenshi’s chief of staff for seven years, helped shape his successful mayoral campaigns, and was also one of the senior members of his Alberta NDP leadership team. A former vice president with Shaw Communications and lawyer turned strategy consultant, Nkemdirim has strong political and business skills. When the Alberta Party was still a factor in provincial politics, his name would often be mentioned as a possible leadership candidate and was someone who was considered a star in the party. Beyond his other considerable skills, Nkemdirim is a consummate diplomat. When Nenshi let his outside voice be heard when he was unhappy with another order of government – Notley government included – Nkemdirim could be called on to find a path forward. Having just started a boutique consulting firm, it seems unlikely that Nkemdirim will join Nenshi’s staff and more likely will remain a trusted friend and confidantRegardless, Nkemdirim will play a significant role in whatever Nenshi does. 

Devery Corbin 

Devery Corbin served as Nenshi’s chief of staff during the latter portion of Nenshi’s tenure as mayor and served in other senior roles at City Hall. Corbin is most likely to join his team immediately as chief of staff or another senior role. Corbin brings experience, intelligence, and significant political skills to the job. Less of a diplomat than Nkemdirim, Corbin is a straight shooter, and you always know you where you stand after a conversation with her. In many ways, Corbin had a more difficult tenure as chief of staff because the Calgary economy was in terrible shape due to the collapse in the price of oil and because Nenshi had come to face voter fatigue, which is inevitable in any political tenure that lasts more than a decade. Corbin will serve as an important security blanket for Nenshi as he deals with the sharp learning curve of moving into provincial politics. 

Zain Velji  

Zain Velji is the man behind Nenshi’s political brand. He is a vice-president and partner with Northweather, a progressive political marketing firm that provided much of the meat and the sizzle behind Nenshi’s three successful mayoral campaigns in addition to being a big part of the Alberta NDP’s campaign in 2019 and 2023. Velji was also Nenshi’s campaign manager in 2017 and was front and centre in his successful leadership bidAn often in-demand political commentator, Vejli will have a major say in the look and feel of the Alberta NDP going forward. Vital in this strategy is getting out early to define Nenshi as a political leader for all Albertans. It is no secret that the UCP will be doing its own work to define the new leader in a less-than-flattering light. Velji knows this all-too-well, and given this track record, there are few people better suited for this important role. 

When Does Nenshi Enter the House? 

Because he does not have a seat in the Alberta Legislature, work will begin on trying to find him a place to run. While the Lethbridge West constituency will open with the departure of former cabinet minister Shannon Phillips, there is risk in running there. In addition to being a parachute candidate, a win in that constituency is not a sure thing. The UCP would love the opportunity to embarrass the new NDP leader and to stop any momentum he has gained. Another possibility would see an NDP MLA from Calgary step aside for the new leader. That would be a significant personal sacrifice and that individual has the right to make that decision on their own, whomever they may be. The easiest and most logical path would have Nenshi run in Edmonton Strathcona once Rachel Notley steps aside, with the obvious caveat that this is a temporary measure. If it was ok for former Premier Don Getty to be MLA for Stettler because he lost his Edmonton-Whitemud seat in the 1989, it is more than acceptable for Nenshi to represent one of the safest NDP electoral districts in Alberta so that he can get down the job of serving as leader of the Official Opposition. 

Nenshi’s Shadow Cabinet 

Smart advice suggests that the new leader not over-complicate the critic assignments. Job one will be to offer prominent roles to the other leadership candidates including Sarah Hoffman, Kathleen Ganley, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, and Rakhi Pancholi who dropped out earlier in the race and endorsed Nenshi. The rest should be a mix of the nine MLAs who supported his candidacy, and just as important, the MLAs who supported other candidates. After a leadership race, it is up to the new leader to bring the team together. No matter how he puts the puzzle together, he will have a talented, experienced, and diverse team. 

Final Thoughts (at least for now) 

I walked away from this campaign feeling very good about the Alberta NDP and its future. No, not all the 85,000-plus new members will maintain their memberships now that their leadership is said and done. However, the party came out of the process much stronger than when the campaign began. 

Congratulations to the people who did the hard work behind the scenes to make the party look professional, organized and ready for prime time, and for all the candidates and their teams for doing politics the right way. Alberta politics remains fascinating to watch. 

For more information on Counsel’s 2024 Alberta political analysis, please see here 

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Deron Bilous, Senior Vice President, Western Canada

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Brad Lavigne, Partner

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Marg McCuaig-Boyd, Senior Advisor