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Alberta NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi in Calgary on Feb. 8.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A contender in the race for the leadership of Alberta’s Opposition NDP has dropped out to support fellow candidate Naheed Nenshi, citing the former Calgary mayor’s ability to expand the party.

“My goal was always to grow our party,” Edmonton legislature member Rakhi Pancholi said in an interview Tuesday after announcing on social media she was leaving the race to replace current NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

“We had some information that came out on Friday about the updated membership numbers, and it was very clear that Naheed Nenshi has done quite a remarkable job at increasing the number of memberships. That is the same goal that I had.”

Pancholi said in one week, Nenshi had doubled the size of the Alberta NDP’s membership and brought in tens of thousands of new supporters, but said she couldn’t provide more details.

“The party’s still continuing to verify those numbers,” she said.

It was enough to convince Pancholi, but not enough to convince two of her former rivals.

“My campaign has sold thousands of memberships,” said Calgary legislature member Kathleen Ganley. “Our party is growing.”

Fellow candidate Sarah Hoffman said she has done the same. She pointed out that she has won numerous elections under the New Democrat banner and Nenshi hasn’t won any.

“We win when people know who we are,” she said.

“I’m not going to shy away from my history or our history or try to repackage the Liberal Party under a new brand.”

Ganley pointed out that New Democrats already won both the seat count and the popular vote in Calgary in the previous election.

“We won as a team that worked hard and stuck to our values,” she said.

Nenshi, in a statement on social media, welcomed his new supporter.

“Rakhi, you presented values all Albertans share: optimism, hope, and opportunity,” Nenshi said.

“A lot of people that had never thought about voting orange began buying memberships and paying attention.

“Thank you for the endorsement. You and your team reached thousands and inspired us with the belief that, here, anything is possible.”

Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said Pancholi bowing out and backing Nenshi changes the nature of the race.

“The two most dynamic candidates, the ones with the greatest capacity to reach out to new members, to connect with people, those two candidates are now aligned,” she said.

The campaign could now be seen as a contest between those who seek to remain true to their deep roots in the party and those who want change in order to expand the party’s appeal, Williams said. Hoffman, said Williams, seems to be appealing to principle rather than pragmatism.

“She’s trying to appeal to people who are already there. Naheed Nenshi and Rakhi Pancholi are of the view that they need to reach out to more Albertans, maybe even to those that see themselves as progressive conservatives who no longer recognize themselves in the (governing) United Conservative Party.”

Williams pointed out Nenshi’s popularity had declined during his three terms as Calgary mayor and that he comes with baggage of his own.

“He burned a lot of political capital in Calgary,” she said.

Pancholi stood out in the campaign for, among other issues, suggesting that a consumer carbon tax is no longer the best way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. She said she’s had one conversation with Nenshi since deciding to bow out.

“I’ve had conversations with him about the perspective I bring and the energy I bring, and I think there will be broad alignment. I think I will also have the opportunity to have input in that direction.”

Pancholi couldn’t give details about how her campaign will wind down and what will happen to the financial and volunteer resources she has amassed. She said many of those working, joining or donating on her behalf were also new to the party.

“The reason they joined my campaign was that I was talking about that vision of growing the party,” Pancholi said. “They will see similarities, I’m sure, with Naheed’s campaign, but they will make their decisions.”

Other candidates are Edmonton legislature member Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The vote for a new leader is to take place June 22.

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