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She helped her province weather a storm of falling oil prices, recession and natural disaster. While she emerged with a high personal popularity rating, her party has not. But she says she’s ‘quite comfortable’ being the underdog – and she’ll see the battle through to the end

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March 28, 2019: Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks at a campaign stop in Calgary.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

George Brookman is speaking for much of downtown Calgary when he says he’s impressed by Rachel Notley’s four years in office and now has a grudging admiration for the Alberta NDP Leader. But he still won’t vote for her.

Albertans have seesawed between economic crisis and disaster over the course of Ms. Notley’s premiership, as the province’s energy industry has suffered through a collapse in oil prices that wiped out more than 133,000 jobs. A bleak recession has left Albertans angry over their plight and frustrated with what they see as the indifference of Ottawa and the rest of the country. As she seeks re-election, Ms. Notley is facing long odds. Still, she has earned the respect of Canada’s conservative heartland.

“I’m not an NDP supporter, but I’ve been impressed on a personal basis by Rachel Notley – there’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Brookman said. He’s been particularly heartened by her vocal defence of Alberta’s energy industry over the past year, as her government came out swinging to support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

A Calgary-based businessman, former president of the Calgary Stampede and director of the Calgary Flames Foundation, Mr. Brookman says Ms. Notley has provided stable leadership. But his respect and kind words for her don’t extend to her party, as he’s not sure how deeply the new admiration for oil has seeped into the NDP’s roots.

“There’s a grudging admiration for her, but she came in with an anti-oil attitude. She’s been trying to change that over the past 15 months, but I’m not sure she’s actually changed her mind. I guess I’m just complimenting her as an individual. I admire her, she’s worked very hard, but you can only push so much water up a river,” he said.

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Above: Ms. Notley addresses supporters at a Calgary rally. Below: Ms. Notley and the 12-passenger van that serves as her mobile campaign headquarters.Photos: Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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The challenges facing Ms. Notley as she seeks to convince a sour electorate to give her a second mandate are substantial. Her personal popularity rating is high, she’s considered likeable, smart and hard-working. Her handling of a bruising recession gets a passing grade. And yet, her party is widely disliked, so she began this election campaign behind her opponent and is expected to lose.

As an Alberta New Democrat, she shrugs off being an underdog. “You know what, I’m fine with it,” she told The Globe and Mail from her Calgary office in early March. “My whole career in politics has been fighting from that position, and we’ve had some successes from there. So I’m quite comfortable with it. I don’t feel the level of worry that you see reflected in the media. Yeah, we’re starting a little behind – that’s totally cool, that’s what campaigns are for.”

Most polls have had her party trailing conservative opponents since soon after her election in 2015. After four years in power, she’s facing a largely unified right after the creation of the United Conservative Party in 2017 with the merger of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and the Wildrose Party. Led by former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney, the UCP has adopted a populist brand of politics that builds off the PC dynasty that ran Alberta for 44 years before Ms. Notley’s win.

The NDP’s support is also far behind that of Ms. Notley herself, according to pollsters. As a result, the party’s campaign signs feature the slogan “Team Rachel Notley” as prominently as the NDP logo.

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On a Calgary candidate's campaign sign, 'Team Rachel Notley' appears before the party's name.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

More than two weeks into the election, the New Democrats are facing a difficult campaign. It’s been an ugly election so far, and the NDP has been pressing the attack on Mr. Kenney’s background since day one. Voters will decide on April 16 whether the orange wave that swept Alberta in 2015 will wash back and leave the province conservative blue again – or whether the NDP will prove it was not an “accidental government,” as Mr. Kenney and his supporters often say dismissively.

Despite her endorsement of Trans Mountain, as well as a plan to spend $3.7-billion to purchase rail cars to move oil and billions more set aside to help build upgrading and refining facilities, Ms. Notley has been dismissed as insufficiently pro-oil by her opponents.

Ms. Notley entered the premier’s office with a thick list of promises – most of which she was able to accomplish, opening her to criticism from some, such as Mr. Brookman, who would have wanted less spending in a time of deficits. Her government shielded health-care and education budgets from cuts, found more money for seniors and ended Alberta’s flat 10-per-cent income tax, a legacy of Ralph Klein’s time in office.

Polling has shown that worries about the economy and jobs dominate the minds of all Albertans, while schools and hospital funding – Ms. Notley’s most obvious path to the hearts of Albertans – are secondary concerns. In fact, by insulating health care and education from budget cuts, Ms. Notley turned all attention to the economy, where she and her party are weakest.

“I’m not exhausted yet,” Ms. Notley said with a sigh in late March as she buckled up in an orange 12-passenger van that serves as her rolling campaign headquarters. With fatigue creeping in, her staff say she’s relying increasingly on her stamina as a marathon runner to stay sharp for a campaign that comes on the heels of a difficult four years in power.

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Ms. Notley reads from a laptop en route to a Calgary campaign event.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

It’s March 28, and Ms. Notley is reading notes as the van, emblazoned with her image, moves through Calgary traffic to her first event of the day. She’s in the capital of Canada’s energy industry, a city suffering from unemployment hovering around its highest level in decades, to shore up support for her party.

While senior New Democrats admit they expect to lose seats in Alberta’s largest city, they need to hold onto a clutch of ridings around the downtown if they’ll have any chance of returning to power. Ms. Notley is their best weapon. She’s one of the most gifted retail politicians Alberta has seen in decades – perhaps since Mr. Klein. Despite her background as a labour lawyer who has taken detours through British Columbia, Toronto and Paris, she’s still the plainspoken daughter of the Northern Alberta town of Fairview.

Over her time in office, she has linked her party’s Prairie pragmatism with support for the oil industry – breaking most ties with the federal NDP in the process. Her brand of Tim Hortons socialism, focused on the blue-collar jobs created by pipelines and oil refineries, finds few friends in Toronto or Montreal. Once one of the federal party’s best fundraisers, she hasn’t made a call for the federal New Democrats since the party showed up for a 2016 conference in Edmonton and debated supporting a far-reaching document known as the Leap Manifesto, which calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels.

According to Janet Brown, an independent pollster based in Calgary, Ms. Notley’s pivot to support the energy industry has been noted by the electorate.

“When I hold focus groups, the phrase I hear all the time is: I’m glad she’s come around – on pipelines, on keeping spending under control. If you ask people, they’ll say she’s done a sufficient job of managing the fiscal situation, but this election is about who will do that best going forward. She’ll get a satisfactory rating from most people. The question is whether that is good enough,” Ms. Brown said.

As for Mr. Kenney, she said he just does not come across as likeable to most voters.

Now Ms. Notley says she has been freed of the constraints of decorum placed on a sitting premier. Driving to a party rally in Calgary, she’s happy to engage in bare-knuckle politics on the campaign trail.

“I’m focused on getting re-elected and watching how Jason Kenney reacts when he wakes up and his declaration of premiership went unheard,” she said.

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May 5, 2015: Ms. Notley, then the newly minted premier-designate, greets supporters in Edmonton on the election night that brought the New Democrats into office.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

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Nov. 22, 2015: Ms. Notley unveils Alberta's climate strategy in Edmonton.AMBER BRACKEN/The Canadian Press

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Feb. 3, 2016: Ms. Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk together after a meeting in Edmonton.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Marcella Munro woke up to a frigid morning in early January, 2016, and flipped on the radio to hear that unemployment in Alberta was at a 20-year high and that Calgary police had just announced that the list of women they had on watch to protect them from domestic violence had exploded.

Ms. Notley had won the election eight months earlier, and Ms. Munro worked as an adviser in the Premier’s office. “Being in government, that was a hard day … so I just didn’t want to get out of bed that morning,” she said in an interview.

Alberta’s recession was bad – and it was only going to get worse over the course of the year.

After a decade of Alberta as the engine of Canadian economic growth, the province’s economy had taken a turn in June, 2014. Oil prices began to slide, with a barrel of Western Canadian Select dropping from US$86.56 to US$17.88 in January, 2016.

While oil prices slowly began creeping up over the course of 2016, the province’s unemployment rate shot up to 9.1 per cent in November as more than 100,000 Albertans were laid off. Billions of dollars in investment disappeared, and Calgary’s office towers began emptying out, with a third of office space left vacant.

To make matters infinitely worse, a wildfire had torn into Fort McMurray that May – the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

“Some people had been used to big oil – they’d never had to worry about the economy like the rest of the country. It was a birthright for them. [That] was a hard year for that,” Ms. Munro said. She has since left government and works as a strategist in Calgary.

With the economy in shambles, a campaign promise to balance the books by 2018 was thrown out. The government poured billions into health care and education while simultaneously seeing tax revenue and resource royalties shrink. The budget deficit hit almost $11-billion in 2016, the largest shortfall as a share of the economy since 1992. The budget hasn’t been balanced since. Alberta had no net debt in 2015, according to the Royal Bank of Canada, but net debt is expected to hit $46-billion next year.

In the two years since, unemployment has stayed stubbornly high as drilling rigs have remained idled. In the United States, meanwhile, oil and gas production has been booming, due in part to the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

According to an analysis by Trevor Tombe, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, the overwhelming majority of Alberta’s lost oil and gas jobs were in positions associated with supporting oil drilling and exploration. The vast majority of those jobs were held by younger men with lower levels of education. While the rest of Alberta’s economy has slowly pulled out of its slump since 2016, young men have yet to see any recovery.

That demographic is part of the reason Ms. Notley’s political future is in jeopardy. Unemployed or underemployed young men have flocked to conservative parties, from the UCP to the further right-wing Freedom Conservative Party. That group of voters has little enthusiasm for New Democrats who cut the ribbons on 240 new or rebuilt schools but failed to save the oil patch.

Voters generally are frustrated by the trajectory of the provincial economy because of stalled pipeline construction projects, according to Ms. Brown. “Albertans are very singularly focused on jobs, the economy and pipelines. That’s the sole preoccupation of the electorate,” she said.

When Ms. Notley was elected in 2015, people told the pollster that their focus was health care and education. “That had been the top concern of Albertans for 15 years. Then two years into Rachel Notley’s mandate, they became preoccupied with the economy – and that’s stuck. Health and education still matter, but people now tell me that we need to figure out how we’ll pay for these things before talking about spending the money,” she said.

While dealing with a boom-and-bust economy is not new to Alberta premiers, the province’s long history of one-party rule has Ms. Notley in a place few of her predecessors have been: facing electoral defeat due to a woeful economy.

She has presented the election as a choice between helping the rich – with Mr. Kenney’s largest spending promise to cut corporate taxes by a third – and taking care of everyone else. It builds on a time in office that saw her focus her efforts on social spending, along with raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and enacting tough new labour laws.

The NDP’s marquee campaign promise on child care would be a dramatic change for the province. The party has said it would spend $1.5-billion over the next five years building out a small child-care pilot program started by Ms. Notley’s government into a provincewide system of 75,000 child-care spots priced at $25 a day. However, it has failed to break through with voters so focused on pipelines. Her wider pitch, with promises of new spending to reduce drug prices for seniors, invest in emergency departments and build 70 new schools, has similarly failed to catch fire.

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Above: Ms. Notley smells a bouquet of flowers at a March 28 campaign event. Below: She speaks alongside her finance minister, Joe Ceci, at an April 1 event in Calgary.Photos: Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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During her frequent visits to Calgary during her four years as premier, Ms. Notley went for a run most mornings along the Bow River with her finance minister. She and Joe Ceci, who lives in the city’s Inglewood neighbourhood, ran for several kilometres with few words being spoken. The quiet jaunts on sleepy residential streets were a necessary time for her to burn off stress, Ms. Notley said.

The NDP has had a hold on seats in central Edmonton for decades. Calgary has proven a tougher terrain, where many like Mr. Brookman simultaneously respect Ms. Notley but hope for her defeat.

Born in Edmonton, Ms. Notley was raised in Fairview. She has two children with her husband, Lou Arab, who works for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Trained at the University of Alberta and Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, she took over the leadership of Alberta’s NDP in October, 2014, just seven months before her election as premier.

Prior to her win, Alberta’s NDP was seen as something of a Notley family project. Her father, Grant Notley, became the party’s first elected legislator in Alberta in 1971. For 11 years he would remain the sole New Democrat in the legislature, joined in 1982 by Ray Martin. The two seats made Mr. Notley the leader of Alberta’s Official Opposition. Two years later, he was killed in an airplane crash in Northern Alberta. He had set up his party for a breakthrough in 1986, when it won 16 seats, an achievement that would not be topped until Ms. Notley’s win in 2015.

After so long in the political wilderness, Ms. Notley had much to do. Taxes were increased on high earners and corporations, as promised in the party’s platform, and a carbon tax was introduced.

Ms. Notley sold the latter as a grand bargain with Canada. Along with an aggressive climate program that included a cap on emissions from the oil sands, pipelines would be speedily constructed, she said. Pointing to delays plaguing Trans Mountain, Mr. Kenney has declared that Ms. Notley’s promised “social licence” has not materialized.

The NDP Leader’s position on pipelines is a sign of pragmatism, according to Ujjal Dosanjh, a former B.C. attorney-general and later premier, who hired the young activist as his ministerial assistant in the mid-1990s.

A young Ms. Notley, newly trained as a lawyer, faced a series of tough files assisting Mr. Dosanjh when he was attorney-general. She worked on protecting old-growth forests after a series of protests around Clayoquot Sound and extended provisions in the province’s family law to same-sex couples.

“She’s very stubborn, in the way that if she puts her mind to something, she’ll push for it and she’ll probably succeed,” he said. “Power changes you, it makes you a pragmatist. She was always somewhat pragmatist, not an airy-fairy idealist, so I haven’t been surprised how she’s evolved over time.”

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Ms. Notley greets supporters in Calgary.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Notley says the activist and “overworked premier” still co-exist inside her.

Speaking with The Globe shortly before she sent her province into an election, she said the proudest moment of her premiership had occurred only days earlier: New data from Statistics Canada revealed that, despite the province’s economic hardship, child poverty in Alberta had been halved between 2015 and 2017.

“We have by far and away the lowest child poverty in the country, and 2015 to 2017 was probably the most difficult economic time in Alberta in a generation, and yet we were able to do that. That made me really proud, because that was a measurable thing and you can picture the people whose lives were affected. That’s the activist in me that says, ‘Oh wow, that was pretty good,’” she said.

Along with deep deficits, statistics like that are a sign of what Ms. Notley’s legacy will be, according to Ms. Brown. The New Democrat restored stability to her office – Ms. Notley is Alberta’s fifth premier since 2010 – and saw her province through a difficult period while building billions in new infrastructure for a growing population. “Her influence and that of the NDP has been unique. Even if they are ultimately a one-time government, they’ve changed the trajectory of Alberta’s politics forever.”

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