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Former mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi announced on March 11 that he would be seeking the leadership of the provincial NDP party.Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

After weeks of speculation, on Monday Naheed Nenshi officially entered the race to be the next Alberta NDP leader, even as he insists this isn’t the road he thought he would take just a few months ago. As Calgary’s high-profile mayor for 11 years, he avoided any entanglement with party politics.

But he says he cannot abide by a Danielle Smith government that’s “a dangerous mix of incompetent and immoral.”

If Mr. Nenshi manages to clinch the leadership of the province’s main opposition party and go head-to-head with Ms. Smith in an election scheduled for 2027, it will make for one of the country’s most riveting clashes of political ideologies and personas, ever.

Three decades ago, Ms. Smith and Mr. Nenshi were on friendly terms as part of a high-octane group of political nerds who attended the University of Calgary together. Since then, both have been counted out by their critics, a couple of times, but have managed to come from behind to win.

Now they will be the fiercest of rivals, competing with an estranged-sibling-like intuition of how to push each other’s buttons.

“That is not the woman I knew 30 years ago,” he said of Ms. Smith in an interview. “This is someone else entirely.”

To be clear, as much as Mr. Nenshi, 52, is adored by progressives across Canada, this is not the straight shot it might appear from outside of the province. He wasn’t in the trenches when the Alberta NDP only had four seats in the legislature. He’s entering the race late, and with a special exemption, as he was not a party member until recently.

By doing so, Mr. Nenshi will take attention from the women candidates – Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Kathleen Ganley, Sarah Hoffman and Rakhi Pancholi – all MLAs who have longer histories in the party.

“It concerns me so much,” he said on this. “All four of them encouraged me to enter the race and said they would appreciate having more of a spotlight shone on the race, because they too could shine.” (Union leader Gil McGowan is also in the contest.)

But the United Conservative Party is keen on Mr. Nenshi as a candidate, with one insider saying they would be happy to face him in an election, as it would be a humbling experience for the former mayor.

Conservatives paint Mr. Nenshi as a polarizing elite. His main rival in his last municipal election, Bill Smith, said he always believes himself to be “the smartest person in the room.” They also think he’s further to the left than most of the province. The Alberta NDP fortress of Edmonton isn’t going to be put off. But some critics say Mr. Nenshi might actually make the party less electable in places like Lethbridge and Red Deer, and even in his home turf – the main election battleground.

His supporters would say his personal ethics and Harvard-educated smarts make him well worth any hubris. Mr. Nenshi acknowledges his “big mouth” and previous errors, including losing the thread on Calgary’s Olympic bid in 2018. But this is the world as he sees it: “I have a lot less baggage than Danielle Smith.”

His former university chum has transformed into a vassal politician open to the most extreme conservative ideologies, he believes. Her skepticism on vaccines, and her government’s policy on addictions, has cost lives, he argues. And more pain is to come. Mr. Nenshi never thought that the libertarian Ms. Smith – whom he now says he regrets describing as “not a hater” to a worried teen last year – would introduce such wide-ranging, he believes cruel, policies on transgender youth.

He will have to develop serious ideas on everything from child care to climate, policy areas that haven’t traditionally been his bailiwick. He’s more well versed on health care and education than you would expect from a former municipal politician who has been on the speakers’ circuit for a couple of years.

In entering the leadership race, he will instantly raise its profile. If he wins, he is likely to advocate for the further distancing of the provincial party from its federal counterparts led by Jagmeet Singh, which is even less electable than the Trudeau Liberals in most parts of the province.

Which leads to another problem – he’s not really a New Democrat. His signature colour is purple, a mix of Conservative blue and Liberal red. His endorsement of (now outgoing leader) Rachel Notley in the 2023 election campaign was tepid.

But Mr. Nenshi says a personal political journey in recent months has helped him understand the party. And in the end, party members will decide which candidate best represents their views, “but also, which one of these people can beat Danielle Smith, and get rid of this terrible government?”

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