Before he launched a campaign that would see him take over as leader of Alberta’s New Democrats, Naheed Nenshi worried politics had become too polarized, too toxic for him.

But ultimately that was why the man known for espousing “politics in full sentences” decided he had to return.

“The players make the game. And if we abandon the game because it's so awful, then the game will get worse,” Nenshi said in an interview before winning the party’s leadership vote on the first ballot on Saturday.

“We need a new government very badly, and we're not a debating society.

“But also we don't want to win at all costs. That's what the (governing) (United Conservative Party) does.”

The win represents a big step onto a much bigger stage for the 52-year-old.

Nenshi was late to the game as an NDPer, getting his party membership earlier this year in order to run for the top job.

But he says his progressive values mesh with the core principles of the party he will now lead as the head of Alberta’s Opposition, and the numbers of new recruits back that up.

Membership in the party ballooned more than fivefold from 16,224 in December to more than 85,000 for the vote, spiking after Nenshi joined the race and prompting one of the candidates, Rakhi Pancholi, to exit the race and join his team.

Nenshi learned 15 years ago to translate his intellectual approach to public life into a symbol as simple as a purple tie. 

It’s not conservative blue. It’s not Liberal red. 

It’s a brand designed to duck partisan branding. Nenshi says it’s an invitation for people to set aside their tribalism.

Recently the former three-term Calgary mayor, a Harvard-educated business professor who dove into business consulting in the last three years, has been enthusiastically adding NDP orange to his wardrobe.

Nenshi’s family immigrated to Canada from Tanzania. He made international headlines when he became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city in 2010, and his social-media savvy helped his brand pick up steam.

He was lauded for his handling of the city’s devastating flood in 2013.

Calgary city Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra was first elected the same year as Nenshi and said the former mayor should get credit for his fight against what was dubbed the “sprawl subsidy” — the cost to taxpayers of suburban development.

“He believes that democracy works,” said Carra.

“He believes that everyone who is elected has the right and duty to be at the table, and he ran a much more collaborative council than his predecessor.”

There’s no doubt Nenshi’s personality has pull.

At the height of his popularity, Carra said people clamoured for selfies with the mayor.

Jeromy Farkas, a conservative voice on city council during Nenshi’s final term, has since become an unlikely booster. 

“After so many attempts, he couldn’t be beaten and he couldn’t be bought,” said Farkas.

Farkas said Nenshi built a reservoir of goodwill behind the scenes, regularly breaking bread with his rival to talk about how they might work together.

“Often he thinks he's the smartest person in the room, but it's also a challenge for his opponents — because he often is the smartest person in the room.”

But, Farkas said, Nenshi has baggage. Farkas pointed to tax increases during Nenshi’s tenure as mayor and the city’s failed Olympic bid.

But Farkas said Nenshi would let other people take credit for his ideas and take blame for mistakes others made.

“He was very much a leader of ideas rather than a leader of people,” said Farkas.

“He has been able to fight and go galvanize (the NDP) in a way that conservatives should be rightfully concerned with.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2024.