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MLA Rakhi Pancholi drops out of NDP leadership race, endorses Naheed Nenshi

Edmonton-Whitemud MLA Rakhi Pancholi dropped out of the NDP leadership race Tuesday and endorsed Naheed Nenshi as the party’s next leader. 

In an email and video message posted to social media, Pancholi said the former three-term mayor of Calgary has more than doubled the size of the party’s membership within a week. 

Pancholi said growing the Alberta NDP has always been her first priority and that’s why she wants to unite with Nenshi instead of competing against him. 

“We must move forward to offer a positive alternative to the UCP that Albertans can enthusiastically support in the next election,” Pancholi said. 

“And I believe that means uniting behind the next leader, Naheed Nenshi.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Nenshi praised Pancholi for encouraging Albertans who previously would not have voted NDP to buy a membership and pay attention to the race.

He said her description of Alberta “was the kind of province and the kind of promise that felt like Alberta.”

“Rakhi, thank you for the endorsement. You’ve run a courageous, thoughtful, and powerful campaign,” Nenshi said.

“You and your team reached thousands and inspired us with the belief that, here, anything is possible. Together, we can carry that message to everyone in this province and build an Alberta for all of us.”

Pancholi’s decision to exit the race leaves five candidates vying to replace Rachel Notley as NDP leader: Nenshi, Edmonton-Glenora MLA Sarah Hoffman, Calgary-Mountain View MLA Kathleen Ganley, Edmonton-Rutherford MLA Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, and Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. 

Alberta NDP members will choose a new leader on June 22.

Leadership not a done deal, candidate says

Ganley, who had been the only Calgary candidate until Nenshi entered the race, thanked Pancholi for running. She said her NDP caucus colleague is talented and brought forward great ideas. 

NDP leadership candidate Naheed Nenshi spoke to reporters during a visit to the Alberta legislature earlier this month.
NDP leadership candidate Naheed Nenshi spoke to reporters during a visit to the Alberta legislature earlier this month. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC News)

As for Nenshi, Ganley says she is going to focus on her own campaign. 

“I’m delighted to see that our party has grown to the point that we have two very competitive campaigns down here in Calgary,” Ganley said. 

“I’m going to stay focused on what we’re talking to Albertans about because it is resonating. You know, I talk to hundreds of people every week, and more and more people are coming over to join us.”

McGowan, whose campaign launch was delayed when he came down with COVID-19, faced questions at his first campaign news conference on Tuesday about Pancholi’s exit from the race. He said he was disappointed about her decision. 

McGowan said Nenshi is a celebrity, but it’s unclear what he stands for. 

“I don’t think this leadership race should be a coronation,” McGowan said. “I also fundamentally disagree with her that this is a done deal.” 

He said the membership numbers had doubled since Nenshi entered the race but they were still small numbers — from around 16,000 to 30,000.

“There are almost 5 million people in this province,” McGowan said, adding that the challenge is to recruit from the populace who had not previously voted for the NDP.

CBC News has reached out to the other candidates for comment. 

Membership sales

NDP executive director Garett Spelliscy would not confirm Pancholi’s claim that Nenshi has doubled the party membership. He said the party had 16,224 members as of Dec. 31, 2023. 

In an email to CBC News, Spelliscy said the party has to validate new memberships so the party has no plans to release partial sales numbers. The cut-off date for people to join the NDP or renew their membership is April 22. 

“At this stage, prior to this rigorous process and prior to the vote, it’s impossible to attribute membership sales to any individual leadership candidate,” he wrote. 

“This process is essential to a fair and competitive race. On May 12, the balloting deadline, we will share the final number of eligible voters in the leadership race.”

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