Leading the orange

Take my place and get to hold the megaphone // Wikimedia Commons
Take my place and get to hold the megaphone // Wikimedia Commons

Following Brian Mason’s announcement last month he would be stepping down as leader of the Alberta New Democrats this fall, the party is putting into place the process that will be used to select his replacement. And while the most obvious potential leadership candidates, Mason’s three colleagues in the Legislature—Deron Bilous, David Eggen and Rachel Notley—were busy staring down the government over pension reform this week, party members were happy to talk about what they’re looking for in a new leader, regardless of who that might be.

Political campaigns are fought on two fronts: the air war—think advertising—and the ground game—door knocking and events. Strong air wars cost a lot of money and good ground games need solid organizational infrastructure and an army of foot soldiers.

The NDP, which has struggled with the support of about 10 percent of the electorate for the past two decades, is looking for a leader who can bring them back to the numbers they saw in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before they went from Official Opposition to zero seats following the 1993 election.

Financial statements posted by Elections Alberta last month show the New Democrats received donations totalling $123 397 in the first quarter of 2014, ahead of the Liberal Party which raised $79 905. While this puts the NDP on track to meet or surpass the $636 859 it raised in 2013, it’s important to recognize that when it comes to fundraising, the party is not even in the same ball park as the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose parties, which both raised more in contributions during the first quarter of this year ($769 800 for the first and $891 418 for the second) than the NDP has ever raised in any entire year. While provincial secretary Brian Stokes says that the small debt that is left over from the last election should be retired completely in the next few months, one of the first tasks a new leader will have to tackle will be to fill the coffers to prepare to fight the next election in 2016.

“There’s nothing fancy about being leader of this party,” says Shannon Phillips, policy analyst with the Alberta Federation of Labour and the NDP’s candidate in Lethbridge-West in the last election. While acknowledging that Alberta’s two right-wing parties can still buy an election campaign, she points out that’s never been the way the NDP has campaigned and any competent leader needs to know that and be prepared to “go around all that noise” if they hope to break through that 10-percent support.

Phillips, who pulled off a surprisingly strong second-place finish to the PC incumbent in her constituency, knows of what she speaks. Without the financial resources the other parties enjoy, she says her team earned every vote through hard work: building coalitions with other groups in the community and talking to people on their doorsteps. She says the NDP needs to work harder to reconnect with “blue collar conservatives” and that means the party needs a jobs-centred agenda and a leader who can speak the language of working people.

“There’s no magic, there’s no short-cuts and I’m not interested in anyone who tries to sell me one.”

Phillips says a new leader needs to be prepared to do that hard work themselves and to find good candidates with good teams around them to do that work throughout the province.

Marlin Schmidt, the NDP candidate in Edmonton-Goldbar in 2012, who also placed a strong second to the PCs, seems to have more of the air war on his mind when asked what he’s looking for in a leader.

He says the most important quality a leader has to bring to the table is charisma. “We need someone who is likeable and able to connect with Albertans who would be open to voting for us,” Schmidt says. He suggests that while many progressive Albertans have been drawn to the Liberals since the ’80s, it’s a trend that’s about to end. “That party is basically imploding,” he asserts, contending the NDP is a natural choice for both disaffected Liberals and fed up Red Tories. He’s openly encouraging Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Notley to contest the leadership.

Eggen, MLA for Edmonton Calder, and the only potential leadership candidate who has openly acknowledged he’s exploring the option, says the party is at an important threshold.

“The PCs have absorbed a lot of our vote for a number of years, but I think people are starting to realize that the NDP is the party most aligned with the values of Albertans,” he says, sounding very much like he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and hit the campaign trail. He says he’ll make a decision when his wife and one of their two daughters return from a trip visiting relatives.

Stokes says the committee struck with setting the leadership rules is expected to report back to the executive at the end of this month.



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