Photo: Hamdi Issawi

Political pasts: Will party ties help or hinder Edmonton mayoral hopefuls?

Party affiliations are a mixed bag.

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Around the time Amarjeet Sohi announced his bid to become Edmonton’s mayor, Mike Nickel—another mayoral hopeful—tried drawing attention to Sohi’s political past.

Sohi is a former Liberal Party of Canada MP, and was Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s Minister of Natural Resources until 2019. In social media posts, Nickel shared photos of his competitor standing side by side with Trudeau, an apparent effort to wield Alberta’s discontent with the current federal government.

Nickel, who is running for mayor for the third time, also has a past in politics beyond the municipal level. In 2018, he made an unsuccessful bid to be the provincial United Conservative Party’s (UCP) MLA for Edmonton-South.

These connections, real or perceived, can be a double-edged sword for candidates, according to Edmonton election experts. They can help with name recognition and help attract funds, volunteers and donors to a campaign. However, though municipal voters may not be terribly interested in partisan politics, some may still make the connection between a candidate and a political party that they like or hate.

Recently, a group affiliated with the provincial NDP made headlines for trying to limit the number of progressive candidates running in select wards to avoid vote splitting. But candidates with partisan ties are nothing new in Edmonton’s municipal politics.

Karen Leibovici, a former city councillor who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2013, was a Liberal MLA prior to entering municipal politics. And in 2016, former city councillor Michael Oshry considered running for leadership of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Alongside Sohi and Nickel, Oshry is also one of the 10 candidates running Edmonton’s mayor seat in 2021.

Notably, though, neither the federal Liberals nor the UCP are particularly beloved in Edmonton. The governing UCP swept most of Alberta in 2019’s election, but won only a single seat in the capital. Moreover, Premier Jason Kenney’s approval ratings are low, and have been falling since the summer of 2019.

Further left on the political spectrum, the federal Liberals failed to win a single seat in Edmonton (or Alberta) in the last federal election.

Leaving the past behind

To some degree, both Sohi and Nickel appear to avoid mentioning their pasts with these parties. Sohi’s campaign materials largely don’t point towards his time as a federal minister, and Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, said that he appears to be going out of his way to downplay his connections to Trudeau.

Party ties, real or perceived, can be a double-edged sword for municipal candidates.

Sohi’s campaign materials also don’t point towards any other candidate’s previous affiliations with any given political party. In an interview with The Sprawl—in which he did speak about his work in Ottawa—the former minister said: “I have always and will continue to put Edmonton first. Politics for me has never been about partisanship.”

Nickel was not available for an interview. However, in various social media posts, he denied a connection between himself and Alberta’s governing party. All the same, Wesley notes that ties to Canadian conservatism, perhaps more generally, appear in his campaign. A refrain from Nickel’s campaign, “It’s your turn to get ahead,” is similar to the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2019 slogan “It’s time for you to get ahead.

A campaign email from Nickel reads, in part “I would like to welcome former Justin Trudeau Cabinet Minister, Amarjeet Sohi, to the mayoral race. Many folks may remember, Mr. Sohi took a leave of absence to run as a Liberal MP, while remaining as a City Councillor.”

Whether or not Nickel’s ties to the currently unpopular UCP are real, it’s doubtful that they would be a big draw for voters in Edmonton. “It's not going to help him,” Wesley said.

However, there are still large numbers of conservative voters in Edmonton.

Wesley notes that Edmonton being a progressive city is something of a myth considering the number of NDP ridings last election that were won only by small margins. Right-wing voters who dislike the UCP might not have beef with conservatism in general, and still vote for Nickel, he adds.

The Liberal Party of Canada might not be as toxic a brand in Alberta’s capital as one would expect.

Both Wesley and Najib Jutt, a political strategist with Statecraft Partners, said that having party ties can also help a campaign.

A candidate’s experience or ties might help attract donors, volunteers and experienced campaign workers to their camps. Jutt has worked on campaigns for both affiliated and unaffiliated candidates, and says the former get a bit of a jumpstart. But he also notes that these ties can also be used against candidates in some cases. “That could be a reason why Coun. Nickel isn't trying to wave the UCP flag,” Jutt said.

Is there an appetite for partisan politics?

Cheryll Watson, former leader of Innovate Edmonton, is also running for mayor, and has no apparent past with political parties. In an interview with The Sprawl, she says that she sees being unaffiliated as a strength. “I don't think political parties have any place in city-building,” she said.

However, she notes that whoever wins the mayor’s seat will need to work well with parties that end up running the province and country. She also says that she would work to rebuild the strained relationship between Edmonton’s municipal government and the province.

Indeed, working with whatever federal or provincial parties are in power in the future is an important consideration for candidates, Jutt says. Sohi might be better at getting federal funding if the federal Liberals win their upcoming election, while Nickel might be better at getting provincial money if the UCP win again in 2023. This might be a factor in people’s voting decisions, Jutt adds, though that ultimately depends on how informed they are.

“This is a big consideration during this election,” Jutt said. “The ability to interact with the provincial government has been an issue for many of the councillors over the last couple of years, especially the ones that are deemed to be more progressive."

I don’t think political parties have any place in city-building.

Cheryll Watson,

Edmonton mayoral candidate

Ultimately, though, there are other factors that could make or break a campaign. Jutt believes that voters are most likely to choose whoever they think will usher the city through the post-pandemic world. Vote splitting could also be a factor—a candidate viewed as left-leaning could receive fewer votes if there are many other alternatives on that side of the spectrum, for instance.

Like Jutt and Wesley, political commentator Dave Cournoyer sees potential monetary and personnel benefits to political ties, but he also notes that there’s not likely much of an appetite for partisan politics at the municipal level. Party supporters won't necessarily flock to candidates aligned with their party, he adds, and in the cases of Nickel and Sohi both have already made names for themselves in Edmonton as city councillors.

On the other hand, Wesley believes that this election may end up being a polarized one. He said that candidates without a clear side on the political spectrum should probably pick one and stick to it, rather than straddling the centre. “If recent election results have shown us anything, it's that Albertans aren't in the mood for centrists,” he said.

Doug Johnson is a Canadian writer, editor and journalist.

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