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Yearbooks, dogs and Christmas parties: Notley opens up as election looms

Just before Christmas, Premier Rachel Notley stopped at her high school alma mater during a swing through northern Alberta. The trip was documented on social media.

Rachel Notley's new focus on family a tactic to contrast with priorities of UCP leader?

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley posted this picture with her husband Lou Arab on Christmas Eve. (Rachel Notley/Instagram )

Just before Christmas, Premier Rachel Notley stopped at her high school alma mater during a swing through northern Alberta.

A video posted to her Instagram account on Dec. 14 shows Notley at Fairview High School, reading her entry in the yearbook from the year she graduated.

"'Rae likes to ski, read, draw, and bike,'" she reads, adding, "That's true."

"'Rae was last seen letting the air out of her tires so she could stay in town,'" Notley continues.

"It's possible that happened," she remarks to the camera with a laugh.

The video is a personal moment, highlighting Notley's ties to Alberta. The daughter of former NDP leader Grant Notley, the premier was born in Edmonton and grew up on a rural property in her father's riding, on the banks of the Peace River, south of Fairview.

When Notley was first elected premier in May 2015, she shared little of her personal life. With a provincial election coming up in the next few months she has opened up more and more.

Over the Christmas holidays, Notley posted pictures of her life at home: sitting by the fire with her husband Lou Arab, her dog Tucker looking for leftovers under the family Christmas table, parties with family and friends.

Earlier this month, she appeared on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM to present one of her favourite noshes —the spinach fatayer from Sunbake Pita — to the show's resident Snack Checker, Clare Bonnyman.

The premier's communications staff asked for Notley to appear. In the interest of balance, the show's producers asked United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney to come for a visit, too.

He obliged and appeared this week to present his favourite snack: movie popcorn. 

March 18 throne speech 

As premier, Notley determines when the next election will be held. She says she plans to call the vote within the legislated window between March 1 and May 31, 2019.

The government revealed there will be a throne speech on March 18, leading many to speculate an election will be called immediately afterwards.

However, the unofficial campaign is already underway. The UCP released its first election ads earlier this month with the new slogan "Alberta Strong and Free."

Last week, Kenney made a four-day trip to northern Alberta where he made campaign-style stops with the local UCP candidates in Valleyview, Grande Prairie, Sexsmith, Spirit River, Fairview, Peace River, Beaverlodge and High Level.

Recently, Notley has appeared at news conferences that contain very little news. She recently held photo ops at the Calgary Cancer Centre and the Inter Pipeline Heartland Petrochemical Complex near Fort Saskatchewan to talk up her government's record.

"Tucker’s wondering why there was no plate for him," Notley wrote on Instagram on Dec. 25. "Even without him, it was a tight squeeze but we’re lucky to be together for the holidays and I wouldn’t have it any other way." (Rachel Notley/Instagram )

Notley launched a partisan attack on Kenney during a speech to the Alberta Heartland Association on Jan. 17, accusing him of having a secret plan to start charging tolls for Alberta highways. The UCP said Kenney was only mulling user fees for new industrial infrastructure, not existing roads.

A week later Notley told the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce that Kenney's promises of zero spending increases to government spending amount to a funding cut in a growing city and province. 

Meanwhile, Notley's social media feeds are becoming more personal, a trend that coincided with the NDP's convention last October, where Arab re-emerged from the party's backrooms to introduce his wife's keynote speech.

Prior to the 2015 election, Arab was a vocal participant on Twitter. He disappeared from the platform after Notley became premier.

Before sharing anecdotes about how he met Notley, Arab joked about how he couldn't believe organizers were letting him near a microphone.

Kenney's brand different

A video at the convention showed Notley riding horses on her parents' old property south of Fairview. She also told a folksy story about how her dad's truck rolled into the river valley while they were building fences.

University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley, who studies branding in politics, said Notley is more popular than the NDP's brand in Alberta so it's not surprising the party is putting her front and centre.

By revealing more about her home life, Wesley said the party is likely trying to show Notley as someone who relates to Alberta families, in comparison to Kenney, her main opponent.

"Jason Kenney has not prioritized family as part of his own personal brand," Wesley said. "This may be an opportunity for [Notley] to show that she identifies with ...working families or middle class families in a way that Jason Kenney doesn't do on a personal level, at least not to this stage."

Dimitri Pantazopoulos is the senior strategist on the UCP's election team.

Pantazopoulos said people already know plenty about Notley's family background, and it won't matter to people like laid-off oil workers who have been hurt by her government's policies.

"She may be trying to just recast herself in a different light to try to offset some of the past problems and challenges of her government and hopefully making people forget about the economic record and the fiscal record of the NDP government," he said.

Although Kenney is quieter about his personal life, his social media posts aren't all business. The UCP leader is frequently shown smiling with supporters at events across the province.

Every once in awhile he throws in a personal post. Last summer Kenney posted pictures of a hike with friends at Lake Louise. A post from Dec. 10 shows Kenney in the village of Wilcox, Sask., where he grew up, with a nostalgic post echoing what Notley did in Fairview.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney shared pictures of a visit to Wilcox, Saskatchewan, where he lived as a boy, on his social media last month: "Got a chance to visit the village where I grew up yesterday, Wilcox Saskatchewan. Visited the three-room public school I attended, cheered on the @NotreDameHounds girls' hockey team, and caught up with some old friends. A lot of happy memories." (Jason Kenney/Instagram )

"Visited the the three-room public school I attended, cheered on the Notre Dame Hounds girls hockey team and caught up with some old friends," the post said. "A lot of happy memories."

Pantazopoulos said the campaign plans to introduce or reintroduce Kenney to Alberta voters to counter what he calls the caricature presented by his opponents.

The campaign will shift towards the UCP's policies and how the party will govern the closer Alberta gets to election day, he said.

Campaigns matter

The new UCP ads for the election almost exclusively featured the party's 25 female candidates, delivering a message of diversity. Kenney himself has pushed to get more women to run for his party, which has a female president and executive director but only three female MLAs.  Despite Kenney's efforts, about half of the nominated candidates are white males.

Pantazopoulos said the campaign will have many aspects and won't just focus on the diversity of the party's candidates. That aside, he said the UCP has an excellent slate of candidates.

"If you put the United Conservative candidates person for person next to the current NDP caucus in government, you've got a far higher quality and better team of people."

Although the UCP holds a considerable lead in the polls over Notley's NDP, Wesley says campaigns matter. He points to Notley's performance against then-premier Jim Prentice in the debate as the key turning point in the 2015 campaign.

"To say that this campaign is over, I think most conservative strategists would tell you absolutely it's not," he said.

"And I think they would they would concede that Rachel Notley is her party's biggest asset. So they also have to play a pretty careful game when it comes to how they frame her."

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