Analysis

Rachel mania: what makes NDP's Notley the 'right leader?'

Alberta's new premier-designate has been called the “right leader at the right time.” Books could be written about why it was the right time. But what is it about Rachel Notley that has captivated voters?

Crowds, and mobs and popularity - but why?

This is the ground view from Radio-Canada cameraman Brent Roy as hundreds rushed Rachel Notley when she entered headquarters after win 4:07

The first inkling came early, on what was meant to be a routine whistle stop.

People packed the parking lot outside the Calgary-Fort campaign office. A blow-up horse peered out from the back of a pickup truck. There was a karaoke machine and a carnival atmosphere.

The reason for the parking lot party quickly became clear — there was no space in the office. A reporter who arrived late could hardly hear the speech, because he couldn't get a spot close enough to the front.

It was just the second day of Rachel Notley's campaign.

"This is something special here," a key member of the NDP team thought at the time.

Sally Housser was part of federal NDP Leader Jack Layton's wildly successful campaign in 2011. Coming into Alberta's 2015 vote, she had planned for something small, guerrilla style. It was anything but.

More than 150 came to Notley's Canadian barbecue event in Red Deer — in the middle of the day, when it was snowing. 

In Lethbridge, cyclists riding by as she door-knocked called out, "Happy birthday," and people later packed a local bar to join her for cake.

An off-the-cuff thank you to her husband, Lou Arab, in a speech soon turned into hundreds of people in the crowd chanting his name: "Lou, Lou, Lou."

Her popularity simmered on the boil from the start, even in rural areas typically considered right-wing strongholds. And it overflowed on election night: when a cheering mob of hundreds knocked over media, crowded Notley's security guards, and reached between their shoulders to high five her.

Many say the leader's charisma was as important to the orange wave cresting in Alberta as the shifting political climate that made it possible in the first place.

Just call me Rachel

A few days after the victory earlier this week that many predicted but few expected, there was a buzz in Notley's neighbourhood.

Soon-to-be-premier Rachel Notley flashes her well-known smile as she high-fives a supporter on election night in Edmonton this week. Albertans are captivated with Notley, the NDP leader with a background in labour law, and politics in her blood. (CBC)
Notley lives with her husband and two teenage children within blocks of a hipster coffee shop bakery in urban Old Strathcona — where it was easy to find people who want to talk about her.

"Rachel definitely does come off very well," said Kathryn Stone, one of the legion of NDP fans among Alberta's youth.

"She was very well spoken and quite classy in how she responded to some of Jim Prentice's remarks," Stone said, in reference to the dethroned premier.

It's not how Stone said it, but what she said.

She called the premier designate "Rachel," as though speaking of a friend. Listen to people talking in other coffee shops and bars, and you'll hear more of the same. Alberta hasn't seen this kind of popular familiarity since the Klein era, when people called the premier "Ralph."

Those who knew Notley before she entered public life may be able to pinpoint some of the reasons.

She seems like the real deal

"I think that when people are looking for a saviour, then people want to latch onto anything that they see good. And she is good," retired lawyer and politician Ujjal Dosanjh said from his home in British Columbia.

Dosanjh hired Notley, a labour lawyer, soon after they met in the late nineties. He was B.C.'s attorney general and was impressed with the tough, but respectful grit she displayed in her job interview.

"I always wanted to work with people who could get into a room with me and argue, because that's the best way to make tough decisions," he said.

Notley did not disappoint. She was Dosanjh's assistant when his office introduced ground-breaking legislation: new amendments to protect rights for same-sex marriages and families. A tough file and a tough role, which the young lawyer handled with aplomb — and that trademark warm smile.

"When I was dragging my feet, I was told my place," Dosanjh said, chuckling at the memory of the five-foot-and-a-bit Notley practically pulling him by the ear to canvas doorsteps one evening. He admitted he was being lazy when she reminded him of the importance of the job.

Moments like that, part of her informal style, earned his trust.

"I think that happens out of a place of confidence in yourself, where you can let your guard down and relate to other people in a very close, human way. And I think she's able to do that," he said.

"With Rachel, what you see is what you get."

It's something people noticed on the campaign trail too.

"She's a real person," said Housser, remembering Notley's willingness to laugh at herself (her short stature was a running joke), her morning ritual to find a Starbucks latte (non-fat), and the phone calls fielding requests from her kids — like arranging rides to dance lessons.

"You don't get a sense that you're talking to a politician here."

She's one of us

Back in Notley's neighbourhood, a former PC supporter said he has never met her in person, but feels much the same way.

Edmonton senior Larry Dufresne grew up in the city. He recognizes Notley, an avid runner, from his workouts at the nearby Kinsmen sports centre.

"I see her with her girlfriends periodically," he said. "They're having fun, running the track. She's very personable. But very intelligent, too. You can tell."

Dufresne voted Tory his whole life and never thought he would support the NDP. Then he saw Notley's performance in the leaders' debate.

"Seeing her in action changed my mind. You just had that feeling, " Dufresne said, placing his hand over his heart.

The televised debate was a turning point for many. PC Leader Prentice zeroed in on Notley early and she struck back with a calm smile — even when he made a comment questioning her math capabilities, which many later called patronizing.

"She's sincere, like her Dad," he said. "Her integrity is high. It's in the genes."

We knew her dad

Notley's father died in a plane crash when she was 20 years old.

Grant Notley is credited with building the NDP during his tenure as leader from 1968 until his death in 1984. His team orange, which had taken fewer than four seats in the province previously, finally won 16 to become the Official Opposition two years after he died.  

"There's a bit of a love affair they had," said Dosanjh. "He never won government but was obviously very popular in his time."

Dosanjh said Notley never talked to him about following in her father's footsteps, but he wasn't surprised when she won an Alberta MLA seat in 2008.

Brian Mason, leader of the party at the time, said he recognized her potential even then.

"It was just a matter of building capacity and waiting for the right opportunity — and waiting for Rachel," he said about the years leading up to the 2015 vote.

"All I had to do was get out of the way."

Mason stepped down as leader in April 2014. Notley was elected to the helm in October.

After securing the victory on election night, she acknowledged her father's legacy.   

"My dad would be very proud of Alberta tonight," she said, her voice roughening through the microphone.

She's an intellectual knife fighter

Rachel Notley, pictured on her walk over to a campaign event in Edmonton the day before Alberta's historic election this week, was greeted that day with cheers of 'Premier Notley!' (CBC)
The knife-fighter analogy was coined after her performance in the leaders' debate. It has proved to be apt.

There was her quip about a rural Wildrose candidate's unpopular suggestion to "bring your wife's pie" to a campaign event: "Clearly he has a sweet tooth. But what he needs is a wisdom tooth."

And her homage — though we can't be sure if it was intentional —on election night to Prentice's "math is difficult" comment: "I haven't done the math yet, but I think the NDP caucus elected more women than any caucus in history."

"She's quick on her feet, with an incredibly smart and strategic mind," said Housser, noting Notley's thorough knowledge of Alberta government policy and her informed input on the campaign.

She'll need it.

The NDP won just over 41 per cent of the popular vote, compared with 24 per cent for the Wildrose and 28 per cent for the PCs.

The margin is wide but not massive. "Rachel mania" is certainly not a blanket phenomenon and it's too soon to tell how long it will last.

But it is a mood: of a time and of a place — about a person.

It's likely also the reason why there were knowing smiles on the faces of passersby when, minutes after the lieutenant governor met with Notley and officially asked her to be premier, a familiar Beatles tune rung out from the Alberta Legislature building's clock tower.

"Here comes the sun … and I say, it's all right."