The first of three debates among the NDP leadership candidates is scheduled for Thursday night in Lethbridge

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The focus of the ongoing Alberta NDP leadership race will shift to Lethbridge Thursday with the first of three debates as candidates look to pitch their vision of the party to the growing membership ranks.

The two-hour debate will be held at the Yates Memorial Theatre, starting at 7 p.m.

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It comes a little under three days after the April 22 membership deadline that also coincided with the deadline for the latest $20,000 entry fee.

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Five candidates are seeking to replace the outgoing Rachel Notley as leader — current MLAs Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Kathleen Ganley and Sarah Hoffman, along with longtime union leader Gil McGowan and former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

For their campaigns, the focus has since shifted from selling memberships to persuading voters, with Thursday night’s event offering a prime opportunity.

“Debates are critical,” said Calahoo Stonehouse. “This is really an opportunity where Albertans get to see their new leader shine.”

Thursday night’s event — along with the May 11 debate in Calgary and the June 2 event in Edmonton — will all be live-streamed.

“It’s a job interview, period,” said Hoffman. “Anyone who wants to be the leader of the party needs to be open with people about what their vision is, what their plans are. And I’m going to have an opportunity to highlight that for for every eligible voter who chose to move into watching and see what I have to offer.”

Ganley said while the field of voters will soon be set, many of them are still undecided as to who they will support.

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“They’re waiting to see people’s full platforms roll out,” she said. “NDP members are incredibly hardworking, and they tend to be very thoughtful people and so they’re interested in policy, and we’ll have a lot more of that.”

Nenshi believes it’s also a time to refine policy based on what members say their priorities are.

“It really becomes a conversation with the tens of thousands of members of the Alberta NDP … and fleshing out the vision that we’ve got, fleshing out where we want to go,” he said.

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For McGowan, the post-membership period is an opportunity to consider the bigger picture and the future of the party.

“We’re going to have a frank conversation with all people who have signed up as party members and ask them what they really want,” he said.

The party is reviewing the list of members which will be finalized on May 12, also the date of the balloting deadline and the due date for the final $20,000 fee to be paid by candidates.

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The party also says it will announce the number of eligible voters on that date. There were 16,224 members of the Alberta NDP on Dec. 31, 2023.

That figure is expected to grow significantly due to the leadership race, with one candidate saying the numbers will swell to make the Alberta NDP the biggest provincial party in Canadian history.

Ballots will be mailed to members in early June who will preferentially rank candidates online, by telephone or by mailing in a ballot.

The voting period runs between June 3 and noon of June 22 with the winner to be announced later that evening at a showcase event in Calgary.

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