Keith Gerein: Sohi's bid for mayor may hinge on Liberal past, light-touch leadership

Article content

A couple of years ago, before any of us had heard of COVID-19, I joined then-federal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi to observe an evening of election door-knocking in his home community of Mill Woods.

I could tell then that Sohi was going to lose his seat.

Though his strong connection to the community was on full display that night — barely five minutes went by before he encountered someone else he knew — the body language was off.

Residents, even among those who smiled and shook hands with Sohi, were non-committal in their voting intentions. Too many doors were opened only halfway. People avoided eye contact. Conversations were frequently short and awkward.

The overarching message was pretty simple. People were signalling to Sohi that although they had personal affection for him, they couldn’t stomach the idea of voting for his Liberal government that had become deeply unpopular across Alberta.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Two years after that defeat, Sohi has decided he’s ready to re-enter the political fray, this time under his own brand.

But in his bid to become Edmonton’s next mayor, a major lingering question is how much of the federal Liberal brand still clings.

During his campaign launch Monday morning, this was the first topic journalists jumped on. And Sohi was ready with an answer he will undoubtedly have to repeat ad nauseam over the next five months. His response focused on the skills and experience he acquired in his four years as a cabinet minister, if not so much the political party that provided him the opportunity.

“For me, politics has always been about serving Edmontonians,” he said. “My experience at the municipal level and the federal level, but also working with all the provinces and territories … that puts me in a unique position.”

On a practical level, Sohi’s argument is sound.

On a political level, the governing party he worked under remains largely undesirable in these parts, and Sohi is certain to be reminded that if it wasn’t for Liberal bungling on the first round of consultations with Indigenous communities, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion might be completed by now.

On this front, it must be noted that Sohi wasn’t natural resources minister until after those consultations were over, and he ultimately helped lead the second (successful) consultations that allowed the project to finally go ahead.

Not that much of that mattered to voters in October 2019.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

As Alberta’s only cabinet minister, Sohi became the local face of the pipeline delay and dysfunction, while his support of the controversial bills C-48 and C-69 — seen as detrimental to Alberta energy projects — likely further hurt his standing.

That history is relevant because Sohi, like other mayoral candidates, has identified economic growth and diversification as the top issue of the coming municipal election.

Unfair or not, some of his opponents are sure to ask how someone with his record on energy policy can be trusted with Edmonton’s economy.

This leads to a second question about Sohi, around his leadership style.

In talking to some of Sohi’s colleagues from his time as a city councillor (2007 to 2015), all of them describe him as being as genuine and caring behind the scenes as he is when the cameras are rolling.

He’s a hard worker who is always well prepared to dig into issues, they say, adding good listener, inclusive and even-keeled to his list of attributes. He’s also strategic when he has to be, favouring outreach and consensus-building as his preferred method of securing support for his agenda.

“He doesn’t have a heavy-fist approach … I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper,” one of his former colleagues told me.

This is so on point that it’s almost funny to imagine Sohi throwing a fit, acting belligerent or going on a Twitter tirade.

Sohi himself keyed on this theme during his campaign launch, using versions of the word “collaborator” around half a dozen times.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

“Experience is about building relationships and I thrive on building relationships,” he said. “We can only tackle (our challenges) if we mobilize the entire community, and you cannot do that as single person.”

The thing is, the skills, ideas and experience a candidate can bring to the table are not necessarily definitive in an election. There is an element of timing as well. Voters have to believe that a particular leadership style is the right style for a particular moment in the city’s trajectory.

The issue, then, is whether Sohi’s steady, nice-to-a-fault approach will resonate with Edmontonians at a time when much of the city is feeling battered and anxious, and is often at odds with a combative provincial government.

(For what it’s worth, some former colleagues believe Sohi’s cabinet experience has given him valuable practice at taking tough stands, and that such moments will be all the more effective given that he so rarely breaks from his amicable demeanour.)

Whatever the case, Sohi’s entry into the civic election is a game-changing development that makes the fight for attention all the more difficult for other contenders like Kim Krushell, Mike Nickel, Michael Oshry and Cheryll Watson.

Sohi is now the biggest name in the mayor’s race, and in a field this crowded, such name recognition can be especially valuable currency.

Whether he cashes in on Oct. 18 will largely depend on how he answers those questions about Liberals and light-handed leadership.


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Latest articles

Related articles