Nen­shi can’t hide be­hind out­sider sta­tus

Cal­gary mayor now rep­re­sents es­tab­lish­ment

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - Jen Gerson

Lauded abroad and beloved across the coun­try, Cal­gary’s mayor Na­heed Nen­shi is fac­ing the un­think­able: he may be about to lose an elec­tion.

At first Cal­gary’s Oct. 16 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion promi sed to be a pre­dictable af­fair, with the guy once pro­claimed Canada’s most pop­u­lar mayor fac­ing off against an un­promis­ing slate of low-pro­file chal­lengers.

Yet sev­eral Main­street Re­search poll have shown may­oral con­tender Bill Smith with a dou­ble- digit lead. And while some have ques­tioned the polls’ method­ol­ogy, there is ev­i­dence to sug­gest that this race is far tighter than any­one an­tic­i­pated, least of all Nen­shi.

So as the cam­paign en­tered its fi­nal week, Nen­shi de­liv­ered a mes­sage to Cal­gary’s Pak­istani com­mu­nity via Face­book sug­gest­ing that ne­far­i­ous “forces” in league with his op­po­nents were op­pos­ing a city “in­clu­sive of ev­ery­one.” They want Cal­gary to “go back­wards,” he said, a theme re­it­er­ated in his cam­paign’s mes­sag­ing. And Nen­shi also called out racist Twit­ter bots and other so­cial me­dia ac­counts that have been pep­per­ing the cam­paign with nasty com­ments.

While this at­tempt to re­cast the cam­paign as a fight against racism may have shift the nar­ra­tive ahead of elec­tion day, it feels like a last- ditch strat­egy that risks alien­at­ing as many vot­ers as it mo­ti­vates.

There is noth­ing novel here. Race has al­ways been a fac­tor, both in Nen­shi’s cam­paigns and in how Cal­gar­i­ans re­sponded to his ten­ure as mayor. Over the past decade, North Amer­ica’s first big- city Mus­lim mayor has suf­fered no short­age of bile and big­otry on­line — a fact that should em­bar­rass our city.

When Nen­shi ran, and lost, his bid for city coun­cil­lor in 2004, he said af­ter­wards Cal­gary would need to face “very stark truths” if it hoped to see more di­ver­sity in its coun­cil cham­bers.

When he was first elected mayor from a crowded field in 2010, Nen­shi — then a long- shot can­di­date — was the sub­ject of me­dia at­ten­tion when some ne’er- dow­ell threw a con­crete block through his cam­paign win­dow and van­dal­ized his cam­paign signs.

But af­ter Nen­shi won, Cal­gar­i­ans rev­elled in the Obama- like post- racial­ism their new mayor evoked, all the sweeter for the par­al­lel suc­cess of the late Rob Ford in Toronto.

There may not be enough com­mit­ted, or­ga­nized racist vot­ers in Cal­gary to win an elec­tion out­right — if there were, Nen­shi’s pre­vi­ous two wins would be dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. And racism doesn’t ex­plain why this race seems to be so close in the first place.

When Nen­shi was first elected, Cal­gary was an eco­nom­i­cally vi­brant metropo­lis bust­ing at the seams. Nen­shi’s come- from- be­hind cam­paign vaulted him past two prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tive es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures and gave him in­stant na­tional promi­nence as an ur­ban pro­gres­sive in a coun­try still ruled by a stodgy con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter and a prov­ince run by an even stodgier Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive premier. Nen­shi had a vi­sion to cope with Cal­gary’s big­gest prob­lem at the time: its un­mit­i­gated growth.

The sit­u­a­tion couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent to­day. The oil bust meant a dra­matic re­ver­sal in Cal­gary’s for­tunes. Only a few years ago, ever-taller tow­ers re­drew the city’s sky­line. Now, the city faces a 30 per cent of­fice va­cancy rate. In 2017, Canada has a left- of- cen­tre Lib­eral prime min­is­ter and Al­berta an NDP premier. Nen­shi is no longer the out­sider — he’s the es­tab­lish­ment.

He’s over­seen year- overyear tax hikes. The city’s res­i­den­tial prop­erty taxes have in­creased 55 per cent since 2010. Mean­while, Cal­gary’s big­gest prob­lem is no longer growth but un­em­ploy­ment, at 9.3 per cent is the high­est rate of any ma­jor city in Canada.

Seven years ago, Cal­gary was over­run with a group of Nen­shi vol­un­teers dubbed t he Pur­ple Army, ea­ger young peo­ple in their 20s and 30s who painted build­ings in his sig­na­ture shade. On elec­tion day, they wrote mes­sages on side­walks en­cour­ag­ing vot­ers to go to the polls. Those peo­ple are now in their 30s and 40s, fac­ing lay­offs, feed­ing chil­dren of their own, liv­ing in houses they can no longer sell and watch­ing t heir t ax bills climb.

Where’s Nen­shi been? Pick­ing fights with de­vel­op­ers, Uber, Twit­ter trolls, MPs and pre­miers.

Nen­shi is of­ten ac­cused of be­ing ar­ro­gant. I don’t think Nen­shi’s prob­lem is his ar­ro­gance — I think it’s his lack of em­pa­thy. It alien­ates coun­cil­lors, the me­dia and other crit­ics. He de­fends the city’s tax rates with talk­ing points about how taxes are worse else­where — as if that mat­ters to the peo­ple who pay them here.

None of this is to sug­gest that Bill Smith de­serves the anti- Nen­shi vote. A for- mer fire­fighter and l awyer who was per­suaded to run against a mayor once thought to be un­beat­able, he’s a for­mer Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive party pres­i­dent who was un­known out­side po­lit­i­cal cir­cles. And he’s adopted the PC trick of say­ing as lit­tle as nec­es­sary to get elected. He stands for lower taxes and safer cities and ev­ery­body get­ting along, and has demon­strated baf­fling ig­no­rance on key is­sues.

The t hing t hat makes Smith most electable is that he’s not Nen­shi; he’s plod­ding where the in­cum­bent mayor is fre­netic; he of­fers bro­mides in place of pol­icy; he is nice where the mayor is cut­ting.

If Nen­shi loses on Mon­day, it will be a sad end for a mayor who came to power on a prom­ise to do pol­i­tics dif­fer­ently. All the things that made Nen­shi great — his out­spo­ken na­ture, his f i ne grasp of mu­nic­i­pal pol­icy, and his broad civic am­bi­tions — may prove to be his un­do­ing. Cal­gary may just be tired of dif­fer­ent.


Cal­gary Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi came to power as a re­former, but has done very lit­tle achiev­ing, writes Jen Ger­son.


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