Nenshi can’t hide behind outsider status
Calgary mayor now represents establishment
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.