Nen­shi feels heat as may­oral race tight­ens

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - KELLY CRYDERMAN

The first Mus­lim mayor of a ma­jor North Amer­i­can city could be look­ing for a new job Mon­day as Cal­gary vot­ers lament econ­omy

Na­heed Nen­shi is walk­ing through a Cal­gary ho­tel lobby af­ter a prayer break­fast with a large group of evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers when a man shouts out a greet­ing. Mr. Nen­shi pauses for a mo­ment as the man tells him he’s root­ing for him in the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion just days away.

“Tell all your friends. It’s go­ing to be a close one,” the Cal­gary mayor says, be­fore again be­gin­ning the fo­cused march to the next cam­paign ap­pear­ance.

Mr. Nen­shi – who rock­eted to Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal star­dom with his sur­prise vic­tory in 2010 and who used his pro­file as a brash, in­tel­lec­tual, Har­vard-ed­u­cated son of Tan­za­nian im­mi­grants to mod­ern­ize his city’s Cow­town im­age – is in se­ri­ous dan­ger of los­ing his job in Mon­day’s mu­nic­i­pal vote.

A weak oil price, the city’s still­frag­ile econ­omy and a list of griev­ances against all three lev­els of govern­ment are mak­ing for an ag­i­tated elec­torate, and are weigh­ing on Mr. Nen­shi’s re-elec­tion chances. A low-tax, pro-busi­ness, anti-Nen­shi cam­paign from con­ge­nial Cal­gary lawyer Bill Smith – with close ties to con­ser­va­tive cir­cles – is mak­ing for a se­ri­ous con­test. Mr. Nen­shi warns the city is in dan­ger of go­ing back­ward to be­come a meaner, elite-run city; Mr. Smith says the in­cum­bent mayor al­ways thinks he’s “the smartest per­son in the room.”

“Hon­estly, any­thing could hap­pen next week,” Mr. Nen­shi, 45, said in an in­ter­view.

Turnout at the city’s ad­vance polls set a new record – 75,000 peo­ple, or more than 11 per cent of to­tal el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, have al­ready cast a bal­lot – point­ing to a mo­ti­vated, an­gry elec­torate. While ear­lier polls showed Mr. Smith, 54, ahead by dou­ble dig­its, a new poll on Wed­nes­day showed Mr. Nen­shi in the lead – with long-time coun­cil­lor An­dre Chabot in a dis­tant third. Both teams be­lieve the race is very close between Mr. Nen­shi and Mr. Smith. A num­ber of the ward races are also in play, open­ing the door to a coun­cil makeup with a much more con­ser­va­tive bent.

“It comes down to a com­bi­na­tion of the econ­omy and prop­erty taxes, and look­ing for where to place the po­lit­i­cal blame,” Mount Royal Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Lori Wil­liams said.

“That has wound peo­ple up. It’s more ide­o­log­i­cally fo­cused – more than is typ­i­cal in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Cal­gary.”

Mr. Nen­shi was a for­mer glo­be­trot­ting McKin­sey & Co. con­sul­tant work­ing as a pro­fes­sor of non­profit man­age­ment in his home­town when he won a sur­prise vic­tory seven years ago against two bet­ter-known op­po­nents. His Pur­ple Rev­o­lu­tion, named for his sig­na­ture colour, was dis­sected for its then-lead­ing-edge use of so­cial me­dia and its reach to younger vot­ers. The first Mus­lim mayor of a ma­jor North Amer­i­can city, Mr. Nen­shi re­ceived glow­ing re­views for guid­ing Cal­gary through its dev­as­tat­ing 2013 floods, and was re­elected later that year with­out any se­ri­ous chal­lenger.

But the city is a much changed place. Un­em­ploy­ment is high, and the prospects for fu­ture growth of the oil-and-gas-fo­cused econ­omy are open to ques­tion. Cal­gary’s res­i­den­tial prop­erty taxes are some of the low­est in the coun­try. How­ever, busi­nesses in par­tic­u­lar face great un­cer­tainty about fu­ture tax in­creases as down­town of­fice-va­cancy rates soar – plac­ing a greater bur­den on the re­main­ing firms.

Ev­ery can­di­date says busi­ness own­ers are fum­ing about a car­bon tax and higher min­i­mum wage im­ple­mented by the pro­vin­cial NDP govern­ment, as well as tax changes pro­posed by the fed­eral Lib­er­als. Although not di­rectly con­nected, that anger is adding fuel to the forces for change at city hall.

“You hear pretty much ev­ery­where you go – they feel like they’re be­ing piled on by all three lev­els of govern­ment,” Mr. Smith said.

A fa­ther of four, Mr. Smith worked as a city fire­fighter as a younger man – at the same time, he worked to get his law de­gree. His most pub­lic role came years later, in his work as pres­i­dent of the now-de­funct Al­berta Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive party. He was viewed as a steady hand through a tu­mul­tuous pe­riod that in­cluded the res­ig­na­tion of for­mer premier Ed Stel­mach, the rise of Ali­son Red­ford, and through a 2012 gen­eral elec­tion when the long-gov­ern­ing PC party was granted a sur­prise po­lit­i­cal re­prieve – largely be­cause vot­ers were fear­ful of the so­cial con­ser­va­tive ten­den­cies of the com­pet­ing Wil­drose party.

In the fi­nal days of Cal­gary’s mu­nic­i­pal cam­paign, the fo­cus has shifted to per­sonal ques­tions about Mr. Smith and Mr. Nen­shi.

For Mr. Smith, it’s been about the lack of pol­icy de­tail. With an aw-shucks de­meanour, Mr. Smith has po­si­tioned him­self as a more con­cil­ia­tory voice in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Flames own­er­ship group in the de­bate over fund­ing for a new arena – but has ac­knowl­edged he is as “con­fused as any­one about the deal/no deal.” Mr. Nen­shi has de­fended coun­cil’s de­ci­sion to stand firm in lim­it­ing the pub­lic dol­lars com­mit­ted to such a project, while Mr. Smith uses the im­passe between the city and team own­ers as ev­i­dence the mayor can’t get a deal done.

Mr. Nen­shi con­tin­ues to ham­mer Mr. Smith for not dis­clos­ing his list of cam­paign donors – an ac­tion not re­quired by law but an in­for­mal ex­pec­ta­tion in Cal­gary may­oral races.

For Mr. Nen­shi, he con­tin­ues to be crit­i­cized for an air of ar­ro­gance, or blunt-speak. His po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents say he is prone to ver­bal gaffes – such as com­par­ing a prom­i­nent de­vel­oper with a char­ac­ter from the God­fa­ther movies in 2013 – and is out of touch with av­er­age vot­ers.

This week, Mr. Nen­shi was crit­i­cized for a get-out-the-vote video mes­sage di­rected at Cal­gary’s Pak­istani com­mu­nity that warned of hate­ful, racist mes­sages be­ing cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia. “There are forces out there in the com­mu­nity that are sup­port­ing my op­po­nents, who re­ally want us to go back­ward – that don’t want a city that is so in­clu­sive of ev­ery­one.”

Mr. Nen­shi’s men­tion of his op­po­nents and in­ter­net trolls in the same breath hit a nerve. Mr. Smith told the Cal­gary Sun he be­lieved Mr. Nen­shi was “throw­ing the race card into the mix.”

In an in­ter­view, Mr. Nen­shi said he won’t back down on the is­sue. He added that for rea­sons he doesn’t fully com­pre­hend, he be­lieves he’s some­times held to a dif­fer­ent stan­dard from other politi­cians. This week, a wo­man told one of his vol­un­teers Mr. Nen­shi has got too big for his britches.

He points to other men in pol­i­tics – Brian Jean, Ja­son Ken­ney or An­drew Scheer – who speak with con­vic­tion and con­fi­dence.

“You get built up into some­thing and then peo­ple pull you back down again,” Mr. Nen­shi said. “Can you imag­ine say­ing to Stephen Harper, ‘You are too big for your britches.’ ”


Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi greets com­muters dur­ing a cam­paign stop in Cal­gary on Thurs­day. Mr. Nen­shi faces an an­gry elec­torate in a city where un­em­ploy­ment is high and the prospects for fu­ture growth of the oil-and-gas-fo­cused econ­omy are ques­tion­able.

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