Kevin Libin in Calgary, National Post · Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

Calgarians had a distinct choice to make on Monday in their selection of a mayor. The frontrunners came down to a nine-year city councillor with a small business background and a reputation for championing taxpayers. There was also the trusted, spunky TV anchorwoman Calgarians had relied on for the last 21 years. And then there was the guy who, up until a few months ago, almost no one in the city had ever heard of.

That guy won.

So unknown was Naheed Nenshi that early in the campaign he released a YouTube video explaining how to properly pronounce his name. A lot of people still get it wrong.

Polling numbers only a month earlier had Mr. Nenshi, a 38-year-old professor of non-profit management at Mount Royal University, with just eight per cent support, well behind conservative councillor Ric McIver’s 43 per cent, and CTV’s Barb Higgins 28%.

Just before midnight Monday, Mr. Nenshi had raked in 40% of votes counted. Mr. McIver had 33% and Ms. Higgins 27%.

Mr. Nenshi’s soaring popularity, his ethnic complexion (he’s an Ismaili Muslim), his academic inclinations, and his potent deployment of social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, invited — as so many political campaigns must, it seems — comparisons to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

It’s a theme Mr. Nenshi himself seemed more than happy to embrace.

“Today, Calgary is a different place than it was yesterday,” announced Mr. Nenshi to a room thronged with supporters on Monday night. “A better place.”

He was grateful, he said, that Calgarians had shown they were willing “to believe in government again, and believe that government can be a good force in our lives.”

He called his campaign the start of a “movement.” One that was “about revitalizing the public conversation in this city. It was about talking to the person next to you on the bus. Taking an extra minute with the cashier at Safeway.”

Mr. Nenshi may have mobilized more voters than any other candidate. Turnout soared from 33% in 2007 to 42% of eligible voters. Still, all three front runners activated highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaigns and the lack of an incumbent, since mayor David Bronconnier, who had served since 2001, was stepping down, snapped Calgarians out of their habitual political napping. But ultimately, Mr. Nenshi didn’t just bring out new voters; he converted old ones.

Jason Kenney, the Conservative cabinet minister, called it “a brilliant idea-based campaign.”

And yet, the ideas were hardly revolutionary.

In a city that runs, all things considered, pretty smoothly and relatively cheaply — Calgary’s property taxes are still lower than most Canadian cities’— what Calgarians got was a fiercely fought election campaign between three candidates who, basically, stood for pretty well the same things: lower taxes and more efficient services.

It’s true, Mr. Nenshi, a Kennedy scholar from Harvard who, early in his career, worked for consultancy giant McKinsey and Co., added some flair to the formula. He seemed willing to speak truth to power when he angered Calgary’s police chief by fingering the force as one of the most expensive, and administratively bloated, in the country. The other candidates only tsk-tsked at his disruptiveness.

He sang from Alberta’s fiscally conservative song sheet, insisting that “people deserve to feel burned because our city council has burned them. It has thrown money away. It is a city council that has forgotten why they are there.” And thundered populism as well as any Tea Partier when he vowed he would “stand up to the forces arrayed against helping people get better lives.”

He argued in favour of greater transparency of council activities. And he delivered Canadian multicultural folksiness, reminding people that coming from a clan of hard-working immigrants, “I know how to talk to the guy in the muffler shop because he’s my cousin.”

For the suburbs there were promises of new arenas and lower budgeting; for the urbane liberals he offered up prescriptions, taken from the pages of Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida, to stop building urban sprawl and start building creative classes. He talked of privatizing snow plowing services and funding for the arts in almost the same breath. And, as a wonk with a possibly unhealthy obsession with municipal governance, he backed it all up with the kind of substantive arguments and statistics that made it hard for anyone to argue.

“This was a stark choice between big city and little city,” says Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey. Mr. Nenshi, he says, could come off at times as fiscally conservative as even Mr. McIver, the councillor nicknamed Dr. No for his reputed habit of blocking spending decisions before council. And yet Mr. Nenshi could still be seen as the one promoting “expensive cultural programs, rebuilding the cultural infrastructure” offering an “encompassing and broad” vision for the city.

With no political record to dig through, Mr. Nenshi was unencumbered by the tricky questions that dogged, for instance, Mr. McIver about instances where his actions appeared to diverge from his professed fiscal conservatism—questions that were, more often than not, leveled by Mr. Nenshi (who, in fact, adopted not a few of his the ideas in his campaign from Mr. McIver’s own policies). And yet, because of that lack of political record, Mr. Nenshi hasn’t yet, either, been asked to demonstrate how effectively he will really be able to deliver, at a level of government where, with no party system, horse-trading is so often the rule, so many ideals to so many people. That may truly be where a movement truly begins—if it can begin. For Mr. Nenshi, that more formidable task begins now.

National Post


More Related Information
  Tags:              ,  

  Posted in         General, Ismaili News