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Tweeting, Muslim, policy-wonk mayor wins over 'cow town' Calgary

As other Canadian mayors suffer scandal, Naheed Nenshi is wildly popular in this western city.

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (r.) talks to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after a news conference in Calgary, Alberta last month. Mr. Nenshi, the first Muslim elected mayor in a major North American city, was a ubiquitous presence during the recent June 2013 floods – at media briefings, on Twitter, updating the status of city services, reminding Calgarians to stay safe and praising emergency workers.

Todd Korol/Reuters/File

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In Canadian eyes, Calgary has not exactly been synonymous with cosmopolitanism.

Located some 200 miles north of Montana, the western city has long been condescended to by eastern elites in metropolitan cities like Toronto and Montreal, who cringed at its cowboy heritage, oil corporations, and conservative politics.

But these days, with Toronto's mayor stumbling through scandal and the now ex-mayor of Montreal facing corruption charges, many in the east look with envy at the wildly popular Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate, the first Muslim mayor of a major North American metropolis, and symbol of a city moving from cow-town stereotypes to something more cosmopolitan.

“Probably people who didn’t even vote for Mr. Nenshi love the idea that Toronto is now looking at Calgary covetously,” says Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB Financial in Calgary. “We just can’t get enough of this.”

An unlikely mayor

It's been a rough couple of months for Canadian mayors, at least in the press.

Last month, Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum resigned after being charged with 14 counts of corruption-related counts, including fraud. And in May, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, no stranger to controversy himself, was the subject of headlines over his alleged appearance in a video supposedly smoking crack cocaine.

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In contrast, Mayor Nenshi has been scandal-free and is wildly popular with his constituents – recent polls put his support at over 70 percent. He tweets about food trucks and his new “addiction,” Saskatoon berry perogies; meets and greets at the annual Folk Fest; and rides in the city's gay pride parade.

Nenshi was born in Toronto, but moved west at a young age. A former McKinsey & Company consultant, professor, and urban affairs columnist, he wasn’t supposed to win in the last mayoral election. He started at a mere 2 percent in the polls, but Nenshi – prone to wearing purple and portraying himself as a policy wonk with a heart – rallied young voters and made smart use of social media to rise in the polls to become the winner of a three-way race. 

He won fans fast for his frequent public appearances at community events, festivals, and farmers’ markets, along with embodying the image of changing city and promoting a more consultative style of politics, says Keith Brownsey, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Alt-weekly FFWD summed up the adulation by naming the mayor its sexiest Calgarian, prompting the stout Nenshi to tweet, “In related news, eye doctor shortage!”

Under his direction, the city implemented a pilot project for food trucks. And Nenshi outlined a vision of the city growing upward instead of outward – moving against the trend of subdivisions sprouting up at ever increasing distances from a downtown that turned dead in the evening.

The spotlight on Nenshi coincides with Calgary’s rapid expansion – fueled over the past decade by a red-hot resource sector and the population racing past 1 million residents. It also comes as the west’s clout in the Canadian confederation increases, both economically and politically. As the magazine Toronto Life noted in a 2012 article comparing mayors, “The centre of the universe” – as some Canadians call the country’s biggest city – “seems to have shifted westward recently.”

Responding to crisis

Nenshi was put into the national spotlight again recently for his work during Calgary's flood, which required the evacuation of an estimated 75,000 residents.

His scorn for canoeists who set out on the city’s swollen rivers amid the danger even spurred a Twitter trending topic. Speaking of the canoeists, Neshi told reporters, “I have a large number of nouns I could use to describe [them].”

But “I am not allowed to use any of them,” he said – spurring the creation of a #NenshiNouns hashtag, where supporters could fill in the mayor's blanks.

And just last week he blasted Canadian Pacific Railway – a company sharply cutting costs since last year – after one of its bridges over the Bow River buckled and tanker cars carrying toxins were left teetering over one of the city's rivers. Although city repair crews were called in to handle the emergency, which put Calgary at risk, Nenshi pointed out that the railway refused to allow the city to inspect the bridge – something he says must change.

Although it initially objected, the railway quickly backed down and reached out to Nenshi, preferring not pick a fight with the popular politician.

“Nenshi has been everywhere,” says Mr. Brownsey, who described the mayor’s crisis management as textbook. “He was very forthright. There’s trouble: evacuate, we’ll do our best.”

His ubiquitousness even launched a second Twitter hashtag: #Nap4Neshi – an admonishment for the mayor to break briefly after several all-day, all-night shifts. Some citizens imposed his face over Superman’s on Man of Steel posters in bus shelters, such was his stature.

Pushback

Nenshi is not without his critics, despite his popularity.

Many of his proposals have fallen short, such as legalizing basement suites (a possible solution for housing shortages during a population boom) and having the provincial government give cities expanded revenue-generating authority. Property taxes have increased, conflicts with the city council have been common, and homebuilders have pushed back against anti-sprawl fees.

He was even the subject of a leaked secret video of his own. In April, a video recorded last November was released showing Calgary developers – unhappy with his anti-sprawl agenda – strategizing to stack the city council against him. Though the video showed nothing illegal, it did highlight the resentment Nenshi has fostered in some circles.

“He’s being attacked by big money,” says Bill Kaufmann, a reporter with the Calgary Sun, who describes Mr. Nenshi as sometimes being too sensitive to criticism.

The mayor’s increasing national profile after the flood may make such conflicts moot. Nenshi insists he’ll stay in municipal politics, but some observers say he could unseat one of the federal Conservative Party’s members of parliament in a city that tilts to the right, hasn’t elected a Liberal Party MP in decades, and is home to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The flood "has made him unassailable,” Brownsey says. “He can now choose his political future.”

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