Jeromy Farkas’s push for power

After four years of acrimony, he says he’s ready to lead.

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It was a brisk autumn afternoon, and at the Calgary Petroleum Club, Preston Manning and Danielle Smith were all smiles as they descended the stairs on October 4.

Inside, mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas had just given his spiel to a well-heeled crowd of city elites, the same pitch he’s given elsewhere: city hall has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. The credit card is maxed out. And the Green Line is going ahead, whether you like it or not—now it needs to be kept on budget.

He also presented an approach that contrasts sharply with his record as a first-term councillor. “One thing I really loved—what he was talking about—is to have a culture and attitude of ‘yes,’” former radio host and Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith told The Sprawl outside the Petroleum Club, where she’d attended the invite-only meeting.

This echoes Farkas’s comments when he announced his mayoral candidacy in September 2020, presenting himself as an emblem of “new leadership, new ideas and new opportunity.”

“I'm asking you to think about what is possible if only we had a council that would say yes—yes to responsible spending, yes to transparency and yes to opportunity," he said in a campaign video.

This is a marked shift. Farkas’s first term was marked by an unabashedly acrimonious and populist approach, in which he regularly took hold of contentious issues and opposed the majority of council and city administration, taking on what he calls “the city hall establishment.”

His tactics often irked conservative colleagues even more than his ideological opponents on council. Ward 12 Councillor Shane Keating, who represents the city’s deep southeast and is not running for re-election, describes Farkas’s headline-grabbing approach as “hand-grenade politics”—“throw anything in there and if it explodes, who gets hurt doesn’t matter, just as long as I can say ‘I did something.’”

“He runs around tearing everyone’s sandcastles down so that he’s the highest, rather than trying to make his the best, which is a sad scenario,” Keating said.

By Farkas’s telling he’s now positive and constructive, ready to build relationships and work amicably with colleagues.

Who is Jeromy Farkas?

Fleeing from the communists to Canada

Farkas regularly presents his origin story as an immigrant success story, with his father’s family fleeing communist Hungary after the Soviets crushed a student-led revolt in 1956.

“To my grandparents, and to my father who was just a child when he arrived in Canada, our country was more than just a land of opportunity—it was a beacon of opportunity,” Farkas wrote in a 2018 Calgary Herald op-ed. “It was a place where if you worked hard and tried your very best, you had a chance to make something out of your life.”

These events, Farkas has said, were formative in his worldview.

Jeromy was one of the few that was actually genuinely interested in municipal politics.

Preston Manning,

Former Reform Party Leader

Farkas took an early interest in politics, studying political science at the University of Calgary. While at the university in his early 20s, Farkas got connected with the University of Calgary’s Israel Studies program, where he worked as an administrative assistant.

David Tal, who was director of the now-defunct department from 2009 to 2013, recalls Farkas being exceptionally ambitious for someone his age. The program’s scope expanded significantly under Tal’s leadership, hosting international conferences and visiting professors. Tal recalled Farkas embracing the challenges with enthusiasm.

“There is a former Israeli general who once said about another general that he preferred to stop running oxes rather than having to push stubborn oxes,” Tal said. “Jeromy, in a way, was running ahead.”

“Sometimes I had to ask him to slow down, but that was in a positive way.”

Tal, who is now a professor at the University of Sussex in the U.K., was surprised to hear of Farkas’s contrarian reputation on council.

In 2013, Farkas joined the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education, the brainchild of former federal Reform Party leader Preston Manning—whose father, Ernest Manning, was premier of Alberta for over two decades starting in 1943. Preston Manning’s project aimed to get more conservatives elected at all levels of government.

“Almost all our interns were interested in federal or provincial politics,” Manning told The Sprawl. “Jeromy was one of the few that was actually genuinely interested in municipal politics.”

Manning believes such interest is under-appreciated by the right in Canada.

“I think conservatives have tended to neglect the municipal area,” Manning said. “They put a lot more emphasis—the think tanks, the advocacy groups—on the federal and provincial. As I point out to them, there’s less than 1,500 people that get elected to all the provincial legislatures and Parliament put together. There's thousands and thousands of these elected people at the municipal level.”

At the Manning Foundation, Farkas ran a project called Council Tracker, tracking things like councillor attendance, voting records and how much time councils spent meeting behind closed doors in Calgary and other cities. Farkas led the project for four years, decrying the increasing amount of time Calgary city council spent in camera (behind closed doors).

I think conservatives have tended to neglect the municipal area.

Preston Manning,

Former Reform Party Leader

During this time, Farkas was also active in provincial politics, serving as president of the Wildrose Party’s Calgary-Elbow constituency association (the Wildrose Party merged with the PCs to form the UCP in 2017). In 2016, Farkas, who is bisexual and Calgary's first openly LGBTQ2S+ council member, publicly called on the Wildrose Party to become a “vocal and meaningful champion” of LGBTQ2S+ rights.

He left his Wildrose role later that year to launch a run for council in Ward 11, citing local discontent on municipal issues like the southwest BRT.

Farkas has identified local frustrations like these as one of the reasons he ran for council in the first place, citing his experience as a director of the Weaselhead Preservation Society and Palliser’s community association. “I was very frustrated, often facing a city hall bureaucracy that really didn't seem to be very welcoming of businesses, but also not very welcoming of non-profits and volunteers,” said Farkas.

“So when I think about my reasons for running, it was really relating to having city hall get out of the way.”

The BRT brouhaha in Ward 11

Brian Pincott was the councillor in Ward 11 before Farkas was elected. He recalls Farkas asking him for a meeting before the latter become a candidate. “He'll tell you what you want to hear,” Pincott said. “He was like, ‘I’ve watched you Pincott, you’re a great councillor. I really like the way you work.’”

Farkas soon took a different position publicly. He aligned himself with Ready to Engage—a group that was vociferously opposed to Pincott and the southwest BRT. “That was a group looking for a wedge issue to basically go after a mayoral campaign and a ward campaign,” recalled Christopher Doyle, who was president of the CKE Community Association at the time. “[Some of the organizers were] behind-the-scenes conservative guys that were out of jobs once the Alberta NDP won. And they were looking for what was next—and city council was it. So they grabbed that issue.”

Tensions escalated to the point where Mayor Naheed Nenshi shut down public meetings over safety concerns.

When I think about my reasons for running, it was really relating to having city hall get out of the way.

Jeromy Farkas

Looking back on the debacle, Pincott says it wasn’t the criticism of the transit project itself that bothered him. “It was the abuse that I received. It was the abuse that my staff received and it was the abuse that members of the public received from Ready to Engage,” said Pincott. “And it was disheartening to see a candidate who was looking at that going, ‘I think I'm going to leverage that.’”

Farkas campaigned on pausing the project. It opened in December 2019.

After Farkas was elected, he held regular town halls—one of his campaign promises. But community association volunteers in Ward 11 who did not embrace Farkas’s agenda say it was difficult to get his support for efforts that didn’t align with his worldview.

“He expected us to go to these town halls, but they were more of a political rally for him,” said Sonja Sahlen, who was on the board of the Haysboro Community Association at the time. “I didn't feel like they were an effective way to get any questions answered or anything moved forward.”

“The message we got is that you're just supposed to be mad that you have to pay taxes—and expect government to do everything for less.”

He expected us to go to these town halls, but they were more of a political rally for him.

Sonja Sahlen, Haysboro community volunteer

Sahlen says it was frustrating to see councillors in other wards working collaboratively with community associations on public realm improvements. “We just didn't get any of that from Jeromy,” she said. “It wasn't his mandate. And he made that kind of clear, like, no, I'm going to more represent the people who voted me in versus representing all of his ward.”

When the CKE Community Association pushed for residential speed limits to be lowered from 50 k.p.h., they got little support. “It was something that he just wasn't interested in,” Doyle said. Farkas voted against the citywide reduction and, in campaigning, has said city hall has an “anti-automobile mentality.”

Asked about these criticisms, Farkas said his best memories on council have been connecting Ward 11 communities to resources and supporting things like facility upgrades and playground improvements.

“My team and I attended community association meetings regularly and achieved a lot of great wins such as altering bus routes in Lakeview on behalf of the community, getting support for bilingual stop signs in Mission and helping new facilities break ground,” he said.

Accused of 'grandstanding' by colleagues

The 2018 saga over councillors' pay was revealing of Farkas’s political style in council chambers.

That November, he put out a news release calling on council to freeze its 2.6% pay increase. But Councillor Ward Sutherland had already filed a notice of motion calling for the exact same thing—which was scheduled for debate on the last meeting of the year.

Farkas’s colleagues accused him of grandstanding.

The day of the meeting, he posted a photo on Facebook showing two scorecards tallying councillors’ votes for two motions—the aforementioned motion for a pay freeze, and a 5% cut Farkas proposed. The scorecard showed all of council opposed to the 5% cut except for himself.

But that second vote never occurred, because Farkas couldn’t find anyone to second his motion. After refusing to apologize for his post, council voted to boot him from the meeting.

Almost two years later, in May 2020, then-integrity commissioner Sal LoVecchio found that Farkas had violated the city’s code of conduct, writing that his misrepresentation of what occurred at council “undermines public confidence in city governance.”

Farkas refused to apologize, as LoVecchio requested, although he did delete the post in question.

It was disheartening to see a candidate who was looking at that going, I think I’m going to leverage that.’

Brian Pincott,

Former Ward 11 Councillor

Earlier this year, Coun. Druh Farrell filed another complaint with the integrity commissioner after Farkas flyers with City of Calgary insignia were delivered to homes outside Ward 11. The flyers urged citizens to speak against the ill-fated Guidebook for Great Communities. Numerous people who received the flyers raised concerns that Farkas was using City of Calgary resources to campaign for mayor. Farkas suggested Canada Post was responsible for the error.

As with the BRT, Farkas staunchly opposed the Guidebook, a document intended to guide local area planning. Farkas said it would impose densification on unwilling single-family neighbourhoods. Council ultimately voted against making it statutory, but Farkas is still campaigning against it.

He has also campaigned on “defending” the police against what he calls “dangerous defund-the-police ideology,” casting himself even as even more pro-police than Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld.

Neufeld told council in September 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter uprising, that “we know the very foundation upon which policing was created was inherently racist.” Farkas has emphatically disagreed.

“I strongly support diversity, strongly support education and ensuring that our police service is representative of the community that it's serving,” Farkas said. “But I think some of these radical calls to perhaps even abolish the police really miss the mark.”

Friendly relations with the UCP

On policing and other files—including COVID-19 response, supervised consumption sites and the Green Line—Farkas’s positions have aligned closely with the Kenney government. He has said the current council has a “scorched-earth policy toward relationships with the provincial government” and warned that if Jyoti Gondek becomes mayor, it’ll mean “needless confrontations” with the province.

But if Farkas is mayor, would he stand up to Kenney and the UCP when needed?

He says he would.

I’ve always chosen the right way rather than the easy way.

Jeromy Farkas

“I've stood up on behalf of my constituents against a city hall establishment,” said Farkas. “It doesn't make sense that if I were to be elected mayor that I'd just be kowtowing to a different establishment. I've taken tough positions because I've had the support of my constituents to do so. I've always chosen the right way rather than the easy way.”

When the province cut affordable housing maintenance in its 2020 budget, Farkas said he was "incredibly disappointed" by the move.

Farkas also told The Sprawl he opposed the province's proposed cuts to AISH (which the province eventually backed down on) and also “advocated against the province as far as their approach to coal mining in the Rockies.”

However, asked for specific instances of where and when he spoke up on these issues, Farkas didn’t address the AISH question.

On coal, he pointed to his voting record. In February, he voted with council to call on the province to reinstate Peter Lougheed’s 1976 coal policy and consult further with Albertans. However, that vote happened after the province had already announced, earlier that day, that it would be doing exactly that in response to public pressure.

“I think my record shows being willing to support and collaborate with the province when there's alignment, but I haven't lacked any courage to be able to speak up when I think that they're getting it wrong,” Farkas said.

'You've got to make that shift': Manning

Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith says she can relate to Farkas, with her experience as leader of the province’s Official Opposition. But she acknowledges that municipal politics is a different ballgame.

“This is a real interesting challenge that he faces in that he is seen as somebody who is oppositional, sort of the Leader of the Opposition,” she said. “And now he's got to be the coalition builder. So that's going to be one of his big challenges.”

Preston Manning also flagged this as a challenge for Farkas.

The first thing is to be conscious that you have to make it, and I think he is conscious of that.

Preston Manning,

Former Reform Party leader

“If you're going to be in the government—if you're going to head civic administration—then you've got to make that shift,” said Manning. “How can you lead a positive, constructive operation? And I've had that discussion with him and with a number of other kinds of opposition-type politicians.”

Manning says he believes Farkas is making that change.

“The first thing is to be conscious that you have to make it, and I think he is conscious of that,” Manning said.

Now it's up to voters to decide whether or not Farkas will get the chance to prove Manning right.

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl. Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!