Illustration by Kyle Simmers

Nenshi’s next scrap

After nearly a decade, is he still in this?

In October of 2017, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was all fired up.

He’d stuck it to the Calgary Flames in his previous term, refusing a sweetheart deal on a new arena. Now the city's old guard was taking a run at him. Bill Smith, a lawyer backed by Calgary's conservative establishment, promised to get an arena deal done. He decried the Green Line as a “boondoggle”—foreshadowing the political problems that have hampered the project since.

Nenshi was apoplectic. He condemned Smith's Green Line take as “breathtakingly uninformed.”

Meanwhile, Nenshi was being inundated with racist vitriol online. He spoke openly of it, nudging Calgarians toward a conversation on racism as he sought to articulate a vision for his third term. “The idea really is to stand up for Calgarians every day,” Nenshi told reporters after one of the campaign's final mayoral forums. “Stand up against bullies, stand up against entrenched interests.”

Someone had asked Nenshi about what is widely his biggest perceived flaw: his arrogance. Fair question, Nenshi replied, but he also pushed back on the undertones of a question generally not asked of white politicians. “I call that confidence,” he said. "Some people call it arrogance, but I’d remind you that here in Calgary, we’ve always liked scrappy. Peter Lougheed was scrappy. Ralph Klein was scrappy. We like our hockey players scrappy.”

Nenshi won handily, with 51% of the vote to Smith's 44%.

Some people call it arrogance, but I’d remind you that here in Calgary, we’ve always liked scrappy.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi in October 2017

But much of his third term so far has been marked not by scrappiness, but a peculiar listlessness.

It seemed to set in after the November 2018 plebiscite, in which Calgarians voted down a dearly-held dream of Nenshi's: the 2026 Winter Olympics bid.

In the plebiscite's aftermath, at city council and at community events, Nenshi often gave the impression that he’d checked out. City council was rife with bitter infighting, and Nenshi seemed powerless to curb the deepening dysfunction. Inside city hall, people spoke of a lame-duck mayor riding out his final term.

By the summer of 2019, Nenshi was cutting transit hours while simultaneously giving his blessing to a $290-million arena subsidy for the Flames.

“The fact that it all went down the same week as the arena deal was just ridiculous,” recalled Anna Greenwood-Lee, an Anglican priest and spokesperson for Keep Calgary Strong, a group that formed to speak out against cuts to vulnerable Calgarians. “It felt like city council was just out of touch.”

But the UCP government's budgets—both the first one in October, and the next one, expected this spring—seem to have Nenshi fired up again.

Under Premier Jason Kenney, the Alberta government has goaded municipalities on myriad fronts, most strikingly by ripping up the city charters, years in the works, that guaranteed predictable infrastructure funding for Calgary and Edmonton. The UCP is also poised to overhaul everything from supervised consumption sites to municipal campaign financing.

The provincial government’s job is not to tell us what to do.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi

At an Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) gathering January 23, municipal leaders discussed their plight. Nenshi summed up his takeaways the next day.

“We are responsible to the people that voted us in, and the provincial government's job is not to tell us what to do,” Nenshi said on CBC Radio's Alberta at Noon. “It's to work with us on a government-to-government basis.... We stand together. Large or small, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

In October, Nenshi became the third-longest-serving mayor in Calgary's history, behind Andrew Davison (1930 - 1945) and Al Duerr (1989 - 2001). Calgary’s other 30 mayors got out earlier. Some, like Ralph Klein, moved on to higher levels of public office. Others, like Nenshi’s predecessor Dave Bronconnier, retreated to private life.

Nenshi has hung on. And it's taken a toll beyond low approval ratings.

“I think what you were seeing was exhaustion, you know?” said former city councillor Brian Pincott, a friend of the mayor who served on council for a decade from 2007 to 2017. “You can see it on his face. And I talked to him a lot about it [last] summer. It just…” He paused. “It grinds you down.”

I think what you were seeing was exhaustion, you know? You can see it on his face.

Brian Pincott, former city councillor

There’s a reason, beyond elections, that most mayors don’t remain on council that long.

“I don't think people realize how overwhelmingly negative the job is,” said Pincott. “You're never off. You never leave the work.” Every decision, he adds, creates a new group of people who are mad at you, making it appealing to avoid hard decisions wherever possible. “We say we hate do-nothing politicians, but the political reward is in doing nothing.”

If it seemed like Nenshi was off his game for the first half of 2019, as council struggled with issues like the tax shift, that’s because he was—by his own admission.

“For the first time in nine years, there were actually days when I woke up in the morning and didn't really want to go to work,” Nenshi said. “And that is extremely uncommon for me.”

What shook him out of his funk, he said, was spending an August weekend in Winnipeg with its mayor, Brian Bowman, and seeing how enthusiastic Bowman was about his city.

For the first time in nine years, there were actually days when I woke up in the morning and didn’t really want to go to work.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi

“I got mad at myself and I said, You know what? Despite this constant negativity that's out there, we still get to live here,” Nenshi said. “And my job is to remind people that we live in one of the best places on earth. And yes, we've got tons of work to do. That's why I'm here.”

“But also to remind myself that I have been given an extraordinary gift, and that is that I get to go to work every day and try and make life better for people. Not everybody gets that. And so, ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’ I said to myself.”

“I came back in September with a new spring in my step,” Nenshi added. “I’m not sure all of council did.”

In November, Nenshi stepped on stage at an L.A. conference about cities.

He was there to pontificate on the future of urban mobility, which, he said, isn't just about moving people around, but about social isolation as well. “If people can’t get around their communities, then how can they feel that they’re truly participating within those communities?” he asked, before talking up Calgary’s transit mix of LRT and BRT.

But at home, things weren't so rosy.

That morning, city council’s new Green Line committee held its first meeting. It was intended, in part, to restore trust in the beleaguered project and get it back on track, but it quickly deteriorated into a free-for-all. Councillor Jeff Davison proposed cutting the line in half, so it wouldn’t bisect downtown. Councillors Evan Woolley and Jyoti Gondek were at each other's throats. Councillor Shane Keating, the committee’s chair, looked aghast.

The events of the morning—Nenshi’s star speech in California and the circus in council chambers—were a microcosm of Nenshi’s tenure.

“He's a thinker and he's a promoter and he's a storyteller, but I don't think he's a negotiator,” said local realtor and entrepreneur Emma May, who endorsed Nenshi in the 2017 election. “And on this council, that's what you need to be. You need someone who has mini-negotiations every day.”

He’s a thinker and he’s a promoter and he’s a storyteller, but I don’t think he’s a negotiator.

Emma May

“I think there was a freshness to his intellectual capacity and his interest in really diving into hard problems, and I think people were attracted to that,” said May, recalling the early years of Nenshi's tenure. “But over the course of governing and attempting to govern, what we saw was the dark side of that same characteristic.”

“He really does believe he's smarter than most people in the room. And a lot of the time he probably is, but that doesn't mean that those people don't have a really important perspective to share, or that they should be dismissed in the way that I think sometimes he does dismiss people.”

The relationship between the mayor and first-term councillor Jyoti Gondek, who many expect will run for mayor in 2021, has been particularly acrimonious.

Like Nenshi a decade ago, Gondek relishes a good Twitter scrap and has criticized the mayor openly on social media, denouncing his “one-man show.” Nenshi loves holding forth for journalists during council's lunch break and opining on provincial and federal politics, which irks Gondek.

“Every time there's a scrum, who do you guys talk to? You talk to the mayor,” Gondek told me in October. “Every single time. You don't care what the rest of us think.”

“At some point, I wish somebody would recognize the fact that we've got 15 members of council and not one—and that sometimes the dissenting voice is not a complainer or a baby or a whiner. Sometimes it's important to listen to the dissenting voices, because they're trying to send up cautionary flags.”

Sometimes it’s important to listen to the dissenting voices, because they’re trying to send up cautionary flags.

Councillor Jyoti Gondek

That same month, Nenshi told me that both his office and city administration have done their best to incorporate Gondek’s ideas “even when they're terrible.”

“If you and I had normal jobs—if we worked at McDonald's and we didn't like someone on our crew—would our first instinct be: Let's go on Twitter and name the person we don't like and talk about what a jerk [they are]?” Nenshi said. “What does that accomplish? When I go back to work the next day, is life going to be better?”

“I think those are questions that, perhaps, my colleagues could ask, rather than putting their own ego at the front.”

To this day, Nenshi’s core supporters see him as a sort of apolitical politician, someone who has transcended political categories since he was first elected in 2010.

“It was almost like he tried to defang municipal issues as even having a left or a right, which I think he still tries to do,” said political campaigner and strategist Zain Velji, who worked on Nenshi’s first campaign and managed Nenshi’s last one. “Even managing his 2017 campaign, he would occasionally remind us that, ‘Hey listen, there are no lefts or rights to how we do some of these things. There are just good ideas and bad ideas.’”

When Nenshi won the 2014 World Mayor Prize, the organization noted his discomfort with being labelled a progressive. “I really believe that this kind of categorization alienates people and keeps them from participating in the political process,” Nenshi said at the time. The group also noted, however, that he wasn’t afraid to call out Alberta’s conservative government when necessary.

Even the most apolitical politician—if you allow that this exists—reckons with the realities of politics sooner or later.

In council, Nenshi has struck a very different style than his predecessor. Dave Bronconnier tended to have command of important files that went before council, having negotiated with other councillors beforehand.

“He had all the pieces in place,” recalled Pincott, who served with Bronconnier for a term. “He would come to council and say, ‘This is how it's going to all roll out. Do you support it or not?’ So there was no uncertainty for council as to what you thought it was, and there was no uncertainty for Dave as to whether he would be able to proceed with it or not.”

“Naheed is much more willing to go to council with the idea before too much work is done on it.”

[Bronconnier] would come to council and say, This is how it’s going to all roll out. Do you support it or not?’

Brian Pincott, former city councillor

Nenshi enjoys fleshing out policy in public, even when it makes council meetings messy and excruciating to watch. And they often are. Chaired by Nenshi, council meetings are slow, meandering, unhurried affairs that routinely get bogged down in tedious minutiae.

Nenshi seems to genuinely enjoy this. Everyone else? Not so much.

“They're painful and they're a waste of time,” said May. “Someone needs to come in there and teach them how to run a meeting.”

The Olympic bid effort epitomized Nenshi’s approach. He clearly wanted another Calgary Games, but didn't want to impose himself too forcefully. A drawn-out process began, wherein the Olympic file repeatedly came to council for debate.

Privately, Nenshi was counselled to drive the bid effort openly, but he opted to hold back—much to the frustration of bid backers who sought strong political leadership on the file.

“I genuinely believe he thinks the city was better for that process, having gone through it in the way it did,” Velji said. “It's something that he takes pride in spending political capital and political time for, very deliberately.”

After the Kenney government rolled out its October budget, which delayed provincial Green Line funding, Municipal Affairs minister Kaycee Madu repeatedly characterized Calgary city council as as irresponsible spendthrifts who have been “out of control” for more than a decade. Other UCP ministers got in on it, too. “Trudeau's mayor is out to lunch,” Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer wrote on Twitter in October, after Nenshi criticized UCP cuts to police funding.

With the UCP in power, Councillors Joe Magliocca and Sean Chu, who often carpool to work together, have been more bold in criticizing their own council, echoing UCP talking points about Calgary's council needing to get its fiscal house in order.

Both neglect to mention their own records of consistently voting for the biggest driver of unsustainable city spending: suburban growth. (Magliocca, meanwhile, is currently facing public scrutiny and a complaint with the city's integrity commissioner over his travel expenses.)

Conservatives are gearing up for the 2021 municipal elections. Madu has indicated that his government plans to change the Local Authorities Election Act, though it's not clear exactly how. His press secretary didn't respond to requests from The Sprawl, but Madu said January 23 that the UCP doesn't intend to introduce partisan politics into city elections.

“The rumour mill has been going overtime that in fact what the province is going to do is they're going to make it easier for third-party PACs to get involved in these elections, for partisan politics to become easier at the municipal level,” Nenshi told CBC the next day.

Nenshi has said he's seen a “marked shift in tone” from Madu and the province so far in 2020—more reaching out than lashing out. But he's still bracing for what's ahead.

“The fact that they're looking at changing the municipal election rules certainly would lend an observer to the conclusion that they are trying to install more UCP-friendly municipal councils,” Nenshi told CBC. “It's not going to work. It never will work.”

And who would stop them? Will he run again in 2021 and try to become the longest-serving mayor in Calgary's history?

As always on this question, Nenshi played coy.

“Ask me in October.”

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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