Why Naheed Nenshi can lose in Calgary

A full-court press by conservatives—and his own reputation for arrogance—threaten to unseat a celebrated mayor

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to reporters about the city's position on the Saddledome in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Nenshi speaking to reporters about the city’s position on the Saddledome in Calgary THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Like one Calgary cultural stereotype nesting within another, dozens of conservative activists in cowboy duds gathered last July for beef and beer on a restaurant patio. It was a Stampede party hosted by Alberta Can’t Wait, one of several political groups to rise in opposition to Rachel Notley’s NDP government. Jason Kenney (white cowboy hat) and Brian Jean (black cowboy hat) were at “Yahoo for Unity,” named for the merger between their respective Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties. Federal Conservative politicos showed up too, including new leader Andrew Scheer. And some candidates for the fall’s civic election joined the party; Kenney mugged for photos sporting a “Bill Smith for Mayor” button on his Wrangler shirt.

Conservatives are taking that Alberta Can’t Wait cry especially seriously in Calgary, where they really can’t wait. Since 2015, they’ve been governed by Liberal Justin Trudeau federally, NDP provincially, and Naheed Nenshi locally. It’s a two-year wait before the federal and Alberta elections, but they might dispatch Calgary’s progressive mayor next Monday. They would replace Nenshi with Smith, a boutique legal-service firm owner, the Alberta PCs’ former president, and a nondescript figure foreign to Calgary civic affairs until local conservatives mounted an insurgent campaign around him in the spring.

Since shaking one’s fist at depressed oil prices is like yelling at clouds, Calgarians still smarting from the downturn seethe at a maelstrom of government moves: income tax hikes, pipeline decisions, carbon taxes, minimum wage increases, and some city hall matters like expensive, roadside public art and property taxes—the typical homeowner pays the city 55 per cent more than in 2010, the year of Nenshi’s come-from-nowhere victory. The bookish-yet-inspirational speaker and mischievously grinning urban booster has seen his coalition erode, his popularity sink and his right-leaning opposition harden. Slowly but surely, the question on local lips has changed. Until very recently, it was an incredulous “C’mon, can Nenshi lose?” With days to go before the vote on Oct. 16, it’s shifted between “Yikes, is Nenshi going to lose?” and “Can Nenshi win?”

RELATED: Naheed Nenshi on why ‘dog whistle’ politics miss the mark

It’s been a race sorely short on trustworthy polling, but the only sets of media-sponsored numbers out there, by Mainstreet Research, had Smith up by nine per cent in late September and by 17 points last week. The demographic breakdowns raise questions—the conservative candidate was way up among women in one Mainstreet poll, and among youth (Nenshi’s base) in another—so much so that University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas observed that such skewed results would be completely at odds with the history of election results in Canada. Then, on Wednesday, a pro-transit group released its own survey showing Nenshi up by 15 points; yet in that poll, respondents were first asked transit-friendly questions right up the current mayor’s alley. The Smith and Nenshi campaigns both say privately their own numbers show them ahead, but not by much. Nenshi could win. Nenshi could lose.

And if he is denied a third term, Nenshi will have fallen not only because of his growing reputation for arrogance, but because the local electorate had already turned on Notley and Trudeau, and wanted to thwack the nearest thing they could find. Conservatives have pent-up energy from past defeats, and crave victory—or at least practice before provincial and federal elections in 2019. One researcher from Reform Party founder Preston Manning’s namesake Manning Centre is running for councillor, and the conservative group’s training director is organizing for a fellow tax-fighting candidate. In traditionally slate-free elections, there’s a right-wing slate trying to sweep the Calgary public school board; in much of Calgary various candidates are trying to secure council seats with near-facsimiles of the Conservative Party of Canada’s blue lawn signs. (Bill Smith’s signs are in black and white, with as stark a slogan: “It’s time for a change.”)

The mood among the lean-government crowd seems to be a hunger to take Calgary back, return the mayoral gavel to conservative hands. Except, it hasn’t been there in a long, long time. Nenshi beat the blue-sign conservative rivals in 2010. His predecessor Dave Bronconnier, a former Chrétien Liberal candidate, beat a Tory MLA. Ralph Klein was the debt-amassing progressive populist mayor of the 1980s before he became an arch-Tory premier in the 1990s. You actually have to go back before the Second World War to find a Calgary mayor who campaigned and won with Conservative links, as Smith has. Why? Because, as historically conservative and anti-tax as Calgarians are, they like a city hall that provides them with stuff a booming (and sometimes busting) city needs: better transit, new highway interchanges, recreation centres and the like.

RELATED: Naheed Nenshi: The reluctant brand

Though Nenshi first won by campaigning as a penny-watcher, he’s hiked taxes and often tried to make sure people appreciate what they get for it—less god-awful snow removal, a southeast transit expansion and a new central library. Now that wages in the energy sector have flatlined, gone down or ceased to exist, big ideas and big investments may have fallen out of favour.

Bill Smith’s campaign eschews grand proposals, other than promises to rethink various transit proposals. Those who knew him before knew him as a nice guy, but the angry calls flooding his campaign office prompted advisors to give him angrier, change-minded messages with classic conservative themes about out-of-control spending, damn-the-statistics crime worries and getting out of the way of business. In contrast to Nenshi’s bulging-eyed, passionate style, Smith is one-hand-in-my-pocket casual and monotonic. Unlike the brainy and detail-minded incumbent, the challenger is vague in a way that conveys a distinct incuriousness about city hall’s fine-grained issues: at the final mayoral debate, his answers suggested little more skill on the stump than that of the fringe and no-hope candidates seated around him. The clear sign he’s the front-runner wasn’t on stage; it was the constant applause from his many supporters in attendance. His campaign has been pocked with blunders and apologies, and the recent revelation a bailiff tried to seize his business property because he was behind on loan repayments, which Smith attributed to forgetting an address change.

None of these shortcomings may matter. The first crashing of a Calgary conservative wave might knock Nenshi out, assisted largely by a problem for Nenshi that reportedly keeps coming up at the doorstep: his arrogance. As he’ll insist, all politicians have a cockiness, but the flipside of Nenshi’s identity as a charismatic brainiac is his thin-skinned tendency to lash out if slighted, and a high-handedness that frays relationships and alienates allies. His Popeye-esque “I yam who I yam” defence works until it doesn’t, as a pile of examples suggests: a spat with a home builder that led to a drawn out and costly defamation lawsuit; a brash rant against Uber caught on video. And even though he comes out of the Calgary Flames arena spat looking far more fiscally shrewd than the owners, their exasperation with him helped build this narrative.

RELATED: Naheed Nenshi vs. Six-Million Dollar Man

Despite his rhetorical shortcomings, Smith did twist the knife well at a Chamber of Commerce debate, comparing Nenshi to a promising job candidate. “They have great credentials, their references all check out, but as time goes along you realize they’re not the right person for the job,” he said. “They don’t listen to advice, they don’t keep their promises, they don’t learn from their mistakes, they don’t work well with others and they always think they’re the smartest person in the room. At some point you realize they’re holding you back. You fire them.” Nenshi later fired back: “Well, you wouldn’t hire anybody who has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Calgarians now get to decide if Nenshi’s flaws warrant turfing him in favour of a less qualified, less experienced candidate. That or they must wait, and mount their comeback in other elections.

More about Naheed Nenshi:


Why Naheed Nenshi can lose in Calgary

  1. Can lose? More like will lose.

  2. Nenshi, the common reaction, he has worn out his welcome. Many Albertans are very annoyed at being called “racist” if they won’t vote for him. Calgary is well-rid of him.

    • I had to listen to this one recently. Ugh. between Obama and Nenshi I really feel like people get called racist more when they vote for non-white politicians. Apparently racists have a huge tendency towards voting for neophyte minority candidates so that they can then later, racistly, not vote for them.

      They say Freud is dead, but he has nothing on progressives.

  3. The reason he may lose is because he is a poor mayor who has spent, spent, spent on things that most don’t care about (but the media and the elites love). Homeowners have seen their property taxes soar with little actual improvements in roads, sewers, water mains – you know those nasty things that cities are actually responsible for,.

    • In fact, Maureen, he’s spent money on critical infrastructure, including numerous and much needed road upgrades and additions, and on several vital public and sustainable transportation initiatives (He also procured 3 BILLION in funding for one such initiative from provincial and federal governments; money Bill Smith risks losing if he fools with phase 1 of the Green Line project). With Nenshi as mayor, the city has funded a new world-class public library, several state-of-the-art recreation centres, thousands of affordable housing units, sustainable transportation upgrades, increased police protection, essential renovations to local parks etc. etc. (Check out http://www.whattheheckhasnaheeddone.ca for a more extensive list of all the wonderful things that have happened while Naheed has been in office). Anyway, I think your comments are slightly misinformed. Hope you’ll look at the candidates more closely before voting.

  4. For 7 years Nenshi has been led around by the nose by senior city bureaucrats. His inspired oratory mesmerized the urban intelligentsia but he lost them the last time Andres Duany flew out of town. The hipsters were much more resilient but for anyone who has read Peter Pan you know how this part of the story turns out – they grew up, moved to the suburbs and started to pay Nenshi’s taxes. No, Bill Smith is leading in the polls because Calgarians have had enough Nenshi. No conservative conspiracy is required. Nenshi was too smart to ask David Miller how to be a good mayor.

  5. It’s ok for Nenshi to try and turn Calgary into a “a more modern, progressive and urban place” on the back of higher taxes and increased regulations when times are good.

    When times are tough people turn to pro-business candidates. Smith has the backing of the business community and will be expected to help turn the municipal economy around.

    Say what you will about the size of Smith’s lead, but Nenshi only releases that video accusing Smith’s supporters of being “driven by a racist ideology” if he thinks he is losing and needs to take dramatic action. It will likely backfire on him as people are sick of the appeals to identity politics.

    • Are you aware that Calgarians still enjoy some of the lowest property tax rates in the country? Are you also aware that Bill Smith proposes to reduce the business/homeowner tax ratio from 3.5:1 to 2:1 which will increase residential property taxes significantly? http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/calgary-tax-ratio-shift-calculations-1.4328782
      Nenshi is the only candidate who refuses to comply with such a policy. ‘Business’ is not a monolithic entity, it is a broad term that encompasses many different actors and interest groups. Naheed also has support of vital parts of the business community, but he looks out for the best interest of all Calgarians better than any mayor in its history, and that sets him apart from ‘hide my donor list Smith’. Want to lose 3 Billion in Federal and Provincial funding for the Green Line? Want to subsidize billionaire owners on an arena deal that isn’t fair to Calgarians? Want to increase urban sprawl? Then vote Bill Smith.

  6. BS is vague and directionless. Why would any sensible Calgarian vote him into office?

  7. Markusoff, median property tax must be considered in conjunction with median assessed value, at which point we see a change from $3.14 per $1000 in value to $3.96 in 2017 (A 26% increase, not 55%!). Your out-of-context numbers, like your whole article, is careless and amateurish. Of course, you conveniently fail to mention the shift in tax burden from business to homeowners over this same period of time, where we see a significantly lower business tax rate in 2017 compared to 2010 (recessionary measures). Oversimplified ‘pro-business’ arguments fall flat here (and unsurprisingly in a multitude of other ways) with a conservative desire to significantly increase the homeowner portion of the tax-burden ratio in the coming years. Bill Smith has stated that he will be happy to increase your property tax in this manner by working to reduce the current business/homeowner tax ratio from it current 3.5:1 to a staggering 2:1 within a decade; significantly increasing homeowner property taxes. Nenshi is the only mayor who refuses to agree to these targets. Yes, Nenshi spends but it’s for the most part on critical infrastructure like much needed public transportation and road additions/upgrades which former mayors have neglected. These infrastructure projects along with other revitalization projects, such as a greatly expanded entertainment district (not to mention a world-class public library, recreation centers, affordable housing etc.) are economy boosting investments that create jobs and in turn create more investment, while also substantially increasing quality of life for Calgary citizens. It takes a world-class city to attract important investment and that’s where Nenshi is taking us. Bill Smith is going to take us backwards; into more sprawl (which increases property taxes); into a one-sided arena deal where your hard earned tax-dollar can go to subsidizing billionaire owners; into archaic transportation policy; and into a place that risks billions of dollars in Federal and Provincial transfers for sorely needed public transportation upgrades, while simultaneously ignoring the largest public consultation in Calgary history. Smith will stagnate the economy, and by altering the business/homeowner tax-burden, he will cripple the spending capacity of the city. The best way out of recession is to stimulate the economy with critical investment and that is why Naheed Neshi has my vote and should have yours too (and because he’s got integrity!).

    PS. Please reveal your donor list, Bill. It’s disrespectful to voters to not be transparent about who is supporting you and what policy implications that might have in the running of OUR city. Thanks.