Politics

Naheed Nenshi falls back to earth

Calgary's former model of the modern mayor has hit a rough patch. Has he lost faith in politics?

At first blush, Naheed Nenshi’s remarks during the opening of a family support agency’s office echo the speech he’s delivered repeatedly over nearly a decade as Calgary’s mayor. Self-deprecation? Check. In this case, gags about not just visiting for the cheese tray, and being “too arrogant” to use GPS to find his way there in a part of Calgary where he grew up. Nod to his city hall agenda? Check. In this case, his poverty-reduction and mental-health strategies. Aspirational reference to the fundamentals of successful communities? Check. If there is truth to the adage that “my neighbour’s strength is my strength,” Nenshi observes, “then the opposite must also be true, which is, my neighbour’s failure is my failure.” The mayor has someone snap a group photo he can post to social media. He greets everybody from the centre director to the event bartender, makes sure he’s not in mid-chew during photos requested by attendees, quietly pockets a couple of mandarin oranges and hits the road. He’ll do three, four, 10 events like this a day, and maybe 30 on a weekend.

Subtly, though, Nenshi hints in that speech how he’s been struggling behind the facade of the sunny-ways approach he embodied a half-decade before Justin Trudeau made it his calling card. He told the crowd about his 2020 New Year’s resolution—Nenshi is not normally one for resolutions—“to continue to live a life of gratitude, to be grateful that I get to live in a community like this with all of you in it.” That sounds sunny, too. But if one resolves to be grateful, he is asked later, is one admitting he’s not been grateful enough?

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The mayor agrees. It’s been a grind the last while. He’s feeling chewed up.

Calgary is mired in year five of a punishing economic downturn, and Nenshi still wears scars from a gruelling 2017 re-election bid, during which his rival made his arrogance and other character flaws a ballot question. He often didn’t want to go to council meetings last year, Nenshi tells Maclean’s in a revealing interview, with their partisan sniping and complaints from councillors who bemoan his penchant for freewheeling debates, or who just don’t trust him. He’s suffered self-doubt about his leadership style, yet is reluctant to change. And the man renowned for his lively Twitter use—check often, comment often, joust often—has effectively unplugged. His @nenshi account is now as conventional and dull as any politician’s.

On top of it all, the love affair that burned brightly between him and his hometown through much of his 10-year tenure seems over. Nenshi’s approval ratings, once the envy of Canadian politicians, are underwater. While he says he doesn’t pay attention to such figures, other things have worn on him. “I feel like 2019 was the worst year I’ve experienced in this job,” he says. “There were days, especially in the middle part of the year, when I was kind of going: ‘What am I actually accomplishing here?’ ”

It’s a far cry from the barrier-busting, come-from-nowhere leader who entered the mayor’s office in 2010 as a kind of urban philosopher king, and then gained nationwide star status by deftly shepherding Calgary through the disastrous floods of 2013.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, pictured in Calgary Alberta, January 24, 2020. (Photograph by Jason Franson)

But Calgary isn’t what it was, either. Canada’s petro-metropolis longs for the boom times—or at least a jobs recovery—while warming to Jason Kenney’s closed-fisted conservatism and growing suspicion of progressive politicians. “When he was elected, he was at the absolute centre of the zeitgeist, the avatar of Calgary’s future, the new Calgary, all those things,” said Gian-Carlo Carra, a city councillor. “And now the zeitgeist has shifted, and he hasn’t.”

Certainly Nenshi’s recent political record has been highlighted by loss, unexpected pivots and dithering. He pushed for a Calgary-hosted Winter Olympics, and voters rejected the idea. He had long spurned the Calgary Flames’ bid for a heavily subsidized new arena, until he supported a deal last summer. Businesses have seethed as the downturn wreaked havoc on the municipal tax base. A plunge in downtown office assessed values prompted adjustments on other businesses’ bills to pick up the slack, and Nenshi’s council responded with prolonged deliberation followed by band-aid rebates, hasty service cuts, some reversals and, eventually, a more lasting solution. Probably enough to make any third-term mayor glum.

All of this contrasts with the energy that led to his earlier accomplishments. (I watched those up close, as the Calgary Herald’s city hall writer for his first five years in office.) The business professor and former management consultant shocked Calgary’s establishment by winning with an outsider campaign infused with nerdy slogans about “better ideas” and “politics in full sentences.” He got residents excited about a dynamic future, and drew international attention as North America’s first big-city Muslim mayor—a spotlight he enthusiastically seized. He championed public transit with a new network of specialized busways and the planning of Calgary’s longest LRT line. He pushed developers to cover costs for infrastructure services to outer suburbs with a pugnacity that won him votes but fostered still-sore feelings among home builders. He became a shimmering ambassador for the city’s development and a contrast to his Toronto counterpart at the time, Rob Ford. He has strived to boost reconciliation and relations with the city’s Indigenous neighbours, going beyond boilerplate land acknowledgements to talk of peoples knitted together, sharing the land.

A few years in, a conservative former city councillor asked me what Nenshi had given the city except food trucks (an innovation of his mayoralty’s “cut red tape” efforts). The gruff ex-member of council had a point: the mayor’s record of achievements skewed toward the abstract. But for a city growing up fast, I countered, the abstract was important. With his ideas and passionate talk about public services, Nenshi got Calgarians to believe in their city government and the value of investing in it. The city bumped up taxes for better snow removal, after years of residents grousing through every blustery winter. He won his second term after raising taxes further for libraries, recreation centres and transit.

Nenshi’s shift reached its apex during the floods. The city’s emergency services, utilities and recovery efforts showed local government at its best, and Nenshi was tireless in communicating their dogged successes. He won re-election in 2013 with 74 per cent of the vote. More acclaim and speaking invitations arrived from across Canada and abroad. In early 2015, Nenshi won the World Mayor Prize; the London-based City Mayors Foundation, which bestowed the prize, described him as “an urban visionary who doesn’t neglect the nitty-gritty of local government.”

But around that time, oil prices crashed, and the economy fell hard on Calgary’s 1.3 million people. Quickly, the city went from having the country’s lowest urban unemployment rate to its highest, and its once-full downtown office towers were soon one-quarter empty. The hero of the flood couldn’t repeat the trick when the oil patch took on water. Nenshi’s vision was ideally suited to a fast-growing city, says Jeff Fielding, Calgary City Hall’s top bureaucrat from 2014 to 2019. “He was so well-positioned to talk about the benefits of investment,” he says. Grappling with a downturn that has dragged on far longer than expected proved hard for the mayor to adapt to, Fielding says. “He tried. It wasn’t natural [for him] in my mind.”

Nenshi has urged out-of-town companies to take advantage of cheap downtown rents. He’s tried to preach citizen resilience, as he did after the 2013 floods. Above all, he’s resisted the public inclination toward pessimism—to the point of sounding strained. “An important part of that psychology, of that confidence, is to remind ourselves that our valleys are most people in the world’s peaks,” Nenshi says. Calgarians may indeed remain wealthier than others in Canada or elsewhere. But they remember how well off and comfortably employed they used to be, and mercilessly punished Rachel Notley’s NDP government for downplaying the economic malaise.

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Suffice to say, Nenshi didn’t fancy the 2026 Olympics as an economic turnaround project so much as a spirit-lifter. The $5.1-billion tab proved a turnoff, and residents rejected it in a plebiscite, 56 per cent to 44. An Olympics lover since the 1988 Calgary Winter Games of his youth, Nenshi now regrets waiting to push for the bid until a federal-provincial funding deal was reached, weeks before the vote: “I should have come out [earlier], saying it is possible to have something extraordinary.”

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Naheed Kurban Nenshi arrived in Canada in utero, when his parents and then-toddler sister immigrated from Tanzania. He was born in 1972, as his family was becoming active in the then-tiny Ismaili Muslim community of Toronto. While he dislikes being called the “Muslim mayor,” Nenshi admits faith is a pillar in his life—he goes to prayer service often, if not daily. He fasts through Ramadan and doesn’t drink alcohol. He often speaks about seva, a Sanskrit word that translates literally to “service,” but its deeper meaning, he says, is an “understanding that you’re in this world to make paths easier for others.”

The Nenshis moved to Calgary when he was two, settling, as many new Canadians did, in its lower-income east end. His father ran small businesses including a laundromat, and his mother ran a lottery kiosk. Naheed devoured books at the neighbourhood library and swam at the public pool—institutions he’d later praise from a position of acute familiarity. He spent middle school in the gifted program, and then chose a different high school from his peers in hopes of reinventing himself, he recalls. He overcame painful shyness with drama classes and debate club, and placed ninth at a U.K. public speaking contest among students from around the world. While taking commerce at the University of Calgary, he was elected student president. His best friend and vice-president, Chima Nkemdirim, later became his mayoral chief of staff.

Out of undergrad, Nenshi moved to Toronto to work at McKinsey, the global management consultancy whose latest political star alumnus is U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. The firm supported his master’s degree in public policy at Harvard. He later returned to Calgary to be closer to his parents and worked as a university lecturer and as a consultant for non-profits. In 2004, he ran for a northeast Calgary ward seat—and finished fourth. He vastly preferred citywide issues such as sprawl to ground-level district issues, recalls Nkemdirim, who managed that campaign, as well as his 2010 victory.

Mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi, left, descends the steps of Calgary City Hall with his campaign director and friend, Chima Nkemdirim, on Oct. 22, 2010. (Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald/Postmedia Network Inc)

While Nkemdirim has been a well-connected federal Liberal since university days and has bucked Calgary’s dominant conservatism, Nenshi has always expressed distaste for partisan allegiances. He prefers his own brand, and in 2010 it was proudly purple—a mix of Liberal red and Tory blue. He dubbed his volunteers the Purple Army, and a decade later he still insistently wears the hue almost every day, usually on his necktie. His communications aide walks city hall in purple sneakers, and Nenshi jokingly bought another assistant a beaded purple curtain for her birthday. “It’s not my party—it’s my philosophy,” he says. That day, he explains, he’d met with a federal Liberal minister and an Alberta UCP minister—though they’d respectively worn blue and red, he notes.

Nenshi labels himself fiscally conservative but is at odds with the rah-rah-taxpayer down-with-government variety. He’s criticized the former Harper Conservative government and Kenney’s provincial regime more often than Liberal or NDP governments. Local detractors have cheaply nicknamed him Spendshi, and Alberta’s justice minister last fall swiped at him as “Trudeau’s mayor.” He’s seldom stirred the wrath of progressives (save for his hockey arena support), though his lack of passion for labour unions and stout defence of Calgary’s oil sector and pipelines have deprived him of a sturdy left-wing base.

Like councils in most Canadian cities, Calgary council has no parties, and the mayor’s vote carries the same weight as each of 14 independent ward councillors. To win anything, a mayor must tally eight votes or more. Nenshi has hated that arithmetic—he’s cast himself as the antidote to his predecessor, Dave Bronconnier, a wily behind-the-scenes operator who triangulated his way to success. Nenshi, true to his part as a Harvard-educated political neophyte, operated under the Socratic ideal that either the best proposals (often meaning his) would win on the council floor, or councillors would hash out compromises in full public view. Plus, he had those debate club-champion muscles to exercise. He’d let aides handle the occasional backroom discussions. The mayor would seal the deal with his skills at public persuasion.

This approach creates unpleasant outcomes. Council meetings perennially meander and drag on—politics in full, run-on sentences. What’s more, the mayor often loses votes, or looks on while colleagues seize the mantle of leadership to forge compromises that he’s reluctant to strike. This hasn’t proven fatal to his agenda. But his very first 2010 “better idea” campaign pledge—to ease restrictions against homeowners’ basement suites—wasn’t fulfilled until 2018.

His emphasis on debating, and airing so much in public, has long irked colleagues. Councillor Shane Keating admires Nenshi’s skills and passion and says he often enjoys the public discussions. But he believes debates tend to be more about scoring points than making good decisions, as squabbles break out between the mayor and strong-willed councillors. “Part of that is his willingness to always have the last word,” says Keating. He wishes the mayor would take his lumps—deserved or not—and move on more often. Keating himself has lectured Nenshi on the council floor: “I will never be as intelligent as you are,” he once said, “but I’ve been smarter than you many times.”

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Colleagues urged the mayor to show stronger leadership during the recent property-tax crisis, Nenshi says. He bristles at alternatives to his approach, deeming them “authoritarian” or bare-knuckle. “Well, what does that mean?” Nenshi wonders aloud. Did councillors want the mayor to just give them the policy solutions and assume they agreed?

Nenshi was politically spoiled with an extraordinarily genial and largely non-partisan first council, though he was known to get frustrated and publicly call them “dysfunctional.” He could have reserved that line. The antagonism worsened in his second and third terms with the election of more partisan councillors, especially on the right, who were more prone to sniping at him. He’d snipe back. “Sometimes he’s very irate with us on council,” says Jyoti Gondek, a rookie councillor who has publicly sparred with him. “You do a job for seven years and get used to doing it a certain way. And then you get these new characters who disrupt the entire place.”

As the publicly reported anecdotes accumulated about Nenshi’s spats with councillors or business figures—plus the occasional dash of Twitter cattiness—Nenshi’s image lost some lustre. In the public imagination, there’s a thin line between Harvard-educated visionary and know-it-all, between confidence and arrogance, says Stephen Carter, chief strategist on Nenshi’s first campaign. He recalls the 2010 election team drilling Nenshi out of his tendency to tilt his head back and close his eyelids before responding to questions—it gave off a subtle professorial haughtiness. He’s noticed it creeping back over the years. “When you kind of know Nenshi, his charm is pretty spectacular,” Carter says. “When you really know Nenshi, his arrogance overcomes his charm.”

In 2017, such critiques were at the forefront of the campaign to defeat the mayor. The candidate was Bill Smith, a low-profile Alberta Tory organizer who conveyed little actual interest in municipal government. It almost didn’t matter.

Calgarians were still smarting from the recession, and the mayor was there to punish two years before voters could vent their ire upon then-premier Rachel Notley, or Trudeau. Kenney was a rising provincial star at the time, and Smith was his local avatar. One pollster’s methodologically dubious surveys suggested a tight race and even a Nenshi loss—but they were the only major polls, so these data points were widely reported. Besides, it became easy for pundits to suggest reasons for a potential loss: the conservative mood, the city’s economic woes, and the way Nenshi’s iconoclasm had arguably evolved into an odd mix of abrasiveness and brittleness.

In the end, he secured a third term over Smith by eight percentage points—a clear victory and a rebuke to detractors. “I am who I am” was Nenshi’s Popeye-esque defence on election night. Still, it was the tightest margin for an incumbent Calgary mayor since 1980, and the hostility of the campaign rattled Nenshi and his circle. They initially hadn’t expected much of a fight. By the end, they felt social media, once one of Nenshi’s best assets, had been weaponized against him. It was suddenly full of bots and trolls unloading about his body size, his politics and, most jarringly, his race and religion. In Nenshi’s first two elections, Nkemdirim recalls, you could count the number of racist incidents on your hand. This time, the campaign was constantly deleting vile Facebook comments and links, or reporting xenophobic tweets. Nenshi’s team suspected an organized effort but never found proof. Calgary wasn’t immune from the wave of toxicity that carried Trump and Brexit to success, says Gondek, who is Indo-Canadian and faced racist epithets herself in that election. “For a mayor who was the champion of positivity and inclusivity to see this happening—not only in the world around them, but in his city—I think gave him pause and made him withdraw.”

For a while, Nenshi appeared “deeply wounded by a city he loves,” agrees Druh Farrell, a regular supporter of the mayor on council, despite her opposition to the Olympics and arena deal. And that becomes more heartbreaking when a politician is, as many colleagues observe, married to his job. Mayor Nenshi has quietly had a couple of girlfriends; while he loves collecting his friends’ birthing stories, he’s let the chance to start his own family pass by. “I mean, it is what it is; we all make choices,” he says, emphasizing his love for his two nieces. Nenshi fills his evenings with meetings and document reading; on weekends, he traverses Calgary on marathon “community days.” He maintains he’s thick-skinned—he has to be for this job. But he recalls his professor days, when 38 student evaluations would praise him but he’d ruminate on the two that panned him. “In this job,” he says, “add a few zeros to the end.”

The significance of Nenshi ending his Mr. Twitter era is easily underestimated. He believed deeply in social media as not just a political broadcast platform but a tool for dialogue. He felt deep conversations occur in 140- and, later, 280-character spurts. He spent at least a half-hour each night replying to citizen queries or retweeting Calgary’s lost dogs and cats. More often he would lurk, keeping an eye on what people said about city hall and him—even monitoring Twitter while he chaired council meetings.

That’s all past tense. Though he was not above trash-tweeting, he acknowledges, the toxicity got to him. “I used to when it was fun, when it wasn’t nasty and mean. But now there’s no point to it,” he says. His replies dwindled, and by late 2018 he had largely stopped engaging. He went from more than 500 tweets and replies per month to a few dozen bland messages and no replies, according to tracking website Social Blade. He is by no means the only public figure to reach this point, but few had invested so much of their personal brands in digital chitchat. “He’s advised all councillors: don’t get into conversations on social media,” says Carra. “It’s a waste of your time, and it’s not good for your mental health.”

The cost of the 2017 campaign to Nenshi proved greater than a loss of faith in Twitter. His long-time confidant left the mayor’s office for a lobbyist job a few months after the 2017 election. “I really was tired after that campaign,” says Nkemdirim. “It was exhausting.” Nenshi lost an aide who knew what he thought without having to be told. Nenshi says he enjoys his new chief of staff, a veteran city employee. But colleagues say Nkemdirim’s departure, plus the close election, the economic downturn and council tensions, took their toll. Some grew concerned for the man who once wore confidence like armour. “You could see it in terms of his health,” Fielding says. “There were times I worried about him looking very tired.” He gained weight, and for a while had the sort of eye twitch often associated with stress. Nenshi admits he let his health and exercise habits “fall by the wayside over the last couple years.” He says: “I’ve been trying hard to get that back.”

Nenshi accents his grey suit with a purple pocket square at his first meeting of council’s priorities committee, though it slowly descends into his suit jacket. When councillors debate, the mayor mostly keeps eyes glued to the screen in front of him. He advocates dipping into depleted city reserves for a third straight year to fund rebates to businesses facing above-average tax increases. But it appears the majority of votes will go against him. Sensing this result, he warns colleagues to avoid the mistake they made last year when they balked at tax relief and then hastily reversed track, and declares he won’t stand for it this time. Sean Chu, a conservative who often feuds with Nenshi, supports the initiative and it passes by a single vote. Nenshi later tells Maclean’s he convinced Chu, who laughs off the claim: “He cannot help himself. He always thinks he’s right.”

Colleagues and friends say Nenshi seems to be regaining some of the old spring in his step. In late January, council held a closed-door discussion about their fractiousness. He offered another resolution for 2020: he’ll better resist snapping back when rankled, a city source says. Patience and a renewed sense of purpose will help in his term’s remaining 20 months. Alberta’s economic recovery is still shaky and Kenney’s government is expected to further squeeze municipal grants and meddle in city affairs.

The next election is in October 2021. Nenshi continues his firm habit of not declaring his future plans until one year out, lest he either be seen as an electioneering mayor or a lame duck. He hints at lingering ambition: while discussing another subject, he offhandedly notes he’s the third-longest-serving mayor in Calgary’s history, and would surpass the all-time record by one week if he’s re-elected and serves until 2025. But many colleagues assume that, after his recent disappointments, Nenshi will bow out. Some are devising plans for their own mayoral runs. According to sources close to Nenshi, key players from his past campaign teams won’t join if he runs again, so dispiriting was the 2017 battle.

Should Nenshi decide to fight one more time, he risks electoral embarrassment. His approval ratings, which were above 70 per cent for a multi-year honeymoon period, cratered after the Olympic plebiscite. As of last summer, only 35 per cent of Calgarians approved of their mayor, according to a ThinkHQ survey. His diehard supporters have largely vanished; only eight per cent strongly approve of him, and 40 per cent strongly disapprove. Considering these numbers, ThinkHQ’s Marc Henry suspects a lot of voters may seek out the candidate who has the best chance of beating Nenshi. “They want to fire this person,” says Henry, a former aide to the previous mayor.

Nenshi’s name is perennially mooted for a leap to provincial or federal politics, and speculation briefly bubbled that Trudeau would make him a minister for Alberta after no Liberal MPs got elected here. Those rumours seemed to bemuse Nenshi, who’s never regarded moving to other levels of government as a promotion. (He speaks of “orders” of government rather than the more hierarchical-sounding “levels.”) His disdain for partisanship, and his struggles with council teamwork, would be multiplied within a system of rigid party discipline. Perhaps he’d be more comfortable in such an arena, Nenshi says, if the system changed. If somebody (like him, perhaps?) came along to change it.

But one of two things tends to happen to politicians who enter politics bent on overhauling long-static power structures. They get sucked into that power structure, or they get chomped ­up and spat out. Nenshi has stubbornly resisted the first outcome, and fought off the latter in his last election—though the bite marks are still apparent.

Maybe it’s easiest to pry open those jaws next fall and crawl out into private life—a think tank, a policy advocacy position or back to a tenured gig at a university. That would be an early exit by a talented politician who’s still shy of 50. But he’s tried reinvention before, and can likely do it again, if he can just decide that it’s time to end the debate.


This article appears in print in the March 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Nenshi falls back to earth.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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