Almost a purple revolution

Calgarians can now do something that they haven’t been able to do in decades. They can ask people who they voted for and expect an answer other than “I didn’t vote.” Some estimates are putting voter turnout at 50 per cent. No doubt this is partly due to mayor Dave Bronconnier choosing not to rerun but it’s also because mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi made this an exciting election.

Nenshi is markedly different from past mayors, leading many commentators to claim that he has ushered in a new era for Calgary. There’s good reason to agree, but for all his strengths in running a campaign, Nenshi is still unknown in politics. He has the responsibility to make good his promises and he needs to get to work quickly to capitalize on the momentum he has. Given the state of city council, it will be a major task to enact change.

Calgary’s cliches are already tiring. Calgary was only about oil and gas until Monday. It was a conservative city made up of rednecks with “I love Alberta beef” stickers on their trucks. Nenshi surprised the naysayers by daring to run for office while being centre-left (though he denies it), a visible minority and a Muslim. In truth, Calgary has been distancing itself from its cowboy focus for years. To be sure, Nenshi’s victory was still unexpected, but looking at his campaign compared to his competitors makes it seem less of a surprise, regardless of his ethnicity or religion.

Nenshi was able to market himself from a man few people had heard of this summer to a qualified candidate. In large part this is because he worked hard for it. He grew a physical presence handing out flyers, he was clear about his vision for the city and he didn’t have a reputation to rely on. As Bronconnier’s sworn rival, Ric McIver was sure that he had the victory wrapped up. Barb Higgins is a familiar face, but it never seemed that she had a plan at all. Nenshi’s success reflects the changing face of this city along with the electorate’s desire for a different kind of leadership.

Employing a campaign manager of former Prime Minister Joe Clark hardly makes one an amateur. While the other candidates were popular at the start of their campaigns, Nenshi worked his way up rallying the youth vote. Other candidates were doubtful that “likes” on Facebook could transform into votes on election day– Nenshi used free social media better than the other candidates and it made a difference. His campaign had less funding than either McIver or Higgins, yet it didn’t negatively affect him. The number of “Vote Nenshi” statements written in chalk on sidewalks across the city– a cheap, effective way to get voter interest– reflects his appeal to voters rather than a reliance on businesses.

Nenshi’s win needs to be taken in context. Because the mayor’s vote counts the same as each alderman, the significance of his success is diluted. Consider ward one, where the University of Calgary is located. Chris Harper’s campaign was youth-focused, yet he got only 25 per cent of the vote while Dale Hodges, the incumbent, won with 41 per cent. Only Harper and Judi Vandenbrink supported secondary suites, while Hodges voted against discussing the issue again in July. A similar situation happened in ward eight where Zakary Pashak lost to John Mar, 41 per cent to 53 per cent. Pashak pushed a youth agenda but failed to convince the rest of the constituency. There are only five new aldermen of 14 wards, so a youth revolution hardly took place.

It’s tempting to think that Nenshi will have the momentum to build the airport tunnel, extend the southeast LRT system and reform City Hall. City Hall, however, remains fractured and the aldermen are widely split on many of the central issues Nenshi ran for. While many Calgarians are tired of the predictable 8-7 splits on council votes, we can’t yet know for sure if these are a thing of the past.

Young Calgarians should be particularly excited for Nenshi’s win. The city’s youth have known for years that Calgary has a vibrant arts community and is becoming better for commuting on bicycle and public transit. Now they have also shown that they understand the importance of civic participation. Let’s hope that Nenshi has the skills to follow through with his promises and to keep Calgarians excited about the city.

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