Popular Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi battling for his political life


Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, once named the best mayor in the world, isn’t looking so popular at home these days as he seeks a third term.

With only two weeks left before election day, one recent robo-poll has him well behind a complete newcomer to municipal politics with a very ordinary name: Bill Smith.

What happened?

If the poll is accurate, how could Nenshi, who garnered 74 per cent of the vote four years ago, fall so far?

Nenshi has been mayor for seven years. As with many politicians who have been in office and the public eye for that long he has made enemies. Although he can be charismatic and eloquent when it comes to progressive urban issues such as public transit and constraining suburban sprawl, not everyone, especially the housing industry, is as excited about those ideas as he is.

And while Nenshi was effusively praised in every corner of the city for his heartfelt leadership during the disastrous 2013 flood, he hasn’t been nearly as effective at creating working alliances on city council.

And he has never been one to withhold an opinion even when the matter at hand doesn’t have anything to do with municipal politics.

Nenshi, a devout Ismaili Muslim, called Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reluctance to admit more Syrian refugees while at the same time targeting Muslim women who wear face coverings “dangerous” and “disgusting.”

Jason Kenney, who was a Calgary MP and Harper cabinet minister at the time swung back at Nenshi and called him equally “dangerous” for “legitimizing a medieval tribal custom.”

There’s the matter of ever-increasing property taxes while Calgary suffers through a recession.

And then there’s the dispute with the owners of the Calgary Flames over a new arena. The Flames want more public funds for the project than Nenshi is willing to agree to. So, of course, the Flames have threatened to leave town if they don’t get the deal they want.

But there’s also a lot of politics at play here that has more to do with province-wide issues than municipal matters.

Nenshi’s main opponent, Bill Smith, a lawyer and former firefighter was president of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party for three years before bowing out in 2012. Those were tumultuous years for the PCs, who were eventually defeated by Rachel Notley’s NDP in 2015.

Since then the PCs have merged with the Wildrose party to form the United Conservative Party and none other than Jason Kenney, Nenshi’s old foe, is running for the leadership and has a good chance of winning.

Nenshi thinks Kenney is “out of touch” with Albertans and has made it clear he won’t be supporting Kenney’s run for the leadership of the UCP.

Bill Smith is not a household name in Calgary. But he is very well connected in conservative circles and that has helped him raise both money and profile.

And let’s not forget when Nenshi was first elected in 2010 he slipped up the middle with 39 per cent of the vote because he was running against two well known conservatives.

Many of those conservative voters never did take to Nenshi. They see him as too close to Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau.

Now those same conservatives are determined to take back power in Alberta at all levels. They see the NDP victory in 2015 as simply a fluke that is ruining the province.

If Smith is elected mayor of Calgary and Kenney wins the UCP leadership and eventually becomes premier, everything will be back to the way it should be in the conservative firmament. After decades of dominating government and politics in Alberta they don’t much like looking in from the outside.

That’s why the municipal election in Calgary is about much more than who can hold the line on property taxes or who can best keep traffic moving.

It’s also about Rachel Notley and the NDP and what they can expect from Calgary during the next provincial election.

The NDP need Calgary seats if they are to remain in power.

If Nenshi loses, they can expect to lose too.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week. [email protected]

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