The real deal

Popular mayor Naheed Nenshi brings a progressive attitude to Calgary politics. Here's how he does it.

To eastern Canada's shock, the former capital of cronyism crowned Naheed Nenshi, a businessman with a conscience and Harvard education, as the oil-belt mayor---one of the most progressive in Canada.

If you judge a man by his company, Nenshi's got sustainability on the brain. Chris Turner, bestselling author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, calls Nenshi the real deal. "I'm biased," Turner admits. "He's a family friend, my wife took his campaign photos and he and I co-founded an organization called CivicCamp about 18 months before his election."

Turner gives a quick history lesson on Calgary politics, starting with mayor Ralph Klein in 1980. "He set the tone," Turner says. "He was very pro-business and worked behind closed doors, lots of handshake deals, talking 20-year development deals for 10 minutes and rubber-stamping them."

The tone stayed set for three decades, ending with mayor Dave Bronconnier, who Turner says once argued that Calgary didn't have sprawl because it was planned that way. Big developers had big voices and voters didn't bother.

In 2010, while two status quo candidates promised business as usual, Nenshi snuck up and won the election. "He started polling at one percent," Turner says. Nenshi took 40 percent of the vote and his approval ratings are currently at 86 percent.

Before the election, Nenshi and Chima Nkemdirim, now his chief of staff, formed the Better Calgary Campaign, which graded candidates on policy. They and other civic-minded organizations organized CivicCamp in 2009 and created specific initiatives to give politics back to the people.

By keeping speakers' lists and calling people when their turns approached, they enabled busy but knowledgeable citizens to participate in quality-of-life and sustainability decisions made by Calgary city council. "When people keep showing and yelling it freaks them out," Turner says, and council's fear of the general public motivates them to do what the public wants. Democracy.

Nenshi's strategy, as a candidate and as mayor, bucks conventional thinking on political strategy. He calls it "politics in full sentences." He did three things differently:

1) Rather than responding to right-wing rhetoric, he framed the issues with a comprehensive platform of ideas to fix the city. "He's a pure progressive Jane Jacobs transit geek at heart," Turner says. "He's pushing forward on a bunch of admirable fronts, from more and better transit to density to making suburban developers pay their fair share." He also favoured property tax increases and said so, explaining that the city is legally obliged to avoid deficit and it was either property taxes or drastic service cuts. It turned out people liked the ideas.

2) He's been transparent and open about his own processes, thinking and personality. He puts it all on Twitter, where he has nearly 40,000 followers with whom he genuinely engages, RTing frequently with wit, occasionally poking fun of critics.

3) He rejected strategic campaigning, believing that if youth don't vote, it's because they haven't been given good options. Rather than ignore them, he spoke to them about his ideas, and rode their support to victory.

Nenshi wanted openness and clarity and to some extent he got it---budgets are now presented point-by-point to the public via social media, and the intent is made clear. But perhaps most importantly, he is without political debts---he came from outside the system and, for now, he's seen as the guy trying to change the political culture.

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