Corbella: Nenshi’s purple reign over Calgary was mixed but impactful

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When Naheed Nenshi became Calgary’s 36th mayor on Oct. 18, 2010, he very quickly became an international phenomenon.

Even though his ethnicity and religion never became an issue in Calgary during the campaign to replace outgoing mayor Dave Bronconnier, Nenshi catapulted into fame as a political star as the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city. That Nenshi — the urbane, Harvard-educated author of a book on building better cities — was being compared to Toronto’s choice for mayor, the controversial and sometimes uncouth (and since deceased) Rob Ford, elected just days later, only heightened Nenshi’s allure.

Calgary was the recipient of considerable mayor envy from across the country and around the world as Nenshi’s Purple Revolution rolled out full of energy and big plans.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford flipped some pancakes after swapping jerseys as they came together to place their friendly wager on Sunday’s Grey Cup at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on November 24, 2012.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford flipped some pancakes after swapping jerseys as they came together to place their friendly wager on Sunday’s Grey Cup at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on November 24, 2012. Photo by Colleen De Neve/Postmedia

When the June 2013 once-in-a-century flood plunged Calgary into a crisis, Nenshi rose to the occasion in a big way and helped rally this city in goosebumpy ways.

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Indeed, in 2014 he won the World Mayor prize as the planet’s best mayor. He was, and is, a great ambassador for this city.

On Tuesday night, during a Facebook Live event from his dining room in northeast Calgary, Nenshi officially revealed what many suspected, that he would not run for a fourth term as mayor, a decision he says he only made last Thursday.

He has accomplished quite a bit. He presided over the building of the new Central Library, which is truly an architectural marvel, continued the work of his predecessor Bronconnier on the building up of the East Village, brought in bike lanes, substantially increased public transit and improved snow clearing.

Some of that is glamorous and some of it is mundane — as the role of mayor often is.

Calgay Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks with other dignitaries during a ceremony at the new Central Calgary Public Library in downtown Calgary on Friday, September 14, 2018 to mark the completion of the project.
Calgay Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks with other dignitaries during a ceremony at the new Central Calgary Public Library in downtown Calgary on Friday, September 14, 2018 to mark the completion of the project. Photo by Jim Wells/Postmedia

But in the 2017 election, with the Seinfeldian candidate Bill Smith running a campaign about nothing, Nenshi only garnered 51 per cent of the popular vote. That this time around, with stronger candidates running for the city’s top job — namely councillors Jeromy Farkas and Jyoti Gondek and a handful of Calgary business people — he would have been in tough. Best to leave rather than be pushed out.

When Nenshi won the mayoral election more than 10 years ago he was just 38 — a young man playfully called His Purpleness for his campaign colour that represents both the blue and red of the political spectrum.

This former Mount Royal University business professor campaigned as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal who was going to cut red tape and keep tax increases to just inflation and population growth, even as he built stuff.

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He did build a lot of stuff — including finishing the west LRT (started by Bronconnier), the airport tunnel and bus rapid transit — but it’s safe to say most Calgarians wouldn’t believe him if he described himself as a fiscal conservative today.

According to Franco Terrazzano, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, spending at the City of Calgary increased by 35 per cent, or a whopping $1 billion, between 2010 and 2019, at a time when thousands of Calgary households and businesses had to find efficiencies and trim costs.

Terrazzano says that over the same time period, the total residential property tax take for the city has spiked by 81 per cent. (Note that doesn’t count for the additional population, just the total increase in revenue.)

According to the Blue Ribbon Panel Report on Alberta’s Finances, “between 2007/08 and 2017/18, provincial revenues per capita have increased by two per cent. Over the same time period, municipalities have experienced significant revenue growth of 48 per cent per person, including 29 per cent per person for Edmonton and 41 per cent per person for Calgary, primarily driven by municipal property tax increases. Spending by municipalities also has increased over that same time period . . . . Per capita capital spending in Calgary and Edmonton is among the highest for comparable cities across Canada.”

When tens of thousands of Calgarians and Albertans were losing their jobs, city hall staff levels increased appreciably, as did their wages. There’s been a complete disconnect between the reality of what the citizens of this city have been going through and what was going on in its halls of power.

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to the crowds at the National in Calgary, on Tuesday October 17, 2017 during election night.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi speaks to the crowds at the National in Calgary, on Tuesday October 17, 2017 during election night. Photo by Leah Hennel/Postmedia

In his Facebook chat, Nenshi said going into the 2017 election campaign and every day since, “the racism, personal attacks, the shaming — even the body shaming — has been unrelenting and that’s not OK,” which was so different from what happened in the 2010 election campaign, he says, where his ethnicity and religion were never an issue.

“For 10 years now I’ve had the same line in almost every one of my speeches. I’ve said that here in Calgary it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you come from, or how you worship, or whom you love, what matters is that you’re here and you belong here . . . and you deserve to live a great Canadian life.” He has always boasted that Calgary is a true meritocracy — a place where people don’t ask you, “who’s your daddy?”

Nevertheless, he is always proud to speak of his dad, as he did Tuesday night, who passed away two years after his first election as mayor, and his mom and the many sacrifices they made when they immigrated to Canada from Tanzania. Nenshi is the embodiment of the Canadian dream.

Fluent in French, Nenshi says he doesn’t plan to run in the expected general election for the minority federal Liberals, as has been rumoured, and that for only the second time in his life, he doesn’t have a set plan moving forward. He joked that maybe he would catch up on all of the television shows he’s missed as he worked around the clock.

Nenshi’s purple reign started off vibrant and kind of faded to mauve. Nevertheless, he has left his mark on this city he so obviously loves, and helped bring worldwide attention to it.

He will forever be an important part of our history.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary

lcorbella@postmedia.com

Twitter: @LiciaCorbella

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