How Nenshi’s decision to bow out as mayor affects the 2021 civic election field

Mount Royal political scientist Lori Williams said Wednesday that the stakes are high, and it’s likely to be a combative campaign season

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi is officially off the ballot for the 2021 municipal election — and that means big changes for this year’s campaign season.

It’s not quite six months until Calgarians head to the polls with no incumbent mayor for the first time in a decade. Including the mayor’s chair, there are open races for at least seven spots on council.

That’s nearing the threshold for change across the eight votes that add up to a council majority, determining whether motions or administration recommendations pass or fail.

  1. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was photographed in northeast Calgary on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

    Nenshi won’t run in Calgary’s 2021 municipal election

  2. Voters line up to cast their ballots at city hall in the Oct. 16, 2017 municipal election.

    What to expect as the race for mayor heats up, nine months early

Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said Wednesday that the stakes are high, and it’s likely to be a combative campaign season.

“There’s no question there are a number of interests that are going to try to push in,” she said. “This is a big opportunity — we’ve got probably half of council that could be new.”

Wards 3, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12 are all wide open through a combination of councillors retiring, deciding to step awayfrom council or running for mayor. The only unknowns at this point are Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra in Ward 9 and Coun. Joe Magliocca in Ward 2, who haven’t yet publicly announced their intentions.

University of Calgary political science associate professor Jack Lucas said Nenshi’s announcement this week affects the rest of the council races, too.

“An open mayoral race can have effects that spill over into council races as well. They have higher turnout, they’re more competitive and citizens pay more attention to the race,” he said.

“If there are incumbent councillors who typically win by relatively slim margins, those races can actually become more competitive than they otherwise would have been.”

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Nenshi said in an interview Tuesday that he’s keenly aware of how his announcement could change the mayoral field. Campaign strategies are bound to be different when there’s no incumbent to contend with.

“The candidates have not yet really had a chance to define themselves. Part of that is because of me — they’re waiting on me a little bit,” he said.

The outgoing mayor said he doesn’t plan to endorse anyone, but he will be sharing his opinions on the race, as he always does during elections. He said he hopes Calgarians “push candidates hard” on their vision for the city’s future and growth beyond the economic downturn and the pandemic.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m just going to cut your taxes.’ It’s not enough to say the things you’re opposed to,” Nenshi said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I’ve got all the ideas, just trust me.’ ”

Williams said she thinks there’s no question there are some people considering a mayoral bid that were waiting to see what Nenshi would do. They’re more likely to put their hand up now that he’s officially out.

Lucas said historical data from elections in Calgary clearly shows that more candidates show up for open races than ones with incumbents. Unseating an incumbent in municipal politics — especially when it’s the mayor — is notoriously difficult, but it can happen: three current councillors defeated incumbents to get to city hall.

First-term councillors Jeromy Farkas and Jyoti Gondek are likely the most well-known names in the mayoral race so far, since they’re already in Calgary’s civic politics world.

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But Lucas said it’s still too early to boil down the race to a competition between the two of them. Nenshi, after all, didn’t announce his candidacy until May 2010. He was up against the established political names of Barb Higgins and Ric McIver, both of whom had a history on city council, while Nenshi hadn’t held municipal office.

“If it was 2010 and we were talking about this race (now), we would just be having a conversation about whether it was going to be Mayor Higgins or Mayor McIver.”

June 14, 2010: Nenshi had been a debating champ since high school. Here, he debates other mayoralty candidates at a forum at the Bow Valley Club, including current Ric McIver, now MLA and the provincial UCP’s Minister of Transportation. Postmedia archives.
June 14, 2010: Nenshi had been a debating champ since high school. Here, he debates other mayoralty candidates at a forum at the Bow Valley Club, including current Ric McIver, now MLA and the provincial UCP’s Minister of Transportation. Postmedia archives.

There’s still time for others to enter the field, while the candidates that are already in have more space to build their profile and their platform.

“In some ways, the more obvious thing is that everybody in the race is up because Mayor Nenshi is not in,” Lucas said. “Even if it would have been a challenging win for him, he still would have secured many, many votes. Most of those votes are going to someone else now.”

Besides Farkas and Gondek, eight candidates are currently registered to run for mayor.

They are Ian Chiang, Shaoli Wang, businessman Brad Field, non-profit worker Teddy Ogbonna, real estate broker Grace Yan and former Kerby Centre president Zane Novak.

Perennial social conservative candidate Larry Heather is also running, and so is Kevin J. Johnston, a far-right social media figure who has previously run for mayor of Mississauga, Ont.

Coun. Jeff Davison filed to run for re-election in Ward 6 earlier this year, but at the time he said running for mayor still isn’t off the table.

On Tuesday, he said he still hasn’t made a decision about a possible campaign.

This year’s municipal election is set for Oct. 18.

masmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: @meksmith

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