W5: Calgary Mayor Nenshi turning heads across Canada
Published Saturday, October 1, 2011 7:21PM EDT
It's not often you meet the mayor of a city who is as popular in other cities across Canada as he is on home turf.
When Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary was the keynote speaker at the recent Loran Awards alumni dinner in Toronto, the assembled graduates, who had won scholarships for their university degrees, cheered him like a rock star.
He's particularly popular with the young, a group which traditionally turns their backs on municipal politics.
"I'm not suggesting they weren't engaged with community, they were," he said. "But they weren't engaged with government."
They're attracted to his ideas for running cities, his open-door policies at city hall and the way he can stand in front of a crowd and make them feel the future is limitless.
In the Calgary municipal election in October 2010, he galvanized young people to get out and vote for him using social media like Twitter.
"What we actually learned was that these online tools were a way to do what has always been good politics – go to people where they live. Don't expect them to come to you.
And we learned that a lot of people live online, and this is a good way to communicate with them."
That tactic helped him defeat two front runners and put him in charge of the city of more than 1.2 million people.
It's a remarkable achievement for someone so new to politics. Even more remarkable when you consider he's also a Muslim of South Asian background in a city viewed by many in other parts of Canada as a bastion of red-neck, small-c conservative, cowboy culture.
But Nenshi believes the rest of Canada has it wrong.
"I often say that the reason that Calgary is successful is because it's an incredibly open society," he said. "Nobody cares who your daddy was or what your last name is or where you went to school. But what they really care about is what you bring to the table. If you're smart, if you've got good ideas, if you've got the passion to make them happen, the community supports you to succeed."
He claims he hasn't changed the face of Calgary, but he is changing the way the city does business. The idea is to involve the community in decisions by listening to their concerns.
"I was elected to make tough choices," he said. "I have to make judgement calls. But I believe that you make better decisions when you have better data. And the data of what people are thinking is an incredibly important piece of making those decisions. They know what's working and what isn't working."
Across Canada, other communities are watching what's happening in Calgary. And, inevitably, Mayor Nenshi is compared to another mayor who swept into power on the hope of change.
Rob Ford vowed to stop what he called "The Gravy Train" at Toronto's City Hall, but his attempts to cut budgets caused his popularity to plummet.
Nenshi doesn't like to be drawn into comparisons.
"There are differences in tone," he said. "But really, every mayor across this country is facing exactly the same challenges. We have a really antiquated system of raising revenue. But we have to provide the services that people need every single day. But we don't have the tools to, to fund those things."
Nenshi points to the system of raising revenue on the backs of home owners through property taxes as the weak link in municipal finances.
"If you were going to design the worst way to fund government," he said. "You'd come up with something like property tax. We'll probably hit a breaking point for most cities in Canada within the decade, where we simply won't be able to fund our operations using only the property tax."
It's a well-documented fact that cities drive national economies, but Nenshi argues that provincial and federal governments have been slow to recognize this.
"It's not about taking anyone on or having a fight with anyone," he said. "It's about really sitting down and saying how the heck are we going to continue to make sure people are safe and healthy and happy in their cities."