Once upon a time, Alberta had the most boring politics in the country. They were epitomized by the earnest but staid, uninteresting leadership of people like former premier Ed Stelmach.
Sure, his predecessor Ralph Klein could occasionally be amusing, especially with a drink in his hand. And the little giant Peter Lougheed had some charisma. But over the years Alberta has been mostly viewed as a conservative-minded, one-party state, ruled by men beholden to the oil industry. There were certainly never any mayors talked about outside the provincial borders.
How things have changed.
The two most powerful provincial leaders in the province are women. Premier Alison Redford has emerged as an important and respected voice on the national scene. But the iron-clad grip that her Progressive Conservative party has had on power in the province for decades is slipping. In the last election, it took a come-from-behind miracle for the Tories to beat the upstart Wildrose party, led by the telegenic, right-wing dynamo Danielle Smith.
Yet, there isn’t a bigger political star in the province than Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. He has fans across the country. People want him to be mayor of their town. People want him to be premier. People want him to be prime minister.
Mr. Nenshi was a virtual unknown when he was elected three years ago. Now, outside of Rob Ford, there is unlikely a mayor in the country with greater name recognition. This is partly why so much attention has been focused on his re-election bid. Calgarians go to the polls next month and there is no one in the town who honestly believes the mayor’s eight challengers have any chance of knocking him off.
If he was a heavy favourite before the start of the summer, the mayor became a virtual lock after the June floods that ravaged his city. He was hailed far and wide for showing the kind of leadership people crave in times of crisis. Since then he has mostly managed to stay humble while basking in the glow of unadulterated adoration.
This doesn’t mean Mr. Nenshi doesn’t have his enemies. He is an unabashed liberal in a town that is the corporate headquarters of big oil and gas. Conservative elements in the province, don’t much care for the mayor’s politics or policies. Neither do many developers, whose bottom line is being affected by the mayor’s push for densification in the downtown core over suburban sprawl.
Last spring, a secretly-recorded video surfaced in which a suburban homebuilder could be seen explaining how he and a group of like-minded developers had donated more than $1-million to foundations that former Reform leader Preston Manning runs, to get them involved in the municipal election.
The Manning Centre, in turn, donated $10,000 in seed money to help create Common Sense Calgary, a new group opposed to tax increases the mayor has backed over the past three years. Common Sense would no doubt love to see the mayor gone. Fat chance of that.
And then there is conservative rabble-rouser Ezra Levant.
He recently earned Mr. Nenshi’s wrath when he accused the mayor of pandering to the left by awarding a contract to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank based in Alberta. Only problem was the contract was awarded before Mr. Nenshi became mayor.
This ignited an entertaining feud on Twitter between the two former university debating partners. Mr. Nenshi angered Mr. Levant and his supporters when he tweeted: “When did you stop beating your wife?” It was a response to what the mayor considered to be the loaded nature of some of the questions Mr. Levant was posing about the contract.
This prompted Mr. Levant, who is from Alberta, to call Mr. Nenshi a “filthy mouth.” The mayor would eventually issue a back-handed apology but later accuse Mr. Levant of being “creepily and weirdly obsessed,” with him.
With Mr. Nenshi all but assured of another three years in office, civic politics in Calgary will not be dull. And the intense, often bitter battle between Ms. Redford and Ms. Smith will also continue to rage.
Politics in Alberta has suddenly become the most compelling in the country.