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Margaret Wente

Why Hogtown envies Cowtown Add to ...

I have great news. I've finally decided on the guy I want to be Toronto's mayor. He's got it all - smarts, vision, likeability and some really clear and practical ideas about how to improve the city. Unfortunately, he lives in Calgary.

Naheed Nenshi, we need you!

Torontonians have a bad case of election deficit disorder, and no wonder. We're having temper tantrums as we try to figure out who's the least worst choice to be mayor. Is it Rob Ford, the charmless blockhead whose single idea is to cut every dollar of wasteful spending? Or is it Furious George Smitherman, who rammed through the worst energy policy that Ontario's ever seen? It's a tough call. Things are so bad, people are longing for the halcyon age of Mel Lastman.

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Torontonians have always thought of Calgary as a hick town, full of rednecks in cowboy hats and oil guys chowing down on range-fed beef at the Petroleum Club. Their idea of "change" was to elect Ralph Klein. Their idea of "the arts" was horse paintings and their idea of "diversity" was a spaghetti restaurant. We were supposed to be the progressive, diverse, cosmopolitan city that the whole world held up as a model for the future. But now we're likely to get a mayor who'll make Ralph Klein look like a world-class sophisticate.

Is there something toxic about Toronto that scares away good candidates? After all, we've got a dysfunctional city council, a weak-mayor system, a bloated, inefficient, unionized bureaucracy, and an untouchable police budget. But hey! So does Calgary.

What's great about Naheed Nenshi isn't that he's brown and Muslim - although he is a powerful symbol for a city that has become surprisingly diverse. What's great is that he loves his city and has actual plans to make it better. A Harvard-trained business strategist, he was virtually unknown when he entered the mayoralty race two months ago. He had no funding, no professional campaign team and 1 per cent of the vote. He turned out to be a whiz at social networking. But tweeting doesn't get people elected. Good ideas get them elected. Toronto mayoral hopefuls, please take note.

Mr. Nenshi's ideas are not very ideological, and they're easy to explain. For instance, he wants the government to serve the citizens, not vice-versa. "It's not 'Have you filled out all these forms?' but 'How can we help you succeed?' " he says. He wants to close the deficit gap without "radically" raising taxes. He wants to refocus city council on smart things (a new access road to the airport), not dumb things (enforcing ethnic diversity in food carts, to name a notorious example from Toronto).

Mr. Nenshi campaigned on the credibility of his ideas, not his identity. Toronto's hopefuls are campaigning on identity and nothing else. Mr. Ford is the frugal small businessman who's angry about waste. Rocco Rossi (who dropped out after launching a truly ridiculous marketing campaign that featured himself as some sort of friendly mobster) was the immigrant son who made good. Mr. Smitherman is a "change agent" with "progressive values," whatever that means. None has shown he has a clue about how to turn Toronto back to the City that Works.

In Cowtown, the big arrow is pointing up. Urban economist Joel Kotkin names Calgary as one of North America's most successful and fastest-growing cities because of its energy industry, medium size and affordable housing. In Hogtown, the big arrow is pointing down. Congestion is bad and housing is expensive, and those problems are likely to get worse. Like New York and London, Toronto is quickly evolving into a city of the very affluent and the have-nots, with scarcely any middle class in between. If you want a good job, a vibrant economy, a short commute and a decent house, go to Calgary.

So that's why I've got Cowtown envy. On Monday, I shall slouch to the polls and vote for an angry, middle-aged white guy with no ideas - one or the other of them. Sadly, I have no choice.

 

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