The man is simply everywhere this summer. In newspapers and magazines, online, on television. You can find T-shirts being sold with his face emblazoned on the front. He looks a little like Che Guevara, only happier.
Then there are the larger-than-life-sized mug shots of Calgary’s 36th mayor that are popping up wherever he goes. He sees them when he speaks at Calgary Stampede breakfasts, barbecues, socials, fundraisers.
His worship, Naheed Nenshi – on a stick. “That’s gotten really weird,” he said Wednesday.
Calgarians are not just fond of their mayor; they are infatuated with him. They consider him the face of their city and the new West. He’s more than young, smart and communications savvy; he’s the Muslim mayor who served as grand marshal of a gay pride parade and then helped rescue the Calgary Stampede.
It was Mr. Nenshi’s steady-handed leadership during last month’s massive flooding that spiked his popularity. Realizing how much the city needed the Stampede both from an economical and emotional standpoint, Mr. Nenshi took charge, saying 100 years of tradition wasn’t going to be washed away so quickly. What did that tell Calgarians about their mayor? That here was a guy who looked at problems, no matter their size, and said, “Let’s fix this.”
He also won over people with his sensibilities. During the flooding, he tweeted: “I have a large number of nouns that I could use to describe the people I saw in a canoe on the Bow River today. I am not allowed to use any of them.”
“A lot of times mayors are stuffy,” said Christine Hemminger, the general manager of the 14th annual McKenzie Towne Stampede breakfast, whose Wednesday guest list included Alberta Premier Alison Redford and the omnipresent Mr. Nenshi. “He comes across as very approachable and compassionate. He’s the first mayor to attend our breakfast …”
On a brilliant morning in the McKenzie Towne suburb, thousands of people milled about High Street as Ms. Redford spoke of community and volunteerism and was politely applauded. Then Mr. Nenshi showed up and a crowd of parents, kids – even the Little Caesars mascot – formed a large clot around the podium. Onlookers video-recorded Mr. Nenshi, snapped his photo, positioned themselves for autographs. They wanted to shake his hand, pat him on the back.
A woman turned to a reporter and said, “This lady is from Toronto. She says you can buy a shirt that says, ‘If you don’t have Mr. Nenshi, you have Nenvy.’” Everyone laughed.
Ah, yes, Toronto and its mayor, Rob Ford. Through the media lens, Mr. Ford comes off stiff and threatened; Mr. Nenshi is at ease among the masses. He especially loves posing for photos with kids. He says there’s a reason for that.
“I love that little kids know who the mayor is. It makes me feel people are engaged in their community,” he said while being whisked to another appearance.
“I have pictures of myself as a kid with Ralph Klein and Al Duerr [former Calgary mayors]. Those two inspired me a little way in the life of public service, so I’m happy to give back to others.”
He’s happy to poke fun at himself, too. About his face being plastered on various merchandise, he acknowledged: “The T-shirts with my face on them, on Cowboys’ waitresses [at a local bar] – it’s very strange. No one has asked for my permission. But most of it is being used for flood relief, which is awesome.”
Before he left McKenzie Towne, Mr. Nenshi managed to endear himself a little deeper by noting he was going to lead a yahoo cheer because, “I’m the yahooer-in-chief, not the yahoo-in-chief.” He told the people that when they yahooed together they should think of those who gave so freely to assist their neighbours. They should think of “our family in Quebec,” a reference to the explosions that have torn apart Lac-Mégantic, Que.
Lastly, Mr. Nenshi said with a grin, “If you want, you can yahoo for the people in Toronto. They had some rain.”
Even the Little Caesars mascot was laughing on the inside.