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The West

Cowtown no more: Why Calgary chose Naheed Nenshi Add to ...

The genius of Mr. Nenshi's vision for Calgary - and of his electoral strategy - was that it turned the boomtown's malleability into its greatest strength. The lack of set ideas about what the city should be became a wellspring of opportunity for reinvention. The issue nearest to Mr. Nenshi's heart - the construction of a tunnel underneath the new runway at Calgary airport - is an example particularly rich in symbolism.

The new runway, construction on which began just before the election campaign, will close forever the only direct link to the airport itself from the northeast. Which happens to be where a large number of the airport's 15,000 workers - many of them recent immigrants - have made their homes. Though it had been the city's stated intent for years to build an underpass for vehicles and eventually perhaps light rapid transit, the bust of 2008 shelved those plans.

Whether to build the tunnel was a contentious but tertiary campaign issue, vital only to the residents of the oft-overlooked northeast. Other candidates either tepidly endorsed the tunnel project or put forward fallback schemes involving traffic reroutings and buses.

Mr. Nenshi instead made the airport tunnel a major issue and a cornerstone of his broader vision of sustainable mixed-use communities well-serviced by transit in every corner of the city. He dug under the status quo to emerge in a place offering much wider vistas of possibility. In place of vagueness and dithering, he offered a detailed plan and promised unequivocal action - an uncommon clarity that enticed even voters with no real stake in the tunnel itself.

Mr. Nenshi: "The under-40, hipster, urbanist professionals - my base, where I started - are really excited. But there's something crazy going on, because the city is excited. The surburban moms are excited. The society ladies are excited. The immigrant communities are certainly excited. And to what can we attribute that? Is it because people are so thrilled about the airport tunnel, that it's finally going to be built? I don't think so. Though I am pretty thrilled about that.

"But I think it has to do with the two core themes of our campaign. And the first one is: Politics in full sentences. You know, actually telling people that we're ready for detailed discussions about complicated issues, and we're not boiling it down to simple solutions and bullet points. And the other is: Go to citizens where they live and engage them in conversation. Get them talking to one another. And I really, really believe that's happened. That's what's different now."

Nenshimania goes viral

On Election Day, my wife and I got takeout Vietnamese - Calgary's default cuisine, available on nearly every retail block and in every other strip mall across the city - and invited over a couple of friends to watch the returns.

I'd made an effort not to embrace the idea of a Nenshi win, because I'd never once cast a vote for a winner in my life. Earlier that day, though, I'd sort of eavesdropped as a 20-year-old of our acquaintance, a young woman with no previous discernible interest in politics, traded text messages with friends, urging them to vote Nenshi. The thing had gone viral. Against my better judgment, I started to believe.

The technology wasn't the point. Mr. Nenshi's campaign had just plain outworked everyone else's. He'd been at the gates of the Calgary Folk Festival in his purple T-shirt in July, weeks before Ms. Higgins even entered the race. He showed up at every house party and community hall and street-fest that would have him. His team hand-tailored their brochures to each ward, based on the key issues they'd uncovered in phone surveys. He spoke at elementary schools and enthused kids would go home and bug their parents to vote Nenshi.

I know a couple who'd crossed paths with Mr. Nenshi at a CivicCamp event a year earlier, where they'd chatted a bit about a dog-park management issue in their community that was dear to their hearts. When it re-emerged in the press, Mr. Nenshi fired off a Twitter message to the husband, securing two more votes.

Even after I heard his acceptance speech, I had trouble accepting the full truth of what I'd just witnessed. And as exhilarated as I was, I was still acutely aware of the wide gap between big ideas and their execution, especially when even the most decisive mayor is but one vote of 15 on a quarrelsome City Council.

In the days to follow, I kept hearing people say the city felt different to them, more complete somehow. I knew what they meant. It wasn't because we agreed with everything Naheed Nenshi said or believed his vision would be reality overnight; it was because - for some of us, maybe for the first time - we felt fully included in the conversation.

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