The face of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with his Clark Kent glasses has been superimposed on Superman posters by grateful citizens in his flood-stricken city.
Ads for the new movie “Man of Steel” have pictures of his head on them. Other posters are suggesting: “Keep Calm and Nenshi On.” His smiling face, with goggles and snorkel, is appearing on T-shirts.
But as the floodwaters recede and the politics of reconstruction wash over him, Nenshi will likely face one of his greatest political challenges, says his former campaign adviser.
“It’s going to be a hot seat, isn’t it?” Stephen Carter said in an interview this week.
Inevitably, said Carter, disaster relief does not match everyone’s needs, wants or priorities – and Nenshi, cap in hand, will have to navigate through two levels of government for the support Calgary will need.
Premier Alison Redford has promised an initial $1-billion to help with recovery efforts, but the scope of devastation in Calgary and southern Alberta will undoubtedly be much higher.
“He (Nenshi) is going to be in the position where he’s going to have to advocate for his citizens. It’s going to put him in a position of conflict with the province and a position of conflict with the federal government,” Carter told The Canadian Press.
But, he said, Nenshi has an ace in the hole.
“He’s clearly the voice of all Calgarians.”
Nenshi, 41, is a first-term mayor who gained national attention when he used a campaign orchestrated by Carter and heavy on social media to beat the perceived front-runners in the 2010 municipal election. He became the first Muslim leader of a major Canadian city.
Superman status was solidified last week when he buzzed home from Toronto as the Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary surged over their banks and swamped the downtown and low-lying neighbourhoods – damaging the homes and livelihoods of thousands of his citizens.
He worked for 43 straight hours: tweeting, imploring, directing, assisting, cheering on and cheering up residents who saw homes ruined and possessions literally float away.
He was cheerleader, director, benevolent scolder.
Help your neighbours, he exhorted, be it with a shovel or a ride. Hug your emergency providers.
His new “home” became the back seat of helicopters or in front of news cameras. He provided updates several times a day – one in the middle of the night.
He used Twitter to get the word out. Well-wishers finally started a social media movement to get him to go home and take a nap.
Mr. Nice Guy disappeared on Thursday when Nenshi took a run at Canadian Pacific Railway for a bridge failure that left tanker cars loaded with an oil product teetering above the swollen Bow River.
He said he had a lot of concerns about the company’s inspection of the bridge.
“When was that bridge inspected? Why was it not inspected after Saturday? Remember, on Saturday the Bow River was still running higher than anyone had ever seen in their lifetimes,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of people lose their jobs at CP over the last year. How many bridge inspectors did they fire?”
Another Nenshi news conference days earlier went viral when he plain-spokenly denounced yahoos in canoes and boats on the dangerously raging waters of the Bow.
Time spent saving them was time and resources not being used where they were needed, he stated.
“It’s selfish and it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“I have been told that despite the state of local emergency I’m not allowed to invoke the Darwin law,” he said in a reference to people who do themselves in through their own reckless foolishness.
It was vintage Nenshi, anger leavened with humour to deliver a vivid message, said political scientist Keith Brownsey.
“There is this idea of individual rights in this country without any concept of responsibility to the larger community,” said Brownsey, a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Nenshi reminded us that we do have a larger responsibility. We’ve seen that exhibited in Calgary – and he’s led it.”
Across Canada, bloggers and commentators on news sites have lauded Nenshi. Others have despaired that in an era that has produced embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Insert-Name-of-Latest-Montreal-Mayor-Here, a leader can qualify for secular sainthood by simply doing his job.
Brownsey agreed that crisis leadership can be simple, but added that not everyone is up to it.
“He (Nenshi) has been everywhere. He’s been tireless. He has said all the right things. He’s set a tone of calm. He’s set a tone of determination.
“When you have citizens telling him he should go and get some sleep, you know he’s done something right.”
In a sense, the crisis was in the wheelhouse for the man who came from relative obscurity to win the mayor’s job on a platform of community activism.
Even before the flood, he wore a button with the No. 3 on it to urge Calgarians to do just three things to better their community.
Carter said Nenshi is a master of social media, forging relationships and trust one tweet at a time. He answers as many messages as he can, said Carter, and if he has to farm out responses, he makes it clear he’s doing so.
The Nenshi tweet is the real deal.
“The one-to-one interaction is staggering,” said Carter.
“He keeps up with them all. He uses the medium as it was designed to be used – as an interactive communications technique. He doesn’t use excuses like ‘I’m too busy.’ He does it all himself.”
Nenshi’s life is a blur of activity and achievement.
His family is from Tanzania. His mother was pregnant with him when the family came to Toronto in the early 1970s. He was born there and then moved with his family to Calgary, where he grew up.
He was a kid from a working-class neighbourhood in Calgary’s northeast. He was, and is, a voracious reader. He started when he was two with TV Guide and comic books.
As a kid, he was a ham. He acted in community productions until, he once said, he looked stage left and stage right and realized the worst actor was him.
He’s artsy and loves movies. He grew up lining up early for the Calgary Folk Music Festival.
But the left brain works as hard as the right.
He’s a wonk, a braniac. He earned his bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Calgary and studied public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Cities are his passion, his academic love: how they function, how the interplay of forces enriches or atrophies a community.
He taught business at Mount Royal and despaired at urban sprawl that was chewing up prime land to churn out tract housing costing far more in infrastructure, he said, than could ever be returned in property taxes.
A city, he believes, is only as vibrant as its core. Building on the edges creates a socio-economic centrifugal force that spins life away from downtown.
On city council, he has won battles and lost some on reducing the inevitable sprawl in an oil-powered metropolis bursting at the seams with newcomers.
A big blow to building up his downtown came with his failure to get approval for secondary suites.
He is running for the job again in October. And while a week is a long time in politics, he is considered a shoe-in, a rare candidate enjoying a honeymoon period with voters before the vote.
Said Carter: “This flood crisis has crystallized that there is one leader on council – and it’s Naheed Nenshi.”
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