There was a moment this week when Naheed Nenshi seemed ready to lose it. The strain of leading his city through its devastating flood finally seemed to catch up with him as he knelt outside Calgary’s emergency operations centre to accept a hand-made card from five-year-old Anna Selk.
“Dear Mayor Nenshi,” it read. “Thank you for keeping Calgary strong.” At this, his eyes glistened, his face drew tight, and the mayor paused to compose himself before thanking Anna and giving her a hug.
She was acknowledging his efforts in coping with the devastation wrought by the Bow and Elbow rivers. Wildly popular before the flood, Mr. Nenshi has begun to look like a folk hero.
In a conversation with The Globe and Mail, the 41-year-old former academic describes himself as a policy wonk – “I’ve never in my life thought of myself as the guy in the front of the room.”
Yet his recent actions show that he is not only dedicated – lobbying for assistance while showing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Alison Redford his damaged city – but, if necessary, willing to defy past practice and the powers that be.
Within days of accepting young Anna’s card, he was squaring off with the head of mighty CP Rail. A century-old bridge had sagged, nearly pitching tanker cars filled with toxins into the Bow, and he wanted assurances such a thing would never happen again.
Such bravura may make him the most popular politician in the country – he took CP to task for its lack of accountability not just to Calgary but urban centres coast to coast. Cities with troubled leaders look on with envy.
Not everyone is a fan – there are rumours that business interests are seeking someone to challenge him at the polls this fall. But the general public appreciates his efforts. On social media, he is showered with praise, with Twitter being his special domain. At last count, he had more than 121,000 followers for his flood-related updates in 140 characters or less on everything from power failures and road closings to the difficulties ahead as Calgary struggles to recover.
His humour in the face of tragedy has has helped deflate the tension. Upon spotting boaters out during the flood, he tweeted: “I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe the people I saw in a canoe in the Bow River today … I am not allowed to use any of them.”
He is Harvard-educated and his approach to crisis management reads like something out of the Harvard Business Review – figure out what’s going on; act promptly, not hurriedly; manage expectations; demonstrate control, stay loose – but as the days have worn on, he has looked increasingly bedraggled.
Each night, he has visited the most flood-affected neighbourhoods, usually clad in jeans, plaid shirt, City of Calgary jacket and shoes that are always dirty. There are online pictures portraying him as Superman, but he has operated on so little sleep that a Twitter movement arose urging him to get some rest and instantly spawned a meme: Keep Calm Even Though Nenshi is Napping.
There’s little question his empathetic style has helped to quell the anger often associated with such calamities. Instead, Calgarians talk mostly about how proud they are of the job he has done.
A long shot
Just three years ago, Naheed Nenshi was a chubby professor at Mount Royal University who liked to comment on civic politics. Asked to help recruit a mayoral candidate in the fall of 2010, he wound up being recruited himself. Persona notwithstanding, there was something charismatic about him – so uncool that he was cool. His smile made him instantly likeable and the fact that he’s bright was evident as soon as he opened his mouth.
After his Purple Revolution – named after his favourite colour and the one worn by his supporters – led him to victory, Mr. Nenshi quickly set about setting a new tone at city hall. His brash, often cheeky style was a hit with his citizens. His urbaneness was something young Calgarians craved, a refreshing respite from the city’s redneck image. He made Calgary seem chic and hip.
He also believed in urban density and mass transit and food carts and bike lanes, making him ideologically closer to left-of-centre Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson than Toronto’s conservative Rob Ford.
Even so, his popularity continues to surprise him. In the course of two extended interviews with The Globe, he admits: “I just don’t get it. I’m a policy wonk – I’m interested in policy and the way it impacts people.
“I’ve never in my life thought of myself as the guy in the front of the room or as the guy shaking hands and kissing babies.”
“And you always have to remember never to get those two backwards.”
Mount Royal colleague Duane Bratt, a keen observer of Alberta politics, says the mayor’s success isn’t really a mystery.
“I think what’s he done more than anything is change the mood of Calgary and how people feel about their city,” he explains. “He often gives this speech about three things. He asks people to think about three things they can do to make their city better. It’s that kind of leadership that people have really responded to.”
A national voice
The rest of the country is taking notice because Mr. Nenshi soon became a respected voice among big-city mayors, joining their call to address chronic underfunding.
“The taxpayers of Calgary send $4-billion more a year to the provincial government than they get back in provincial services,” he says. “The imbalance with the federal government is $10-billion a year.
“So, when you see me with my hand out, I’m actually asking for a tax rebate, not a handout.”
Premier Alison Redford calls him “a terrific person,” adding that “we’ve had our differences but I have tremendous respect for him and what he does.”
However, not everyone is thrilled. Many in a town still known for big lawns and big trucks see the mayor as anti-suburb, the lover of all that is dense and green.
He also has made enemies in the building community, calling out developers for delivering what he termed “crap” proposals that don’t deserve fast city approval. He also kicked representatives of the Calgary Home Builders’ Association off all city committees after the organization reproached him for instigating what it called a development freeze in the burbs.
Although he rescinded the order and has tried to rebuild relations with the association, there are mutterings that a group of wealthy, small-c conservatives is looking for a challenger.
When he was taken off the air this week after criticizing his employer, Corus Radio, for its response to the flood, long-time talk-show host Dave Rutherford revealed that he has been courted – but has no intention of running.
Who would, especially now? Mr. Nenshi’s popularity ranged between 75 and 80 per cent even before the flood.
His name is constantly associated with grander ambitions, either provincially or in Ottawa. This bothers him, he says, as it suggests both levels of government are somehow higher when civic politics may have the greatest impact on day-to-day life. He has no secret desire to be prime minister or premier, at least for now.
For now, his hands are full nursing a city back to health. This will take a long time and there are stressful days ahead.
“People have lost a lot – our friends and neighbours are in an enormous amount of pain,” he said this week.
But he has no time for despair.
“We’re there to help them. We as citizens have the power to take people from devastation to hope.”
Gary Mason is The Globe and Mail’s western columnist. He wrote this story with reports from Carrie Tait and Kelly Cryderman of the Calgary bureau.