Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi celebrates his election win at his campaign office. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi celebrates his election win at his campaign office. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Calgary's Naheed Nenshi becomes Canada's first Muslim mayor Add to ...

If you don't know the name Naheed Nenshi, take note.

A grassroots campaign driven by volunteers has delivered Canada its first Muslim mayor - Mr. Nenshi, who scored a staggering win in Calgary's mayor's race Monday.

He defeated two better-funded candidates, including one backed by Stephen Harper's campaign team, and saw his support surge in the final few weeks. To say Mr. Nenshi's campaign was austere is understatement - he delivered his speech in a basement that was donated by a supporter at the last second.

More related to this story

The 38-year-old Mr. Nenshi survived a smear campaign and a telephone failure in the crucial final days and hours, before running away with what was to be a close vote. His candidacy was branded the "Purple Revolution," named for his campaign colour and driven by a broad demographic that included strong youth support. He achieved what many observers thought impossible - a wonkish, even dorky, academic and visible minority elected to the helm of what is often called Canada's most conservative city after a campaign driven by charisma and sheer determination.

"Today Calgary is a different place than it was yesterday. A better place," Mr. Nenshi said in a speech to his supporters.

Shortly after 10 p.m. local time, CTV declared him the winner. Global News followed suit an hour later.

When returns finally showed him in the lead - one he would not relinquish - a bar where Mr. Nenshi was watching results erupted in a deafening cheer.

"The bar was amazing," a grinning Mr. Nenshi told The Globe and Mail as he walked into his campaign office. "If you have never heard the sound of a city collectively losing its mind, you needed to be in that bar."

He said his win "means we've got a lot of work to do, starting tomorrow [Tuesday]" and that he was "a little" surprised with how many votes he received.

"It means people heard my message," he said.

His win also proves that the Internet is a key tool in politics and does indeed deliver support - Mr. Nenshi had far more Facebook friends than either of his main competitors, who themselves dismissed that support, saying it wouldn't translate into actual votes.

But Mr. Nenshi had 39 per cent of the vote with 229 of 241 polls reporting, followed closely by alderman Ric McIver with 32 per cent and former CTV anchor Barb Higgins with 26 per cent. Ms. Higgins raced to an early lead before her numbers collapsed, while Mr. Nenshi started slow and then spiked.

Mr. McIver, meanwhile, had campaigned essentially since the last election in 2007, preparing to challenge outgoing Mayor Dave Bronconnier, a bitter rival. When Mr. Bronconnier elected not to run, Mr. McIver became the race's de facto front-runner, with a significant war-chest and plenty of backing among Calgary's conservatives.

Ms. Higgins entered the race late with little experience but significant name recognition, and tried to position herself as a moderate able to build consensus on city council, which has been bitterly divided for the past three-year term largely because of Mr. Bronconnier and Mr. McIver. Had Ms. Higgins won, she would have been Calgary's first female mayor. However, critics insisted that she didn't have the experience to take the top job, unlike Mr. McIver the alderman and Mr. Nenshi, a veteran observer of city hall.

Voter turnout was high, with early returns suggesting it could reach 50 per cent, well higher than the 33 per cent turnout in 2007.

Elsewhere in the province, Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel easily clinched a third term. The mayors of Red Deer and Wood Buffalo, a municipality that includes Fort McMurray and the oil sands, were also expected to win re-election.

In Wood Buffalo, incumbent Melissa Blake won by a landslide, with more than triple the vote of her closest rival, Councillor John Vyboh.

The race in Red Deer was closer than expected. Incumbent Morris Flewwelling appeared poised to win over his lone challenger, Hilary Penko.

And in Lethbridge, a city of 85,000 with a wide-open mayor's race, alderman Rajko Dodic eked out a narrow, 208-vote victory over Chris Spearman. Two other candidates finished close behind. The outcome had been impossible to predict, as the city's lone pollster had elected to run for council himself, leaving the community without a sense of the state of the race.

But no race was as compelling as Calgary's. The prospect of Mr. Nenshi as mayor signalled a shift in the province, observers said. "Calgary is often misperceived. It's no longer a ranching and oil community only. It's young, it's vibrant, it's cosmopolitan and global," said David Taras, a veteran political observer in the city and the Ralph Klein Chair in Media Studies at Mount Royal University.

"It's almost a movement, which is incredible."

Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said the race was supposed to be between Ms. Higgins and Mr. McIver, but Mr. Nenshi's "dogged" work drove his support.

"He has stolen this campaign. He's gone from being an interesting also-ran to the guy setting the agenda in this campaign,'" Prof. Young said.

"It's just had this exceptional momentum to it. It's gone from being the campaign that people who are maybe to the centre-left, and are a bit more of the urbanist types are supporting, to having mainstream appeal. He was endorsed by the Calgary Sun of all things, which is exceptional."

Watching the returns of Mr. McIver closely were Mr. Harper's Conservatives. The party's veteran campaign duo of Sam Armstrong and Devin Iversen led Mr. McIver's push. Along with Rob Anders, they're credited as being experts in "deep mining" polling - identifying a conservative base, finding wedge issues, and driving those people to the polls. That approach was simply washed away by the broad coalition mobilized by Mr. Nenshi, who nevertheless congratulated his two rivals.

"We have to thank [Ms. Higgins]for everything she's done for this city," he said, adding later Mr. McIver "has been an outstanding leader for this city and I hope that he will continue to be an outstanding leader for this city."

Mr. Nenshi was joined by his family - a sister, her husband, two children and his parents - with whom he is very close. He is a success story for new Canadians. Mr. Nenshi's parents emigrated to Canada from Tanzania when his mother, Nury Nenshi, was pregnant with Naheed. They settled in Toronto before moving to Calgary, where Naheed grew up. He attended Harvard University, and at the tender age of 22 was hired by McKinsey and Company, one of the world's top consulting firms. After about eight years at the company, he returned to Calgary to be with his ailing father. He has since worked for the United Nations, started his own business, and became a professor at Mount Royal University. He was a frequent commentator and columnist with a keen eye on civic affairs; this spring, he decided to throw his hat in.

"You know, the Purple Army was never about winning an election - it's a good thing. It was about revitalizing the level of conversation in the city. It was about talking to the person next to you on the bus, it was about taking an extra minute with the cashier at Safeway, and now it is about doing the work to build a better Calgary that we all dream of," Mr. Nenshi told his supporters Monday night.

Several pundits quietly predicted a Nenshi win early Monday, though many stuck to traditional views that Mr. McIver would win. Nevertheless, Prof. Taras praised Mr. Nenshi's campaign.

"His ability to connect and win volunteers, I mean, his ranking on the charisma index is probably 10 out of 10. He's very articulate, he showed a deep knowledge of policy, and he had a vision for the city," Prof. Taras said.

"I think this is a city of change, but it's a cosmopolitan city. It's a younger, more cosmopolitan, more progressive face than people are used to thinking about Calgary. When people think about Calgary they don't tend to think of it as a cosmopolitan city."

In Edmonton, with only a handful of polls left to report, unofficial results gave Mr. Mandel 55 per cent of the vote. His closest challenger, businessman David Dorward, had roughly 30 per cent.

Mr. Mandel campaigned on a reputation as a big-picture visionary who has backed the arts and expanded the city's LRT system. He promised to redevelop the Edmonton City Centre Airport into a new, mixed-used neighbourhood.

The airport's future became the biggest issue in the election, with Mr. Dorward backed by a lobby group that wanted the airport kept open.

"We have to look at how to build a city that's representative of all our multicultural communities, and that offers opportunities for young people," Mr. Mandel said on his priorities for the next term. "Really, it's to continue to build the city and a long range vision of what we can do."

With a report from Adrian Morrow

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular