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Newly elected Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Newly elected Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Naheed Nenshi: Change Calgary believed in Add to ...

In many ways, Naheed Nenshi's come-from-behind win in Calgary's mayoral race is a traditional story.

Mr. Nenshi is qualified, charismatic and well-spoken. His career path has set him up well, perhaps purposefully, for a political career. He earned key endorsements and had all the momentum going into election day.

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But, of course, his victory is unique, both for reasons the 38-year-old is inclined to discuss - such as his impressive grassroots "Purple Army" shoestring campaign - and those that he is not. He represents a changing Calgary, with its 230,000 visible-minority residents (nearly a quarter of the population), as the city's first non-white mayor.

In a province so often dominated by its conservatives, who supported opponents Barb Higgins and Ric McIver, Mr. Nenshi was a rallying point for progressive Alberta - young and old, white and non-white, eager to debunk their city's conservative Cowtown image.

Now it's up to Mr. Nenshi to deliver on the significant change he promised. A tall order, but voters are eager for it.

"I saw a lot of parallels between his campaign and [Barack]Obama's campaign. He was mobilizing youth, which McIver and Higgins were not focusing on," said voter Ashif Murani, 44, a Calgary lawyer. "I think he's just really got good, solid credentials. Whether that can now get conveyed into policy decision making where he gets support of the council, that remains to be seen. It's like Obama - good ideas, but can you implement them?"

Mr. Nenshi neither mentioned often nor avoided his heritage and religion during the campaign. (As has now been over-told, Of South Asian extraction, he's a Muslim, the first to hold the mayor's chair in a major Canadian city). Contrary to some national perception, Alberta has a history of electing minorities and Muslim candidates. Nevertheless, questions came to Mr. Nenshi. A local paper published a column condemning the racist Nenshi hate mail it had received. A TV reporter told him Tuesday "there are some people who are concerned, perhaps, that there's a Muslim mayor."

But Mr. Nenshi has deftly taken it in stride. In a series of one-on-one interviews with The Globe and Mail on election day, Mr. Nenshi acknowledged his unprecedented role - tasked not only with running Calgary (and solving its significant budget crisis) but carrying the weight of a city's hope for change both in city hall and its reputation abroad.

"It is true that I have an additional responsibility that a guy like Ric McIver doesn't have; Ric does a great job and has done a great job - it doesn't mean that all Scots are outstanding," Mr. Nenshi told The Globe. "But, you know, I do a good job and it's like brown guys are okay. Muslims can do a good job. I do a bad job, and I take people down with me. It is [a lot of pressure] but it's just our lives.

"It would have been so easy to have an article, just a fun human-interest article in August, about what it's like fasting through Ramadan while you're campaigning. What it's like at a debate not drinking water. I didn't do that. I didn't do that because I didn't think it was a relevant question."

Nevertheless, he hasn't shied away from the issue of race in the past. He ran and lost for city council in 2004, and afterward said Calgary would have to face "very stark truths" to boost diversity on council.

For Mr. Nenshi, this campaign was strictly about issues and populist support (voter turnout was 53 per cent, an exceptional number in municipal elections). He talked about transit, accountability and open government. Mr. Nenshi also drew broad support on the political spectrum. His campaign was co-chaired by Chima Nkemdirim, vice-president of the upstart progressive Alberta Party, and Stephen Carter, former chief of staff to right-wing Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith. (Though it was Mr. Nenshi who approached him, Mr. Nkemdirim cleverly led a "draft Nenshi" online campaign that built early support).

Mr. Nenshi's team crafted a Thanksgiving strategy meant to thrust a virtual unknown forward in a wide race to a position as the third option to Ms. Higgins and Mr. McIver. Once they did so, they'd rely on their dedicated supporters to spread the populist Nenshi word at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

To get there, Mr. Nenshi said he aimed to "hit people where they live." For many, it meant online. He gathered thousands of Facebook fans and communicated directly with supporters and critics alike on Twitter - his "tweeps" helped him pick, for instance, his victory tie Monday night. That support was used to build a door-knocking network, and the campaign took every media interview and debate appearance it could.

Air, ground and online - a three-part strategy that earned them momentum.

"Everything fires together. This is a winning campaign," Mr. Carter told The Globe in late September, when Mr. Nenshi was still more than 25 points behind Mr. McIver. "This is working. Will it continue to work? I don't know."

It did. Interest in the campaign peaked late last week when a local poll put Mr. Nenshi in a tie with Ms. Higgins and Mr. McIver. His surging candidacy was legitimized further by an endorsement from the Calgary Sun.

"He laid the basis of the campaign with social media, and was able to speak to younger voters, but that in itself wasn't enough. There had to be real substance behind it, and that substance was really there," said Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. "He sounded confident and reasonable when he was in these debates, and that got out there. And then there was just a likeability factor that kicked in in the end."

The new Calgary mayor has a sterling resume. A U of C and Harvard graduate, Mr. Nenshi has worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company (hired at age 22) and later the United Nations. He speaks French and is a debating champion (strangely, his debating partner for two years was Ezra Levant, now a leading voice of the Canadian right). He values his humble roots.

"I think I can understand and talk to people who come from all walks of life. I'm not just a Harvard-educated egghead," he said.

He moved back to Calgary to be closer to his family. His mother, father, sister, brother-in-law and two nieces joined him at his campaign headquarters Monday evening. Supporters also praise his integrity - Mr. Nenshi avoided fighting a dirty campaign. He has previously served as president of his university students union.

His supporters hope he'll be a force for change, and for Alberta progressives.

"There's a real grassroots movement in the city, and he's the one who captured that," said supporter Lindsay Luhnau, 29, who spent election day waving Nenshi signs at passing cars. "Maybe it's just we're coming of age."

Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul - a mentor to Mr. Nenshi - called Tuesday to congratulate him on his historic win.

Mr. Nenshi was eager to carry that message of a diverse Calgary to the country.

"Today has also been a day about communicating with Canadians across this great country, with people around the world, to tell them the story of Calgary," he said.

On Tuesday, with a win secured, he addressed his personal story.

"My greatest hope is that this morning … kids from across the city - northeast to southwest, every ethnicity, every income level, every neighbourhood, every single one of those kids - say, 'what a country we live in, what a city we live in, because I can be anything.'"

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