A peeled banana in hand, Don Iveson climbs the stairs to his new office, its glass-paneled entrance still marked with white letters: “Stephen Mandel.”
Mr. Iveson pauses, looking down at the atrium where he’d be sworn in hours later. This is the calm between storms. A long, exhausting campaign is over, and a job awaits Edmonton’s new mayor. The relentless hometown advocate has lofty plans for public transit and a bigger national role for Canada’s cities, but he’ll have to win over the province and Ottawa, and cope with budget constraints at a time when his city’s debt levels have soared.
The 34-year-old takes over from the retiring Mr. Mandel, a popular three-term mayor twice his successor’s age. Mr. Iveson is part of a youth movement in Alberta politics, and essentially ran the table on polling day, winning 62 per cent of the vote (by comparison, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi first won with 40 per cent) and beating his rivals in every single Edmonton ward, regardless of demographic. He won all but a handful of the city’s 279 polling stations.
Now, he says, the real work begins. “I’ve been reflecting a lot, preparing for today, on the scale of the challenges that are ahead, but also the scale of the opportunity. And it’s huge,” Mr. Iveson told The Globe and Mail on his inauguration day last week, where changes so far include the addition of Lego and a plastic firefighter’s helmet – toys for his two young children.
He suspects his mayoral campaign tapped into a renewed sense of optimism in Edmonton, one of Canada’s youngest and fastest-growing cities. “There’s a confidence in people here, an excitement about living here that I don’t remember,” he says.
His priorities including shepherding the city’s downtown arena project to completion – he opposed it, before relenting and eventually backing it – and he’s made a point of reaching out to the city’s burgeoning aboriginal population. But transit expansion is a pillar of his focus at home, including a proposed southeast LRT line that won’t go ahead without more money from the province or Ottawa.
Transit, as such, is also the reason he’s set to become a familiar face nationally. Canadian cities “are constitutionally at the children’s table in this country,” he says, and major projects such as transit need more provincial and federal support.
Mr. Iveson doesn’t hesitate to critique his counterparts. Half of police work in Edmonton, he says, “is picking up the pieces from the provincial government’s inability to deal with addictions, mental health and homelessness.” And he believes transit will be the 21st-century equivalent of railroad and highway building – “we just need a federal government that understands that,” he says.
A graduate of the University of Alberta, Mr. Iveson spent two years in Toronto running the Canadian University Press – a national student newspaper organization. He returned to Edmonton, working as business manager at the U of A’s student newspaper, before shifting into a government-relations role for the students union.
Mr. Iveson, who doesn’t publicly identify with any political party, first won a council seat in 2007 by beating incumbent Mike Nickel, who captured a seat again in last week’s election. Mr. Nickel said the earlier defeat is water under the bridge, and that Mr. Iveson is working to build consensus on council.
“He’s collaborative. That seems to be his big push right now,” Mr. Nickel says, echoing Mr. Iveson’s belief that Edmonton doesn’t have time for partisan bickering. “If we’ve got a New Democrat with a good idea, we’ve got to take it. If we’ve got a Conservative with a good idea, we’ve got to take it.”
Mr. Iveson is an avid social media user, but the campaign relied on a traditional tactic – door-knocking – supported by technology. Rather than volunteers writing down each supporter’s information and later painstakingly compiling it, Iveson volunteers used a locally developed smart-phone app to build a detailed database house by house. They could quickly record what issues mattered to each home, flag where supporters live, order lawn signs and mark potential donors or volunteers.
The new mayor often backed Mr. Mandel, but won’t have the luxuries his predecessor did. The Mandel-led council built infrastructure projects such as recreation centres and LRT expansions, and debt rose five-fold to more than $2-billion. Mr. Iveson will be hard-pressed to spend like Mr. Mandel did.
“Debt is not unlimited, and we’ll have to be cautious about what we use it for in the future,” he says, later adding: “That’s not to say we won’t use it.”
With Ottawa and Alberta, he hopes to set a “different tone,” saying he can barely stand the vicious partisanship in politics. It drives voters away, and he points to his campaign as a sign that voters want something else. “That’s a lot of what’s wrong with our democracy, and that’s why we’ve run three positive campaigns now,” he says. “And, done right, they work.”