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Cowtown no more: Why Calgary chose Naheed Nenshi

The Devonian Room is an elegant, semicircular dining lounge on the second floor of Calgary's Petroleum Club, panelled in dark wood and lit by a glittering outsized chandelier. The commemorative plaque downstairs will tell you the room only dates to 1958, but in a city with little in the way of Old Money - or Old Anything Else, really - this is as seasoned as a seat of established power gets.

The space is a natural fit for a new mayor's luncheon address to the august old Canadian Club of Calgary. The only incongruous detail on Wednesday was the figure at the podium - the mayor-elect, Naheed Nenshi, looking at ease, if weary, two whirlwind days after pulling off an election victory so incongruous with the rest of Canada's stock image of Calgary that it made headlines and caused chatter nationwide all week.

"It's time for people to look at this place," Mr. Nenshi told his genteel audience, "and to look at this place as it is - as a city of boundless opportunity."

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Calgary's 2010 election was supposed to be a choice between two flavours of status quo: Ric McIver, nine-year alderman, guided by some Stephen Harper strategists; and Barb Higgins, glitzy anchorwoman, coached by Ralph Klein's former chief of staff.

These established frontrunners were beaten, soundly, by a policy-wonk business prof from not-terribly-renowned Mount Royal University, which until last year was a community college. A guy whose age (38), religion (Ismaili Muslim), ethnicity (Indian by way of Tanzania) and local origin (Calgary's hardscrabble, polyglot northeast quadrant) were all without precedent in the mayor's chair. A guy who was admittedly "within spitting distance of zero" in the polls when the race began.

Outside Calgary, along with talk of his skilled use of digital channels such as Facebook and Twitter, there has been particular emphasis on his Harvard degree and his Muslim faith, almost as if he were a precocious and extremely high-profile minority hire. Among the electorate itself, these details were incidental.

The real key to the Nenshi phenomenon is that he electrified the city with a new vision of itself. Mr. Nenshi won not on image or spin but on big ideas and a road map dense with details on how to make them manifest. Cities - great cities, anyway - are products of the stories they tell themselves about what they are and what it is possible for them to become.

In their choice of mayor, Calgarians didn't see ethnic precedent or a Twitter feed; they saw a reflection worth striving for.

I can't pretend to objectivity on the subject. I'm describing what I saw in Naheed Nenshi's vision of Calgary, and what my Calgary-bred wife and our other friends and colleagues who became rabid Nenshi supporters saw.

What we now know, to our surprise and delight, is just how widely that viewpoint is shared.

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A city hungry for ideas

The trailhead of my own path was a luncheon invitation my wife and I accepted back in 2007, not long before the last lacklustre civic election returned a slew of incumbents to City Hall.

A retired oil-patch veteran named Dave Matthews had embarked on a series of mealtime roundtables on Calgary's future. Many of his old colleagues had relocated to Victoria, and in essence he was trying to decide if he should do the same.

The core question facing the city, as Mr. Matthews saw it, was this: "Can we make this a great city or will it remain essentially a commercial centre, like Fort MacMurray South? You come here to Calgary to make your buck, and when you've made your buck or retire, you take off somewhere where you'd really prefer to live. Do we have to stay in that sort of mode, or can we do something better?"

It was something I'd been wondering myself, because the city I'd come to know since I'd moved from Toronto in 2003 bore only a passing resemblance to the caricature I'd arrived with. Was Calgary an oil-rich, artless rodeo town? A cluster of suburbs in search of a city? A steak-eating, SUV-driving, right-winging hicksville? From certain angles, this might be what immediately meets your eye.

But my wife worked as a funding officer for the Department of Canadian Heritage in the first years after I arrived, and through her I quickly discovered a rich undercurrent of cosmopolitan culture: A vibrant independent theatre scene and a refreshingly supportive literary community. Wildly inventive puppet troupes working out of divey warehouse spaces. Strip malls just as likely to contain a great little Vietnamese joint or a Filipino grocer as a pizza place or convenience store.

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The most controversial public-infrastructure project in recent years has been a pedestrian bridge commemorating peace, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The numbers supported my sense that I'd arrived in a city considerably less monocultural than its image. There are as many Chinese in Calgary as Ukrainians, more South Asians than Italians. Calgarians spend more of their money per capita attending arts performances than any other large Canadian city's residents.

And 23.2 per cent of the city's commuters get to work by means other than cars - just two percent lower than the non-car commuting rate in vociferously green Vancouver. Calgary might speak to the rest of the country in a single conservative voice, but it talks to itself in a hundred more nuanced argots.

The next time I ran into Mr. Matthews was at the inaugural CivicCamp, the first in a series of civic-engagement events I helped launch in early 2009 with a couple of dozen academics, activists and community leaders, including a business professor I'd known only from his column in The Calgary Herald - Naheed Nenshi.

On the model of the "unconferences" popular with tech types, instead of having a pre-set agenda, CivicCamp attendees nominated topics on the spot, then broke into groups to discuss them. The themes of that day read, in retrospect, like a first draft of the 12 "better ideas" the Nenshi campaign released, one per week, during their campaign.

They were clustered around the themes of transparency, mobility and livability - a radically enhanced role for the city auditor to keep watch on spending; tighter caps on campaign donations; new investments in transit infrastructure; and an overhaul of the city's growth model to redress the debt that City Hall incurred in the housing boom, bringing water and sewer services to new homes on the periphery.

I spoke to Mr. Matthews again this week. He told me he'd put any thoughts of a West Coast relocation on indefinite hold.

"People are really hungry for ideas," he said. "Previously they've been so apathetic because they've been treated like idiots, with just sound bites. So at least Naheed's tried to make longer discussions. He didn't dumb things down."

The scent of opportunity

On Wednesday I arranged to meet Mr. Nenshi at a restaurant in a Northeast Calgary strip mall. It was an eight-table, family-run Indian place called Mirch Masala, tucked between an African grocer and a long-established steak joint called the Reef 'n' Beef.

Mr. Nenshi had grown up in the Marlborough neighbourhood immediately south of the strip mall and now lived just a bit north of it; the drycleaner next door had been his default cleaner his whole suit-wearing life.

This was the land of opportunity to which Mr. Nenshi had been brought by his immigrant parents as an infant in the early 1970s. The Nenshis had first landed in Toronto, but an uncle had landed a job in Calgary with Canadian Pacific, and his enthusiastic reports convinced them to pack all their worldly possessions into a Dodge Dart and head west.

In Mr. Nenshi's stump-speech shorthand, the signature moment of his childhood was convincing the local librarians to let him take out more books than the official limit. Hard-working and ultra-bright, Mr. Nenshi ascended a steep, immigrant-parent's-dream of an arc: the gifted program at a downtown high school, student-union presidency at the University of Calgary, lucrative consulting gig in New York, scholarship in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and then home to be close to his family.

In 2002, when he was only 30, Mr. Nenshi was named chairman of the Epcor Centre, Calgary's premier performing-arts venue. Over tikka masala and vindaloo, he described it as a high-relief illustration of Calgary's egalitarian promise.

"That role had always been held by a corporate executive or a society matron in the past. And I don't recall anybody blinking or even thinking this was a strange thing. And I'm not so sure that would be the case in other cities in this country."

In speeches, Mr. Nenshi likes to paraphrase the Aga Khan, spiritual head of his Ismaili faith, calling Canada "the most successful experiment in pluralism in human history." Calgary, Mr. Nenshi argues, is the first among Canada's urban equals - a young city, in both historic and demographic terms, populated disproportionately by well-educated recent arrivals. Its business community is driven by the dramatic dynamics of boom and bust. There is no governmental presence larger in jurisdiction than City Hall.

That mix has produced an uncommonly smooth social fluidity, evidenced by the non-issue his ethnicity was in this election.

"In Calgary," Mr. Nenshi told me, "nobody cares who your daddy was and nobody cares what your last name is. They care what you bring to the table."

Harnessing boomtown energy

That boomtown mentality has long been a civic handicap for Calgary. It fuels the get-rich-and-get-out approach, encouraging a foreshortened time horizon in its institutions and a transient's sense of civic indifference. My wife, who came of age during the last bust, measures her social circle in part by all the holes left by those who never came back; when Mr. Nenshi took a call during our dinner, I noticed he used the old-hand Calgarian's tic of giving directions by landmarks that have been torn down.

The genius of Mr. Nenshi's vision for Calgary - and of his electoral strategy - was that it turned the boomtown's malleability into its greatest strength. The lack of set ideas about what the city should be became a wellspring of opportunity for reinvention. The issue nearest to Mr. Nenshi's heart - the construction of a tunnel underneath the new runway at Calgary airport - is an example particularly rich in symbolism.

The new runway, construction on which began just before the election campaign, will close forever the only direct link to the airport itself from the northeast. Which happens to be where a large number of the airport's 15,000 workers - many of them recent immigrants - have made their homes. Though it had been the city's stated intent for years to build an underpass for vehicles and eventually perhaps light rapid transit, the bust of 2008 shelved those plans.

Whether to build the tunnel was a contentious but tertiary campaign issue, vital only to the residents of the oft-overlooked northeast. Other candidates either tepidly endorsed the tunnel project or put forward fallback schemes involving traffic reroutings and buses.

Mr. Nenshi instead made the airport tunnel a major issue and a cornerstone of his broader vision of sustainable mixed-use communities well-serviced by transit in every corner of the city. He dug under the status quo to emerge in a place offering much wider vistas of possibility. In place of vagueness and dithering, he offered a detailed plan and promised unequivocal action - an uncommon clarity that enticed even voters with no real stake in the tunnel itself.

Mr. Nenshi: "The under-40, hipster, urbanist professionals - my base, where I started - are really excited. But there's something crazy going on, because the city is excited. The surburban moms are excited. The society ladies are excited. The immigrant communities are certainly excited. And to what can we attribute that? Is it because people are so thrilled about the airport tunnel, that it's finally going to be built? I don't think so. Though I am pretty thrilled about that.

"But I think it has to do with the two core themes of our campaign. And the first one is: Politics in full sentences. You know, actually telling people that we're ready for detailed discussions about complicated issues, and we're not boiling it down to simple solutions and bullet points. And the other is: Go to citizens where they live and engage them in conversation. Get them talking to one another. And I really, really believe that's happened. That's what's different now."

Nenshimania goes viral

On Election Day, my wife and I got takeout Vietnamese - Calgary's default cuisine, available on nearly every retail block and in every other strip mall across the city - and invited over a couple of friends to watch the returns.

I'd made an effort not to embrace the idea of a Nenshi win, because I'd never once cast a vote for a winner in my life. Earlier that day, though, I'd sort of eavesdropped as a 20-year-old of our acquaintance, a young woman with no previous discernible interest in politics, traded text messages with friends, urging them to vote Nenshi. The thing had gone viral. Against my better judgment, I started to believe.

The technology wasn't the point. Mr. Nenshi's campaign had just plain outworked everyone else's. He'd been at the gates of the Calgary Folk Festival in his purple T-shirt in July, weeks before Ms. Higgins even entered the race. He showed up at every house party and community hall and street-fest that would have him. His team hand-tailored their brochures to each ward, based on the key issues they'd uncovered in phone surveys. He spoke at elementary schools and enthused kids would go home and bug their parents to vote Nenshi.

I know a couple who'd crossed paths with Mr. Nenshi at a CivicCamp event a year earlier, where they'd chatted a bit about a dog-park management issue in their community that was dear to their hearts. When it re-emerged in the press, Mr. Nenshi fired off a Twitter message to the husband, securing two more votes.

Even after I heard his acceptance speech, I had trouble accepting the full truth of what I'd just witnessed. And as exhilarated as I was, I was still acutely aware of the wide gap between big ideas and their execution, especially when even the most decisive mayor is but one vote of 15 on a quarrelsome City Council.

In the days to follow, I kept hearing people say the city felt different to them, more complete somehow. I knew what they meant. It wasn't because we agreed with everything Naheed Nenshi said or believed his vision would be reality overnight; it was because - for some of us, maybe for the first time - we felt fully included in the conversation.

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