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'People don’t realize the significance of postsecondary to our city … We need to defend it,' says Stephen Mandel.Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail

Alison Redford was late, so the crowd was waiting. All but Stephen Mandel.

Edmonton's mayor had instead noticed a basketball net around the corner. He threw his suit jacket aside and began shooting. A former basketball coach, he shoots well. A young staffer soon walked over, asking delicately if Mr. Mandel would take his position for the pre-election photo-op. "Is the Premier here yet?" he asked. She wasn't. He kept shooting.

Mr. Mandel has served as Edmonton's mayor since 2004. An outsider might be forgiven for not knowing it. The 67-year-old lacks the profile, for better and for worse, of Vancouver's Gregor Robertson, Calgary's Naheed Nenshi and Toronto's Rob Ford. "It doesn't interest me at all," he says, later adding, without naming names: "I've been to meetings of mayors. Their heads get too big."

There is something to be said for Mr. Mandel's approach. He wins votes, moves his agenda, keeps his fellow councillors (mostly) happy and avoids much controversy – even when taking on ample new debt or throwing taxpayer dollars at an Oilers arena project. He has shaped his city profoundly.

Now he's considering whether to seek a fourth term this fall. He had planned to announce a decision last week; instead, he pulled a bait and switch. Speaking in front of 2,000 guests, Mr. Mandel tore a strip off Ms. Redford's government for university cuts that, he fears, will gut his city.

The mayor is taking up the defence of local universities at a time when government deficits have imperiled postsecondary funding across Canada. Some were not amused. Alberta's Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk later asked, referring to the mayor, who "pissed in to his corn flakes." Mr. Mandel, grinning, says he has since switched to toast.

There is little air to Mr. Mandel – the slouching, the jokes, the occasional cursing, the candor, the bow ties, the irreverence, the impatience. He doesn't sit idle, and has now picked a fight rather than ride off into retirement.

Back at the photo-op, the Premier had finally arrived, that day a year ago before the election, the budget crunch and this new battle. The mayor grabbed his jacket, joining Ms. Redford in announcing a new Star Wars exhibit for his city. They got souvenirs. She took Yoda; Mr. Mandel chose Darth Vader.

Bad news for the 'Good Enoughs'

It was back in 2001 that Mr. Mandel, a businessman, first ran for council. "I was semi-retired, and a bit bored, so I thought I would give it a try," he says. He won a seat, but council was gridlocked. He blames what he calls the "Good Enoughs," Edmonton apologists who don't share his grand, if often overly ambitious, vision.

"Nothing was happening. We were getting almost no share from the provincial government. Council was fractured," Mr. Mandel recalls during an interview at his city hall office, slouched in a chair, his foot on the coffee table. "It was just a bad situation for our city, and we were going nowhere."

So he ran for mayor, against incumbent Bill Smith – seeking his fourth term – and repeat challenger Robert Noce. Mr. Mandel puts both in the "Good Enough" camp. Edmontonians, instead, voted for a cheerleader. Mr. Mandel won.

The city has changed dramatically. He has poured money into transit and seen ridership double. The number of police on the street has grown by about one-third, and the crime rate has dropped. A new art gallery opened, a new museum is in the works, and Mr. Mandel has relentlessly pushed for a downtown arena project. Recreation centres have sprung up or been rebuilt. The downtown is, at long last, alive. The population and economy boomed.

But grand visions don't come cheap. Taxes have gone up and debt has soared five-fold since he took office – from about $417-million to, as of last month, $2.2-billion. It will tie the hands of whoever wins this fall's mayoral race, with city staff warning any more debt will leave Edmonton vulnerable to spikes in interest rates. The city has "enough debt," Mr. Mandel agrees, "but you can't stop building a city that had done nothing for 30 or 40 years and expect people to be happy and come back here."

Not all agree. Councillor Kerry Diotte, who is considering seeking the mayor's chair himself, says debt has reached a "terrifying" level, one only compounded by what he calls the "craziness" of an arena deal that subsidizes the Edmonton Oilers. "It's great to build, but sooner or later you've got to pay the piper," he says.

Early in Mr. Mandel's career, he fought behind the scenes – one such battle was to save his city's Capital Health Authority. He failed. It was rolled into a single health board, Alberta Health Services. "Look at the disaster that's happened," Mr. Mandel says. His fight for universities, then, is public. His fear of the Good Enoughs reared its head once more. "I don't want that to creep back in," he says.

So he took the stage in April 2 and went after cuts that, at the University of Alberta, amount to about 9 per cent. He called it "short-term thinking" and "not real leadership."

"People don't realize the significance of postsecondary to our city, no different than agriculture in rural Alberta or the oil industry to Calgary. We need to defend it," he says.

Mr. Lukaszuk has fired back regularly since, saying Mr. Mandel's campaign is "lacking in leadership, and is unlike what I would expect from Mayor Mandel."

The mayor's speech also took a shot at the mayors of nearby towns, familiar foes of his, saying Edmonton pays a disproportionate share of costs in the region. Many of the nearby mayors refute his claims, and have clashed with Edmonton over regional issues. Rod Shaigec, mayor of nearby Parkland County, said it's Edmonton that already gets a windfall with transit, health and education funding.

"Take a look at the tax increases since Mayor Mandel took office and the costs associated with the new initiatives," Mr. Shaigec wrote in an e-mail. "It begs the question, 'Can the residents and businesses in Edmonton afford to have him for another term?'"

Mr. Mandel's supporters say his strength is delegation. Councillor Ed Gibbons is the city's liaison with neighbours, with whom Mr. Mandel clashes. Mr. Gibbons plays down tensions. "You can love or hate Stephen, but I think there's a respect there," he says.

Mr. Gibbons hopes Mr. Mandel runs again. Councillors Karen Leibovici, Amarjeet Sohi and Don Iveson have all been eyeing their own mayoral options; all say they won't run if Mr. Mandel does. Mr. Diotte may yet, but hasn't decided. Many are keen to stick "with a Steve Mandel-led council," Councillor Bryan Anderson says.

A year or two ago, it was widely expected that Mr. Mandel would retire. Now, he won't say, but he speaks of challenges that won't be solved before the election. The arena needs another $55-million in funding and universities are under threat. Even if it means another four years in office, a war with Ms. Redford and more time in the spotlight than he's used to, he has decided the universities are worth fighting for.

"They are put in a tough position, because they can't fight," he says. "I can. So, we'll see."

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