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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.

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.

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