Mayor Stephen Mandel said while there's still more work to be done to make Edmonton great, the man credited with building a capital city befitting its status is not interested in fighting for a fourth term in October's municipal election.
"I have also always believed that a politician needs to know when to make room for fresh ideas, new energy and renewed leadership," he said Tuesday,ending months of speculation about his political future.
Mr. Mandel, 67, may not be as well-known as other big city mayors: Calgary's Naheed Nenshi currently seems to have the Midas touch of municipal politics, while Toronto's Rob Ford has been mired in controversy. But the bow-tied, quick-witted mayor of Alberta's capital has never been afraid to speak out on Edmonton's behalf even when it put him at odds with provincial and federal levels of government.
This spring, he chided Alberta Premier Alison Redford for making cuts to postsecondary funding, which, he worried, would hurt Edmonton. Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who clashed with him over the issue, on Tuesday tweeted Mr. Mandel "provided our city with vision & leadership. Although we didn't always agree, his commitment was unquestionable. Thanks."
The property developer was "semi-retired" and bored when he first ran for city council and won in 2001. His enthusiasm and big ideas were dampened by those who were just fine with the way things were, or what he called the "Good Enoughs." He counted former mayor Bill Smith, against whom he ran for mayor in 2004 and won, among them.
In his retirement speech Tuesday at the Art Gallery of Alberta, which was one of Mr. Mandel's key building projects in nine years as mayor, he warned against complacency and not to "fall back to the 'good enough' attitude that prevailed so long in this city."
His fingerprints are all over the city, in about $9-billion in infrastructure spending.
Transit expanded, and ridership rose. Police were added, and crime dropped. Recreation centres were either renovated or built. So were libraries and affordable housing. Potholes were filled and roads were built. And, of course, he championed the controversial $480-million Edmonton Oilers downtown arena project, which just last week got the green light, largely with his finessing on city council – and an infusion of municipal cash.
In 2005, Mr. Mandel said what people had thought for a long time about the city's unappealing architecture: "The time has passed when square boxes with minimal features and lame landscaping are acceptable. Our tolerance for crap is now zero."
In an emotional goodbye, he also hinted at that memorable nugget on Tuesday.
"There is not a single thing," he said, fighting off tears, "that could have been accomplished without deeply understanding the path that Edmonton wanted us to pursue from being more of a capital city again, to building a stronger urban foundation to no more crap."
The audience applauded.
Wildrose Official Opposition Leader Danielle Smith said in a statement that he brought a "broad vision" to improve the capital: "I admire Mayor Mandel for his steadfast defence of Edmonton's interests."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman reiterated Mr. Mandel's joke when he first ran for mayor.
"Everyone was doing such a crappy job that he couldn't do worse," Mr. Sherman said. "Now, it is clear that nobody could have done any better."
On hand for the announcement was former premier Ed Stelmach, whom Mr. Mandel called a "great mentor and great friend" and also, perhaps surprisingly described as, "the best premier this province has ever had or will have."
Mr. Mandel would say later in an interview that he admired Mr. Stelmach's strength in leadership amid tough times. Mr. Mandel also knows something of that.
"I got infinitely more done than I ever dreamed about," he said in an interview. "I never thought that we would get done anywhere near done what we did."
But his record isn't sitting well with everybody.
So far, there has been one declared mayoral candidate – former journalist and first-term councillor Kerry Diotte, who is worried about high taxes and decried the fact that municipal debt will reach $2.9-billion by the end of the year, up from about $400-million a decade earlier when Mr. Mandel took over.
Councillors Don Iveson, Karen Leibovici and Amarjeet Sohi have said they are thinking about running. Mr. Mandel said he won't endorse anybody for mayor, but he will help a few councillors campaign – if they want it.
He privately decided after the 2010 election it would be his last. He was ready to call it quits whether the arena went ahead or not.
At the end of the news conference Tuesday, he turned to his chief of staff, Patricia Misutka, whom he credited with saving him from "making a fool out of myself" repeatedly for one more piece of advice.
"Am I supposed to answer questions?" he asked.
"What? No?" he said. "I'm finished."
Not quite. He left the stage and headed to a city council meeting on the meat and potatoes of municipal politics: public hearings on right-of-ways, parkland use and sign heights.