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marcus gee

Photos of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (L) and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (R) placed side by side.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail and Chris Bolin for the Globe and Mail

When Naheed Nenshi pulls out a kazoo, you know you're dealing with a very different kind of mayor.

The scene is Mr. Nenshi's office in Calgary's ornate Old City Hall. The mayor has been speaking fluently for nearly an hour about his plans for making Calgary a more grownup city, with better transit, livelier street life and more sustainable suburbs. Then he reaches for the kazoo.

"I was at some University of Calgary function and they gave me a University of Calgary kazoo. And I didn't actually know how to use it, because I was just blowing in it and nothing was happening. And by the way, you don't blow, you hum." Laughing, he plays a few buzzy notes to show his mastery.

Now try to imagine Rob Ford playing a kazoo. For that matter, try to imagine Rob Ford speaking fluently for an hour about, well, anything. Comparing the mayors is instructive and, for a Torontonian, a little depressing.

The two are alike in some ways. They were both elected mayor for the first time in October, defying predictions by coming from behind to win. They are about the same age: Mr. Nenshi is 39, Mr. Ford 41. Both come from the suburbs, Mr. Nenshi from Calgary's Coral Springs, Mr. Ford from Etobicoke. Both fashion themselves fiscal conservatives.

But the differences - oh, the differences. Start with style. Despite his image as a down-to-earth everyman, Mr. Ford is rather reserved and withdrawn in person. Mr. Nenshi, by contrast, has a boyish, almost impish air. Meeting a pair of popular radio disc jockeys on air recently, the Harvard-schooled former management consultant told them they looked "sick and sexified" - a line from the pop diva Kesha. Instead of being called Your Worship, he told them, he would prefer "your super-duper magical worshipfulness."

Mr. Nenshi loves to talk and overflows with chatter about his ideas and interests. When he isn't talking, he is pecking out tweets on his iPhone. Mr. Ford tends to speak in slogans - "stop the gravy train," "end the waste" - and seems uncomfortable in interviews, when he grants them at all. Introducing one of his most important initiatives this week - his bid to begin privatizing garbage pickup - he spoke to reporters for less than a minute and declined to take questions, leaving subordinates to explain the whys and hows.

In substance, too, they are poles apart. Both mayors cut their office budgets when they took office as a symbol of restraint. Both want to deliver leaner, more customer-friendly government. But unlike Mr. Ford, Mr. Nenshi has steered away from cutting or freezing taxes. All he has done so far is cut the latest increase in the property tax by around one-third, to 4.6 per cent.

"Whereas I firmly believe that the city has to justify every penny it spends - I'm a lot like your new mayor that way - I also believe that I can justify the city spending taxpayers' money on investments in the social and urban fabric," Mr. Nenshi says. Capital projects for public art, for example, receive 1 per cent of spending.

Mr. Ford threatened to fire city managers who fail to cut spending. Mr. Nenshi gathered employees for an upbeat talk urging them to lead a "cultural shift" at city hall. "We have to move from being the regulator and the bad cop to being the problem-solver and the good cop," he said.

The attitude of the Ford regime is combative, even chippy. Mr. Ford stuck a finger in the eye of his left-leaning opponents by inviting Don Cherry to his inauguration. Doug Ford, the mayor's brother and right-hand man, has accused them of spending like "drunken sailors."

Mr. Nenshi is striving to reach out to potential opponents and get beyond the partisan bickering of past council debates. "Political labels are meaningless," he says. "I firmly believe that unless you are in politics or in the media, nobody knows what left wing and right wing mean."

No one is asking Mr. Ford to be what he is not. Not everyone has Mr. Nenshi's charm or smarts. Mr. Ford has his own qualities, like concern for the regular guy and an impatience with politically correct guff.

But after seeing Calgary's mayor in action - Toronto will have the pleasure during his trip here this week - a visitor from Ford country can't help feeling jealous of a city whose mayor speaks so well and leads with such flair.

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