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Toronto's contenders pale next to Calgary's exciting new mayor

No Torontonian can look west today without feeling a pang of jealousy. The election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary is the most exciting political event of the year. He makes the trio of candidates for mayor of Toronto look like stale remnants of another age.

Disregard the fact that Mr. Nenshi, an Ismaili, is the first Muslim mayor of a big Canadian city. His religious background is the least interesting thing about him. It was a non-issue in his innovative campaign to lead Calgary, an increasingly multicultural place that remains a town of rednecks and cowboy hats only in the crimped imagination of other Canadians.

Mr. Nenshi, 38, is a Harvard-educated business professor, management consultant, newspaper columnist and civic activist. He decided early in his long-shot bid for mayor to run on ideas - new, often complicated ideas that would take time to explain.

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He refused to fall back on low-calorie sound bites like, say: stop the gravy train at city hall. A true policy wonk who likes nothing better than to talk about high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and campaign-finance reform, he says he is incapable of being so brief even if he wanted. "It takes me 45 seconds to say my name," he joked to the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Calgarians, he says, are tired of the bitterly partisan, for-us-or-against-us debates at Calgary's divided city council. In its place, he promised what he called "politics in full sentences." Using his campaign website, heavily backed up by Facebook and Twitter, he released a dozen "better ideas" on everything from improving traffic flow to fixing the city's auditing system. His video pitch on reforms to the governance model at city hall, he admits, is "the most boring thing I have ever written."

Nevertheless, it worked. People liked him for respecting their intelligence. They started talking about Mr. Nenshi, who at first was given little chance of beating heavyweight rivals Ric McIver, a veteran alderman, and Barb Higgins, a former TV anchor. He jumped from 8-per-cent support in opinion polls four weeks ago to 40 per cent when votes were counted on Monday night. More than 53 per cent of voters turned out, a modern record for Calgary and a huge jump from the pathetic 32.9 per cent in 2007.

Mr. Nenshi is appealing in all sorts of ways. His back story is inspiring. The son of hard-working immigrants who came to Canada just before he was born, he grew up in a mixed neighbourhood in the city's northeast, won top marks at school and landed a job at McKinsey & Company, the elite international consultancy. He is an engaging speaker, with a goofy smile and a sense of humour that takes the edge off his seriousness. Before trimming his shaggy hair to a more mayoral cut, he came across a bit like an older version of the college hackers in The Social Network.

He cannot be easily pigeon-holed. He is a fiscal conservative who says he hates waste - a product, he explains of his hard-pressed working-class upbringing. But when the money is there, he also believes in investing in public spaces, anti-poverty efforts and other building blocks of a livable city. He says better transit and more bike lanes are imperative in sprawling, traffic-choked Calgary, but he is no enemy of the car and has well thought-out policies about new bypasses and better traffic-light management.

He thinks that city hall bureaucracy is hopeless, describing it as a "horrible soul-destroying system" with a "risk-averse culture," but he doesn't pretend the city can slash hundreds of millions from its budget, freeze or cut taxes and still deliver the same services.

The contrast with Toronto's hopefuls for mayor could hardly be more stark. Mr. Nenshi radiates freshness. Here in Canada's largest city, we have to choose among a standard-issue, 1980s-vintage NDP type, an old-style populist conservative who thinks it is a scandal to hand out egg-salad sandwiches at late-night city council meetings and a fiercely partisan government insider who is a flinty-eyed budget-cutter one week, a progressive centrist the next.

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Oh, to be in Calgary.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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