It was certainly true that the job had become less fun.
When Naheed Nenshi stunned the country in 2010 by becoming the first Muslim mayor of a major city in Canada, in a place long dogged by a redneck image, his world seemed one of endless possibilities.
He was smart, funny, articulate and, for a nerdy academic, possessed heaps of charisma. Social media turned him into a star who was stopped constantly for pictures.
One never knows how politicians are going to handle extreme duress until they face extreme duress. For Mr. Nenshi, that came in the form of the devastating Alberta floods of 2013.
From that moment, he literally became that politician who rolls up his sleeves to help. Living on a handful of hours sleep each night, he didn’t shy away from the fraught decisions confronting him each day. It was a performance that should be studied in courses on leadership. The following year, largely based on how he navigated this once-in-a-century calamity, he was named best mayor in the world.
And once you’re named best mayor in the world, there is only one direction to go: down.
Everything became harder for Mr. Nenshi after 2014, when the oil recession that has rocked Alberta to its core truly began. It has had an outsized impact on his city, where oil and gas towers have emptied out. The plunging economy put ugly downward pressure on city revenues, which left Mr. Nenshi and his council with just as ugly alternatives.
One was to raise taxes on those businesses that were still standing. And on homeowners, many of whom were reeling from the fallout of the drop in the price of oil. In the history of his tenure, this might be the point at which things began to turn in terms of his standing with the public. Things got uglier from there.
Mr. Nenshi fought for his political life in the civic election of 2017 against a lacklustre challenger. He survived, barely, but not without some serious scarring. I remember sitting down with him in his office shortly afterward. He was still angry about the level of online “racism and hatred and Islamophobia” – much of it directed at him – that proliferated during the campaign. When he raised the matter publicly, he said the local media accused him of playing the race card.
His frustration was palpable.
It’s fair to say Mr. Nenshi enjoyed a fairly high sense of himself, especially intellectually. As his confidence in the job grew, so, it seemed, did his ego. The Harvard-educated professor often suffered from “smartest-guy-in-the-room” syndrome, losing patience with those who didn’t see the world as he did. His relationship with the media, who once fawned over him, became more combative.
If he was considering never seeking re-election again after the bruising nature of the 2017 campaign, then Jason Kenney’s arrival as Premier two years later likely cemented those thoughts. There couldn’t be two people more ideologically opposed to each other. Mr. Neshi’s contempt for both the Premier, his United Conservative Party and much of what it stands for, was tangible.
Mr. Nenshi is non-committal about what lays ahead for him. He could go back to academia, from whence he came. He hasn’t ruled out more politics in his future, although he says he has no plans to run for the federal Liberals in the next election. I wouldn’t count on that.
Mr. Nenshi, and his counterpart in Edmonton, Don Iveson, who earlier announced that he’s not seeking re-election, would be star catches for the Liberals. If they were successful in winning seats, both would likely find themselves in a Justin Trudeau cabinet, which would change the dynamic of federal politics in the West. The arm-twisting is likely well under way.
Despite the barnacles that all politicians accumulate after years in office, Mr. Nenshi will, I believe, mostly be remembered fondly by the people of Calgary. Beyond the historic nature of his election, he was the most consequential mayor the city has had since Ralph Klein in the 1980s.
He became an inspiration for not only other politicians in the country, but leaders of all types, in all settings. It is one of the reasons he became such a star on the speakers’ circuit. He is a shining example of the pluralistic marvel that is Canada. But he can also speak to the distance we still need to travel to bridge the racial divides that undermine our potential.
Mr. Nenshi chose the colour purple for his signature campaign in 2010. It’s one known to enlighten and inspire people. As it turns out, it was apt. Because during his 11 years in office, Mr. Nenshi certainly did that.
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