“Redneck” Calgary Elects Liberal Muslim Academic Mayor: World Doesn’t End


Calgary municipal politics rarely makes news outside of the city. Going into this year’s municipal election, I had reason to believe this would change. I came to Calgary to manage the campaign of the runner up from the last election. He is a Muslim (specifically Ishmaili), and an outsider to the political establishment. People told me there's no way someone like that could be elected in Calgary. I’m happy to say that they were proven wrong. Unfortunately, I had nothing to do with this.

My former candidate is a colorful guy. He had lived in Calgary for less than five years before running for mayor the first time around. His odds were pretty steep. Mayor Dave Bronconnier had garnered over 80% of the vote in the previous election. His closest rival had just over 5%. My candidate spent over a million dollars of his own money to run a viable campaign against the two term incumbent. He finished that election with a quarter of the votes. Internal polling suggested he had a serious chance, until false allegations concerning his past business dealings in Kenya derailed his candidacy.

He is also a strong believer that Calgary’s redneck image is outdated. Calgarian values are old fashioned in many ways, many of them good. There is no major Canadian city where people are as supportive of free-enterprise as Calgary. Think of it as Houston North. The economy is largely driven by the oil and gas money, and it is perceived as being a very socially conservative, predominately white city. This perception is out of date. Nearly a quarter of Calgarians are members of visible minority groups, and the city elected Canada’s first Muslim Member of Parliament. My candidate mocked this perception. One of his ice breakers with skeptics of his candidacy was to tell them that “redneck Calgary is ready to elect a brown, bald guy from Kenya” as Mayor. It turns out he was right about the “brown” part.

I ended up leaving that campaign early. We had different visions for the campaign, and the candidate always wins that argument. He wound up pulling out of the race the day before the election officially got underway. I harbored suspicions that the only reason he came in second the last time was that he happened to be the only guy willing to spend a million bucks to run against a popular incumbent. Had he not run, the two term incumbent would have walked to another landslide victory. Some people were angry with the incumbent, and he was the other name on the ballot they recognized.

My faith that a member of a visible minority group could be elected Mayor of Calgary dwindled. But in the last few weeks of the campaign, something odd began happening in the polls. A man by the name of Naheed Nenshi started to poll at 20%. Few people took his candidacy seriously before this. His numbers began to climb into the 30% range in the final week. I started making long shot bets with friends that Nenshi would win, but I didn’t really expect it to happen. Surely the polling was wrong. Redneck Calgary couldn’t possibly elect a Liberal Muslim academic as Mayor.

The polling actually was wrong. Since many young people only have cell phones, they are underrepresented in polls. It turns out that the polls massively underestimated Nenshi’s support. He didn’t just sneak by. Turnout was an astonishing 53%--shattering records for the last 3 decades—and he grabbed 40% of the votes. This was supposed to be a two way race between fiscal hawk alderman Ric McIver, and popular news anchor Barb Higgins. Elections don’t always turn out as they’re scripted by the pundits.

The fact that we’ve actually elected a Muslim Mayor has lead to a serious rethink of Calgary’s redneck reputation. Pundits claim that this represents a shift in the city’s attitude towards immigrants. I disagree. Like its American energy town counterpart Houston, it’s an open, opportunity-oriented city. People don’t care if you’re white, brown, or from Saskatchewan. Calgary is a magnet for entrepreneurial people. It is a city that was built on people from all over the world seeking opportunities. One fifth of Calgarians are immigrants.

“Go west, young man” is not a mantra that was exclusively adopted by white Protestant men. Nenshi was born and raised in Calgary, but his mayoralty would not have been possible if it weren’t for the hospitable Calgarian attitude.

Frankly, he’ll probably do an alright job. Nenshi has an impressive business background, and his knowledge of urban public policy and municipal government is extensive. He’s more of a market liberal, than the dogmatic leftist that his critics painted him as. He wants more public amenities, but understands fiscal prudence and the need for efficient regulations.

No matter how much his critics called him a socialist, Nenshi was the candidate who was able to convince voters that he knew how to provide the necessary services without breaking the bank. Voters wanted a clear vision of the city’s future, and that’s what Nenshi provided. People knew what they were voting for. Frontrunner Ric McIver offered slightly lower tax increases, combined with major spending initiatives. We’ve all seen what happens when politicians promise tax cuts without a plan to reduce spending. This isn’t a vision, so much as a recipe for disappointment.

Calgarians wanted to elect a Mayor who would clean up City Hall. Nenshi offered that, and people didn’t care what God he worships (or doesn’t). Calgarians didn’t vote for a Muslim mayor any more than they voted for a Protestant Mayor the last election. They voted for the guy they thought would get things done. That’s the Calgarian attitude.

Photo by 5of7

Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst and political consultant based out of Calgary, Alberta. For more detail, see his blog.

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