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October 27, 2010

Calgary new mayor, nothing to do with his being a Muslim

Scott Stockdale

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In a victory only those closest to him could have even hoped for, Calgary's Mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi has become the first Muslim Mayor of a major Canadian city.

Trailing with only 8% in the polls a month ago – 35% behind the front runner Rick McIver – Mr. Nenshi, a 38-year-old Harvard educated business professor, came from nowhere to beat Mr. McIver – a city councillor with Stephen Harper's political machine and money behind him .

Mr. Nenshi's Better Calgary campaign, which focused on environmental issues, dovetailed nicely with his regular newspaper column where he challenged City Hall's policies continuously.

Dr. Hussein Amery, former chair of the Muslim Council of Calgary said this was a factor in Mr. Nenshi's victory.

“He was an outsider and people were a little disenchanted with the current council,” Dr. Amery said. “It had nothing to do with his being a Muslim; he was just a great candidate.”

However, he added that Mr. Nenshi's victory can only be positive for visible minorities throughout Canada.

“His (Mr. Nenshi's) enthusiasm is infectious. His victory will inspire visible minorities to be civic leaders, to give something back to the community and be good citizens.”

Moreover, as a third generation Calgarian himself, Dr. Amery said he can attest to the fact that the image of Calgary as a redneck racist city is a bad rap.

“We're more progressive than Easterners see us as. We've got the second or third largest visible minority population behind Toronto and Vancouver.” A quarter of MLAs and MPs come from non-European backgrounds, he noted.

But this still doesn't explain how Mr. Nenshi could go from 8% in the polls to a victory, with an 8% margin, over a rival financed with three times the money.

A massive online presence was a crucial factor, Dr. Amery said. “His use of the social media surpassed the other candidates. He was able to mobilize volunteers and generate grassroots support using computer calling, blogs, twitter and Facebook. He used 21 century electioneering techniques.”

Mr. Nenshi recruited 800 volunteers and 10,000 Facebook friends, many of them young and urban voters.

Mr. Nenshi's personality, which Dr. Amery – who has known him for six years – characterized as exciting and aggressive, with infectious enthusiasm, was also a deciding factor.

“He's passionate and fresh with a good understanding of the issues,” Mr. Amery said.

During the week before the election, Dr. Nenshi received endorsements from two one-time competitors: MLA Kent Hehr and veteran oil and charity executive Wayne Stewart.

“It’s another example of the momentum we’ve been building,” Mr. Nenshi said.

Mr. Stewart said Mr. Nenshi's victory has changed politics in Calgary forever.

“He represents the future,” Mr. Stewart said, noting that Mr. Nenshi represents a young, more diverse growing part of Calgary.

"He's asked me to be his mentor. And I intend to do that."

With voter apathy notoriously high in civic elections, it's surprising that voter turnout was close to 54%, more than a 50% increase from the 33% recorded for the 2007 election. Dr. Amery said Mr. Nenshi's created excitement which inspired people to vote and his support crossed demographic lines like no candidate has in recent memory.

For Calgary voters, Mr. Nenshi's message resonated the loudest. He presented himself as the non-establishment candidate who would clean up City Hall and begin a dialogue with Calgarians. 

And he had the credentials to support his claims.  From a working class family in the suburbs of Calgary, Mr. Nenshi gave up a position with a prestigious US consulting firm to return to his hometown and launch non-profit and civic campaigns, before eventually taking a position as a business professor.

"The great gift of this campaign is the movement that we started," Mr. Nenshi said. "The Purple Army was never about winning an election. It was about revitalizing the public conversation in this city."

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