Mayor Naheed Nenshi is the sexiest, most beloved of all Calgarians, the city’s second-greatest claim to fame after the Stampede and its best Twitter personality — or so say Fast Forward Weekly readers who participated in this year’s Best of Calgary poll. As a matter of fact, Nenshi has stood out (in our readers’ opinions at least) as Calgary’s most adored and arousing citizen for three years in a row.
Now, sexual charisma is a matter of taste. Some of us are more attracted to Meatloaf than Ryan Gosling, because it’s not always about looks, or even roughly symmetrical features. In online surveys, however, the lookers usually win out.
Nenshi’s aware of this. He jokingly credits much of his “sexiest” status to having lobbied the provincial government to ensure eye exams remain exempt from coverage by Alberta Health Services. He also admits “the hair is kind of a mistake.”
Seriously, though, mayors are rarely so popular, especially in this time of scandal and derision — most notably thanks to Toronto’s Rob Ford, Gérald Tremblay in Montreal and Gilles Vaillancourt of Laval. Generally, the public finds mayors a little plain. Not minister of agriculture plain, but still, hardly a Dr. Gonzo roadshow.
Maybe Nenshi’s appeal is that, like other Calgary mayors who preceded him, he has an “of the people” air, and a sense of candour.
Rob Ford’s working-class persona comes in spades, but rather than making him attractive, Ford’s antics have arguably won him first place for most embarrassing mayor in North America. What’s the difference (aside from allegations of crack use)?
“It is important for mayors to not only do the hard work that we do every day to keep the city going, but also to embody the spirit of the city, and that’s something that I try very hard to do every day,” Nenshi says in a sit-down interview.
And Ford doesn’t? “Well, I try hard to do it every day.”
The key difference that makes Nenshi appealing and Ford embarrassing is that Nenshi is common, but he’s not a clown. Despite his Ivy League education, Nenshi is a plebian. Ford, even without the scandal, is a tribalist who scores points with hostility while denying his own failings.
Nenshi isn’t perfect, but he’s human in a more agreeable way. He jokes and teases and goofs around; he can be petulant and sucky in the face of criticism; he wears his feelings on his sleeve; he’s stingy and a complete nerd. Calgarians realize we’ve elected an intelligent, probably honest man who would otherwise be playing Warhammer with the rest of the nerds in one of Mount Royal University’s study rooms. That’s a plebian the city can get behind.
Likable as the great dork is, though, Nenshi risks letting it go to his head.
“I am so lifting you over this balcony one day, Daorcey, to re-enact the scene from Lion King,” he says to his media advisor, Daorcey Le Bray, while having his photo taken on a city hall balcony.
“Everything the light touches is your kingdom,” his assistant replies.
“We need adoring throngs to cheer, though, hopefully made up of sensitive animals….” says Nenshi. “I think that would be awesome.”
He smartens up when he remembers he interrupted his own interview to goof off.
“I’m not smart enough to have different modes of behaviour for different people. You just get who I am,” he says. “Sometimes the media are like, ‘whoa, he teases us, that’s weird.’ And sometimes they’re surprised that I will actually call them on stuff if I think it’s incorrect. I think everyone’s got a job to do and I will never begrudge anyone their job, but I also think that we owe it to citizens to make sure that we are accurate in what we do. And sometimes I call people on that and they call me thin-skinned for that. I just call it being fair.
“Everyone’s not going to agree on everything in a city this big. And I think the great thing that we’ve evolved in the city is a culture where we can actually talk to one another, where we’re not blinded by ideology or by where we stand, and in fact can just have conversations about what’s right for the city outside of the left and right spectrum that no one really cares about.”
His opponents, however, typified by crusty potential 2013 mayoral candidate Dave Rutherford, do care about it.
“But I don’t think citizens care about it,” Nenshi responds.
He points out citizen satisfaction rates are the highest they’ve ever been and attributes the municipal government’s success of late to an overarching policy of citizen participation. That doesn’t mean he takes it for granted, or was even sure he wanted to stay in the mayor’s office long enough to hoist his staff over the balcony.
“It actually was difficult to decide to run again. I don’t think of myself as a career politician and I really spent some time thinking…. I decided that there’s still a lot more to be done. We’ve started, set the wheels in motion on a number of things — particularly around transforming government and figuring out how to make this government more citizen-focused and more effective — [but] there’s still a lot of work to be done…. As we go into the election I think that will be an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with Calgarians about a bunch of things. We do need to talk about the structural issues in our budget, and about our debt and about how difficult it is for the city to provide the services that people need. We need to have a real conversation in the city about poverty.
“Three years later I’m still humbled by the fact that people are willing to put their hopes and dreams for the city in my hands even for a second, and that is overwhelming and humbling, but it’s also exhilarating and I hope that I’ll be able to do something good with it.”