Politics 2.0 – Naheed Nenshi and the Power of Social Engagement (1/5)

How a number-crunching tweet machine became Calgary's mayor, and why his down-home leadership is transforming municipal politics.

Politics 2.0 - Naheed Nenshi and the Power of Social Engagement













Naheed Nenshi climbs the narrow set of stairs, purple socks peeking out from under the pant legs of his dark suit. He has been Calgary’s mayor for more than a year but has yet to visit city hall’s century-old clock tower.

On the roof, sun illuminates the four opaque clock faces, filling the chamber with softened light. The building manager, who unlocked the door, points out the toothed gears, the taut springs and the bicycle wheel-like mechanism that, with each swing and click, has kept time since the day it was installed in 1910. The 40-year old Nenshi wears the expression of a boy confronted with a toy he desperately wants to play with. When the manager offers to let him wind the clock, he bounces forward with a grin.

Nenshi’s zest for his job is unmistakable. It’s also one of his most powerful political tools. His enthusiasm tends to draw people in and melt down their defences. For a rookie politician bound to make mistakes, it’s a great asset. Indeed, almost 20 months after his remarkable victory in the 2010 municipal election—a victory no one saw coming, not the pollsters, not the journalists and certainly not his two better-funded opponents—Nenshi continues to be widely admired. According to a poll conducted by the city’s alternative weekly, he’s not only Calgary’s reigning Sexiest Man but also holds the titles Most Beloved Calgarian and Hardest Working Calgarian. In each of these categories, the academic edged out the beloved, hard-working and arguably sexier Calgary Flames captain, Jarome Iginla. A surprising result, perhaps, but few would disagree that Nenshi had a better year.

Nenshi steps away from the clock and takes a photo of the rooftop view with his cellphone. Before him is the glittering, densely skyscrapered downtown. Calgary is now one of the country’s centres of political and economic power. Its population is young, its economy stable and workers flow in daily from central and eastern Canada, drawn by the promise of prosperity.

Then Nenshi looks down. The Occupy Calgary protesters are camped out across the street from city hall. Many Calgarians are pressuring Nenshi to raze the tents, but the Occupiers insist Canada’s charter guarantees their right to assemble in public space. Rather than have the police sweep in, Nenshi has opted to let the courts handle the problem. His critics interpreted his hesitation as dithering. The mayor stares at the Occupy camp and frowns. Sometimes the city’s gears can stick a little.

(Photo courtesy of Mayor Nenshi and Team/Flickr)

Part 2: The origins of Nenshi’s unique political approach.

Part 3: How social media outreach helped Nenshi become mayor. 

Part 4: Nenshi’s international appeal, and how he’s fared in office.

Part 5: Will Nenshi run for a second term in 2013?

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