Politics 2.0 – Naheed Nenshi and the Power of Social Engagement
How a number-crunching tweet machine became Calgary’s mayor, and why his down-home leadership is transforming municipal politics.
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)
Nenshi rushes back to city hall for the annual Take Our Kids to Work Day. He speaks to a cluster of 14 and 15-year-olds for nearly an hour, first commending their parents for choosing careers in public service and then answering the teens’ questions (“Why did you choose purple as your campaign colour?” “What is the hardest part of being mayor?”) with characteristically long replies. Many of the youngsters can’t take their eyes off of him. Nenshi and his team are acutely aware of his image: fresh, responsive,accessible. Indeed, one oftheir most underrated campaign tactics was to visit many of the city’s high schools. While high school students can’t vote, they can talk to their parents, which is exactly what they did-in droves. And what excited these teens wasn’t necessarily Nenshi’s progressive policies. It’s that he didn’t look or sound like any politicians they knew. The “crazy mix”-as Nenshi has often called it- of his background is unusual. And as origin stories go, it has served him rather well.
He was conceived in Tanzania, born in Toronto in 1972 and raised in Calgary’s close-knit Marlborough neighbourhood. The Nenshis are Ismaili Muslims and, like most families in Calgary’s working-class northeast, they were not wealthy. As a teen, Nenshi pitched in part-time at his father’s laundromat where, he jokes, he first learned to “make change.”
Nenshi credits his faith for teaching him the value of community. His older sister, Shaheen Nenshi Nathoo, agrees. Religion, she says, taught them the value of public service. Nenshi and his sister both volunteered at the Ismaili mosque. “My parents stressed that no matter what we had, there was someone who had less, and that it was our duty to give back in whatever way we could,” Nenshi Nathoo says. “Even at a young age, Naheed took that lesson to heart.”
Nenshi Nathoo remembers her brother as a quiet kid who, at two, taught himself to read so he could help their grandmother find her favourite shows in TV Guide. His reading preferences quickly grew beyond the television listings. “If you were looking for Naheed,” Nenshi Nathoo says, “you would find him under the kitchen table reading comic books.” Nenshi was less shy in his teens. In junior high, he began to cultivate a public persona by joining the debate team, running for student council and taking roles in school plays.
Nenshi studied commerce at the University of Calgary and was elected student-council president. Fellow students included conservative pundit Ezra Levant, Stephen Harper aide Marie Rajic and long-time federal Liberal Party strategist Kevin Bosch. Bosch and Nenshi headed up Team Quebec in a mock First Ministers’ conference for a Canadian federalism class. (Nenshi was premier.) Bosch remembers Nenshi as bright, gregarious and fully engaged in student life. “Naheed would be the first person to sign up for any event,” he said. “Selling doughnuts for the students’ union, or whatever. There was nothing beneath him.” Bosch expected great things from Nenshi, but even he was surprised when he took aim at the mayor’s chair. “I called my parents and told them to vote for him,” Bosch said. “But I honestly didn’t think he’d win.” Nothing would surprise Bosch now. “I’m done underestimating Naheed. The sky’s the limit.”
Instead of following his classmates directly into politics, Nenshi moved to Toronto after graduation and joined McKinsey & Company, an international business-consulting firm. He travelled widely, advising retail companies, telecommunications companies, banks and oil and gas corporations. With McKinsey’s sponsorship, Nenshi completed his master’s degree in public policy at Harvard in 1998.
In 2001, missing Canada in general and Calgary in particular, Nenshi came home. “Part of it was family and friends,” he says. “But part of it, too, was the fact that this city is such a great place.” After starting his own consultancy business, Nenshi landed at Calgary’s Mount Royal College (now a university) in 2004, teaching nonprofit management. “I loved being a teacher,” he says. “I loved working with students.”
Nenshi also loved municipal issues. Just a few weeks after returning to Calgary, he read about city hall’s plans to privatize the city’s electrical utility. “We were on the verge of making a terrible mistake and selling the utility for far less than it was actually worth.” Nenshi crunched the numbers and then wrote up the findings in a short paper he submitted to council at a public hearing. The city didn’t sell the utility as planned, and Nenshi vowed to continue challenging city hall’s decisions. He became a regular sight at city council meetings and began writing a newspaper column on municipal affairs. Nenshi was also a member of imagineCALGARY and CivicCamp, two groups devoted to revitalizing Calgary, and was the principal author of the 2002 report “Building Up: Making Canada’s Cities Magnets for Talent and Engines of Development,” which collected ideas from across Canada on channelling the creativity of urban youth. As well, thousands watched his 2010 TEDx-Calgary talk, “Calgary 3.0,” which explored how the city’s sprawling growth was creating enclaves of visible minorities and how the problem could be addressed.
No surprise, then, that the moment Calgary’s previous mayor, Dave Bronconnier, announced he would not run for re-election, Nenshi’s cellphone started to ring. He was in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics at the time, waiting in the rain for a Japanese hot dog. Nenshi hung up, immediately called a few close associates and then turned to the friend he was with, Brian Singh, for advice. “He asked me whether he should run,” says Singh, who works as a pollster. As the line inched forward, he and Nenshi went over potential election strategies. They talked about the obvious frontrunner-long-time alderman Ric McIver, who had been itching for the job for years-and whether Nenshi could beat him. “Naheed became extremely focused,” Singh remembers. “He was thinking about everything he had to do.” By the time they had their hot dogs, the two were soaking wet and convinced Nenshi could win.
The logic, however, wasn’t apparent to anyone else. McIver rode his city-hall credentials and his “common-sense conservative” self-branding to the top of the polls. He was followed by veteran newscaster Barb Higgins, who was helped by her name recognition. Nenshi’s support languished in the single digits. Less than a month before election day, on October 18, he was polling at eight percent out of a packed field of 15 contenders. As the date neared, however, Nenshi’s support began to swell.
His purple campaign signs bloomed on front lawns-and as Facebook profile photos. Approximately a week and a half before Calgarians went to the ballot boxes, Nenshi jumped to third place, with McIver and Higgins tied for the lead. A couple of days later, all three candidates were in a dead heat. Then calamity struck. The day before the election, Team Nenshi’s phones crashed. The service providerbased in Vancouver had gone down for scheduled maintenance and its staff was off for the weekend. After six hours of phone silence-an eternity on the campaign battlefield-Nenshi’s team tracked down the number of the company’s vice president, who switched the system back on. “The whole point of a campaign is to call people to get out and vote,” says Chima Nkemdirim, Nenshi’s campaign manger and now his chief of staff. The importance of these calls gets compounded in a tight race where a hundred votes or fewer can make a difference. “It’s a nightmare scenario,” says Nkemdirim. “You want to be able to look in the mirror and say , ‘We did everything we could.’”
In the end, they’d done more than enough. The results weren’t even close. Nenshi beat the second-place McIver by 28,000 votes. Pollsters who had the candidates tied on election day scratched their heads. Voter turnout hit 53 percent, a full 20 points higher than the previous election. A significant number of those voters were between the ages of 18 and 30, a demographic that wasn’t available for traditional polling and surveys because they didn’t own landlines. Nenshi’s dominance of social media played a big role in his victory-much bigger, perhaps, than pundits realize even now. According to research done by Calgary-based marketing company Anduro, McIver and Higgins lost the race as early as September 7. By that point Nenshi had secured a clear lead on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. On election day, Nenshi had nearly 12,000 Facebook “likes,” almost three times as many as his competitors. And while McIver and Higgins tweeted appearance updates, Nenshi used Twitter to answer questions from potential voters. “We used social media like a telephone,” Nkemdirim said. “They used it like television. That made the difference.”
Nenshi’s message also helped. In sharp contrast to McIver, whose relentless opposition to outgoing Mayor Bronconnier had polarized city hall for years, Nenshi promised to tackle problems using the best information available, free of political ideology. To that end, his campaign embraced 12 specific policy goals that included poverty reduction, airport access and safer neighbourhoods. One of his most popular proposals was to legalize basement suites to ease the housing problem in a city full of single-family dwellings. Another was to make public transit a preferred choice for Calgarians. Nenshi called them his “Better Ideas,” and he and his team spoke about them everywhere: on YouTube, on doorsteps, at community centres, at candidate forums and in the homes of supporters who organized “coffee parties.”
“Getting elected,” says Jeff Nelson, the president of Anduro, “requires all legs on a three-legged stool: a great person, a solid message that resonates with voters and effective communication. Nenshi had all three working perfectly.”
As Take Our Kids to Work Day draws to a close, the teens scramble to get their photos taken with Nenshi. His election has given him exposure enjoyed by few Canadian mayors. He was one of CNN’s Intriguing People, and was interviewed by The New York Times and Al-Jazeera. The attention was heady, even if the reporting sometimes rankled. Many of the international stories focused on how Calgary, famous for its conservatism, elected a member of a visible minority for the city’s top political office. The Indo-Asian News Service declared that “Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard-educated Ismaili Muslim, defeated two white candidates to become the mayor of Calgary Monday night.”
Nenshi argues that the real story about his election isn’t about his race or religion-which, he’s quick to remind reporters, hardly came up during the campaign-but about Calgary’s colour-blindness. “It’s about what Calgary does right in a world desperate for role models on making multiculturalism work.”
The media attention has also sharpened Nenshi’s skills at staying on message. He answers questions before reporters have finished asking them-answers that rarely vary. Nenshi is renowned for giving speeches without notes, yet those who’ve watched him know his interviews follow a familiar script.
In other areas, though, Nenshi exhibits an impulsiveness that has drawn criticism. Last November, in the midst of budget negotiations, he lost a series of votes that resulted in a higher than expected property tax hike; frustrated, he informed CBC Radio that some of Calgary’s aldermen think “that we can treat the taxpayer like an ATM.” The comment earned Nenshi public rebukes from fellow council members and a dressing-down in council chambers by alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart. Nenshi reminded Colley-Urquhart that she had tweeted he was “petulant” the week before. If Nenshi’s shine has dulled at all, it’s partly due to his grumpiness when things don’t go his way.
Yet Nenshi continues to engender goodwill elsewhere. Recently a series of new campaign-style buttons were spotted on coats downtown. The mayor’s office claims it didn’t commission them-they appeared spontaneously. For Ward 9 alderman Gian-Carlo Carra, such signs point to the fact that there is still enthusiasm in Calgary for Nenshi. “He’s doing a really great job,” says Carra, an urban designer who left his practice in 2010 to run for city council. “I’d be less happy to have entered public service if Nenshi wasn’t at the helm leading a culture shift away from politics-as-usual.”
Nenshi believes the excitement will stay as long as he shows himself to be more than a politician. “If people see you trying to do good things for their community, they will trust you.” For him, that includes engaging directly with Calgarians. “I’m trying to establish a culture of risk-taking. That means we’re going to try a lot of stuff. That also means we’re going to fail at stuff,” he says. “But citizens see we’re trying to make this city a better place, and I think they have responded to that.”
The recent budget put that risk-taking strategy to the test. Most city halls, including Calgary’s previous councils, impose budgets on their citizens, with little debate or public input. “This year we turned the process on its head,” Nenshi says. Months before the budget was tabled, the city kicked off an outreach program called “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future” that solicited Calgarians’ input through surveys, online interactive programs and open houses. “We asked what the city should do more of-what are you willing to pay for?” says Nenshi. The creation of a comprehensive cycling strategy, aimed at getting more Calgarians to ride bikes, turned out to be one of the priorities. As a direct result of citizen feedback, the city opted to fully fund the three-year $27-million plan-one of the largest single additions to the budget. “It sounds straightforward,” says Nenshi, “but it was a new way of thinking.”
Carra welcomed the budget consultations, but is lukewarm about a process that cost taxpayers $800,000 and drew the participation of only two percent of the population. “I think the results weren’t as helpful as they could have been,” he says. “But most innovative ideas will always have a rough start.”
For his part, Nenshi thinks the nuts and bolts of the budget process can be tweaked and its costs lowered. Sparking the public’s interest in civic participation, however, isn’t something he wants to give up on. “What’s important,” he says, “is to shed the bias that there is only one way of doing things.”
One of the most visible effects of Nenshi’s win is that the mayor’s office has gotten younger. The place is now staffed by energetic 30-somethings, and almost every necktie-and most socks, too-are purple, a nod to Nenshi’s so-called Purple Revolution. According to communications advisor Daorcey Le Bray, visiting city employees sometimes wear the colour in solidarity. Nenshi’s 2010 run was, in part, “a branding campaign,” he says. “And people still identify with the brand.”
It’s a brand built not only on good governance but also on a do-goodism disarming in its sincerity. On January 30th, to mark his 40th birthday, Nenshi had Calgary’s Prostrate Cancer Centre’s “Man Van” show up at city hall, where he and 40 city employees had their PSA levels checked. It’s a brand built on preserving his broad appeal and dispelling any notion that he lives his days sequestered within the sandstone walls of his office. Nenshi is always on the move. He gets spotted at Flames and Stampeders games, theatre events, concerts and festivals. He tweets constantly for his over 48,000 Twitter followers. “People tell me: ‘You’re everywhere.’ I don’t know if I am everywhere more than the previous mayor. I’m just loud about it.” And it’s a brand built on openness, on giving politics a friendly face. Since he took office, city hall receives six times as many calls, emails and letters. Nenshi says the rise in correspondence shows that Calgarians have high expectations for his leadership. “My challenge is how do we meet those expectations.”
Later that afternoon, after his talk to the teens, Nenshi gives a speech at the convention centre to the Global Clean Energy Congress. He shakes a few hands before his staff hurry him out. Nenshi has to hand out trophies at the annual Mayor’s Urban Design Awards and is running late.
As they exit the convention centre, Nenshi insists his entourage-assistant Franca Gualtieri, other staffers-make a stop at the ground floor rather than continue to the parking garage. “Trust me,” says Nenshi. “You’ll like it.” They step out of the convention centre doors and follow Nenshi into A&W. “There is never enough food at these award things,” he says and buys everyone burgers.
As he stands in line, the other patrons start whispering, “That’s the mayor.” A half-dozen customers stand up to shake his hand. Nenshi smiles broadly and sincerely into each of their cellphone cameras, one by one, as the customers put their arms over his shoulders.
There’s much speculation as to whether Nenshi will run for a second term in 2013. Is he a rising political star or a one-hit wonder? While he’s mum on his plans for the future, there’s little doubt that-as he walks out, waving, Fiesta Mama burgers in hand-he loves being mayor.