Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has decided not to seek re-election this fall after months of speculation about his future in public office.
Nenshi announced he would not be seeking a fourth term Tuesday evening.
“It’s a tough day, and certainly, it’s been a difficult decision,” the mayor said.
“I’m absolutely filled with gratitude for all of the Calgarians who not only supported me but, more importantly, supported the city and the remarkable things that have happened in the city over the last 10 years.”
The University of Calgary and Harvard graduate was first elected mayor of Calgary in 2010 with 39 per cent of the vote, becoming the first Muslim mayor of a Canadian city and of a large North American city.
Nenshi called his move “a personal decision” and does not have any plans for what he’ll do after Oct. 25, when his term ends.
The announcement comes at a time when Calgary is in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic and an ongoing economic downturn.
In weighing his decision, Nenshi considered whether it was irresponsible to step away from office at this time, with the words of his father — “Leave it better than you found it” — ringing in his head. He said he had two revelations.
“If we’ve learned anything this year, we’ve learned that there are many voices: new voices, diverse voices, young voices — there are many voices that don’t feel heard in our current system,” Nenshi said. “Maybe it makes sense to give them some space now, to make some room for these new ideas and these new voices.
“It was important for me to remember that it’s not about me and that there are so many Calgarians — my colleagues at the City of Calgary, public servants, people working in the private and the non-profit sectors, people making a difference at the local ice rink in their neighbourhood — there are so many Calgarians who love this city and will continue to do the work of making the city even better,” the mayor added.
“And it doesn’t need to be me embodying that work.”
The mayor, often donning the colour purple, was propelled to national stardom while co-ordinating relief efforts over multiple days as Calgary was ravaged by a devastating flood. Later that year, Nenshi was re-elected with 73.6 per cent of the vote.
“I don’t wear purple every day because it brings out the colour of my eyes,” Nenshi said. “I wear purple every day because it’s red and blue, because it talks about a post-partisan community where we can work together regardless of our political leanings. And that’s what I love about municipal government.
“We listen to one another, and we actually try and do what’s right for everyone, what’s right for the community. To me, that’s really important, and I sure hope that whoever it takes over this chair will continue to reach not across the aisle but in all directions, to try and build what’s best for the city.”
In 2015, he was awarded the World Mayor Prize, an honour awarded every two years by the City Mayors Foundation, an international urban research institute. The foundation said at the time that it chose Nenshi because he is “an urban visionary who doesn’t neglect the nitty-gritty of local government.”
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who also announced he would not be seeking another term in the fall, said he enjoyed working with Nenshi to improve the two cities.
“It has been a pleasure making the case for stronger cities together with Mayor Nenshi, but it’s his care for his city and the importance of local democracy that will be missed,” Iveson said in a statement to Global News.
“He’s got a strong municipal legacy to be proud of, and I know he’ll continue to be a strong voice for Calgary and Alberta.”
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said Nenshi hasn’t been without controversy, calling the mayor a “very polarizing figure.”
“He has frequently fought with whether it’s developers and there was a libel suit around that with Cal Wenzel, with other councillors,” Bratt said. “It’s a mixed record.
“And some of it is just (that) it’s easier to be mayor, just as it’s easier to be premier, when times are good. It’s much tougher when times are tough.”
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Nenshi’s last run for re-election was a hard-fought campaign in 2017, which drew a voter turnout of 58.1 per cent, the highest it had been in more than 40 years. Nenshi won with 51 per cent of the vote, defeating Bill Smith who finished with 43 per cent.
Zain Velji, who was a student volunteer on Nenshi’s 2010 campaign and campaign director in 2017, called Tuesday’s announcement “bittersweet.”
“You’ve seen 10 years of consistent leadership from Mayor Nenshi as ‘the people’s mayor,’ the guy who kind of brought people into the fold really taught them about civic engagement, their community, how their voice really had value and weight,” Velji told Global News. “But he’s clearly making the decision because it was time and (he) will still be a voice in our civic politics, and, frankly, our community here in Calgary for a long time to come.”
In his final term, Nenshi oversaw a council that was forced to deal with the continued effects of the downturn on the municipal tax base, failed bids for Amazon’s HQ2 and the 2026 Olympic Games, an agreement for the Calgary Flames’ new arena and the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A state of local emergency has been declared just three times in the city’s history, and Nenshi has been mayor for each.
Nenshi said he wished the communication around the benefits of the 2026 Olympic bid had been better.
“We’re going to be in a situation now where we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on refurbishing athletic facilities without the Olympics as a financial benefit and a social benefit at the end, which is altogether too bad, but people got to vote on it,” Nenshi said. “And the one thing I believe the most about democracy is that the people are always right.”
Engaging with Calgarians inside and outside council chambers has been a hallmark of his mayoral career, and Nenshi said learning more about the citizens he’s served and gathering diverse voices around the decision-making table have been the greatest learnings in his decade as mayor.
“While we value evidence and information — and I believe in evidence-based decision-making — really understanding that the real experts in the city are the people that live here. The real expert in transit is the person who takes the bus every day,” he said. “And we have to get better at listening to people’s voices and understanding what we can do to make their lives better.”
Nenshi shared stories he heard about the difference that low-income transit passes made to an entire family who would normally only be able to afford one and the overwhelming response to the call for volunteers at McMahon Stadium following the 2013 floods.
With his term ending on Oct. 25, Nenshi says he’s ready to continue work on a “big to-do list,” including “landing the Green Line” and finishing major capital projects like the Arts Commons and a new recreation strategy, among others. Nenshi has also been advocating the federal government for affordable housing funding, something he hopes will be announced in April’s budget.
Would-be mayors lining up
There are currently 10 candidates officially registered with Elections Calgary to replace Nenshi in the mayoral race this year. Two of those candidates, Jeromy Farkas and Jyoti Gondek, are incumbent city councillors representing Ward 11 and Ward 3 respectively.
In a statement, Gondek thanked Nenshi for his service.
“Mayor Nenshi has been a strong advocate for our city,” the statement read. “He will be missed on council.”
Gondek noted that when she announced her campaign for mayor on Jan. 13, it was “not because of who was or was not running.”
Bratt said the wide field of candidates, paired with expected plebiscite votes on issues like water fluoridation and equalization, and the introduction of third-party advertisers, will make this fall’s election “the likes of which we haven’t seen before.”
“Then you combine it with the fact of some city councillors retiring, some running for mayor, the mayor stepping down — you could see half the city council or more be gone after the election and that would be a remarkable turnover,” the political scientist said.
Calgarians will head to the polls on Oct. 18.