Racist trolls, Green Line 'rethink' and other controversies: Calgary mayoral race gets far more interesting

Mayoral candidate Bill Smith is fielding questions about a Green Line rethink, unsolicited Thanksgiving emails and a property seizure warrant. Naheed Nenshi's campaign faces criticism by those who say it's not clear what he's hoping to do if re-elected. And those are just two of the 10 mayoral candidates in a race that has become far more interesting than might have been expected, observers say.

With Calgary's civic election a week away, observers weigh on what voters might see before Oct. 16

A recent Mainstreet poll suggests mayoral candidate Bill Smith, right, has a 17-point lead over incumbent Naheed Nenshi. Pollster Janet Brown and ThinkHQ Public Affairs president Marc Henry spoke to the Eyeopener about what voters can expect in the last week of the election. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Mayoral candidate Bill Smith may have a growing lead over the incumbent, Naheed Nenshi, as one recent poll suggests — but he's fielding questions about a possible Green Line rethink, unsolicited Thanksgiving emails and a property seizure warrant.

Meanwhile, Nenshi's campaign has faced criticisms, among others, by those who say he hasn't made it clear what he's hoping to do if re-elected.

And that's just two of the 10 candidates in a mayoral race that has become far more interesting than might have been expected a few weeks earlier, according to observers who joined the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

As the campaigns roll into their final week, independent pollster Janet Brown and Marc Henry, president of ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc., shared their thoughts what Calgarians can expect to see leading up to the Oct. 16 civic election.

Q: A poll came out this weekend that showed Bill Smith with a 17-point lead over Naheed Nenshi — and with huge growth amongst voters aged 18 to 34, typically thought of as a Nenshi demographic. What do you make of the numbers?

Marc Henry: If you look at the poll, there's some curiosities in the demographics. There's a big lead for Smith among people under 35, which seems very out of step with trends that you've seen over time.

But what it is capturing, I think, it's definitely showing that something is going on during the campaign. There's momentum going on, Smith has positive momentum, he's clearly gaining votes. Nenshi has negative momentum, he's losing votes. So this race is going to be a very interesting one compared to what we thought it was going to be three weeks ago.

Janet Brown: I'm not sure I'm buying the overall numbers that they're reporting.

I might not be in agreement with the numbers, but I don't dispute the trend. The momentum seems to be with Smith right now. Nenshi seems to be back on his heels. More than the poll, what I'm picking up from both campaigns is that they both feel they're in a very tight race, and to me, that seems like better evidence of what's really going on right now.

Q: Define what you see as the mood among candidates.

Marc Henry: You need to look at the two camps and what their campaign narrative is. I always like to step back and look at the story they're trying to tell. Smith's campaign has been a lot more effective at delivering a consistent, clear narrative. It's very much, do you want this guy for another four years? Can you afford another four years? Do you want this personality for another four years? It's been quite clear.

Nenshi's campaign, for some reason, for someone who has a reputation as being this international communicator, his campaign has been very unfocused. I still don't understand what is the question you're putting to voters on the 16th. What are you asking them to decide? 

Q: At what point do voters start looking at Bill Smith and say, 'Who is this guy and what does he stand for?'

Janet Brown: I think it probably happened over the weekend. I think we will see more poll results later this week and we'll sort of see what those dinnertime discussions turned into this past weekend.

When I've done daily tracking and pollings in the elections before, we always find that lots of momentum happens over the long weekend. Older people have a chance to talk to younger people, younger people have a chance to talk to older people, people think a little more critically about these things. 

I think people spent the afternoon eating their Thanksgiving turkey, wondering what really is up with Bill Smith and trying to answer those questions that Marc mentioned: what is Nenshi trying to do? Why is Nenshi running again?  What does he want the next four years to be about?

Q: Bill Smith weighed in last week with his thoughts about rerouting the proposed Green Line, suggesting he'd hit the pause button, which caused all sorts of repercussions. What do you make of this part of it?

Marc Henry: In terms of the Green Line, I don't know whether that's such a strong issue for him. It's effective in the areas of the city where I think Smith is strong, which would be in the southwest, southeast, and certainly there is some disenchantment in the southeast about [the LRT line] not going as long as it should be.

It certainly sort of rallies some support in the inner-city wards, where Nenshi will be strong in terms of the impact that would have in not having an underground tunnel and what that would mean to the inner-city wards. So it will be interesting to see how that particular issue plays out in the voters' minds.

Q: Naheed Nenshi is taking heat for a video message he recorded in which he claimed that some of his opponents' supporters are racist. What impact could that have? .

Janet Brown:  I think it speaks to the fact that both of these campaigns are getting nervous about how close the race may very well be. It's always concerning to me to watch a campaign sort of turn inward and go to its base and start getting its base sort of riled up with divisive politics.

I think it really just shows the fact that Nenshi is probably getting nervous and his campaign is suffering as a result. He's looking reactionary, he's looking defensive. And for seven years, Calgarians have really liked Nenshi. But there's a side to him, sort of an arrogant, dismissive side, that people don't find so appealing. I think this close race is bringing up some of that stickiness with Nenshi that really could hurt his chances.

Q: The shovels are digging in on both sides to find what they can. Bill Smith came under fire this weekend for a couple of things: an unsolicited Thanksgiving email that has some Calgarians questioning how Bill Smith got their email addresses, and a $24,000 property seizure warrant that was issued earlier this year but never executed. What do you make of all that?

Marc Henry: To what extent this actually sways voters, I'm not sure. The unexecuted warrant, it sounds as though everything was paid off, it was more of an embarrassment than anything else. With email lists, I can remember going to a federal fundraiser years ago and for years I was on their mailing list.

It's frustrating for people but I don't know whether it necessarily is going to move a lot of voters one way or the other. But in terms of the election, it's just dog whistling — trying to rally your base.

Q: Are these kind of field skirmishes what you typically expect at this point in an election? 

Janet Brown: I think they are and I think we're probably going to see both campaigns try to dig up embarrassments on each other. The problem with this is no one thing really is a killer for a candidate. The problem becomes when the voters start to see a pattern emerging.

Unfortunately for Smith, there's been a few things about his campaign that have seemed sloppy. And when you add all those things together, that's when it's going to become a problem for him because people are really going to start to wonder: Is he the smart, prudent business-minded person we need in Calgary right now or should we be concerned about this campaign sloppiness we're seeing?

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener