Calgary·Analysis

What makes Nenshi run? It's not just an unfinished agenda

Naheed Nenshi says he's not quite done being Calgary's mayor. Much of it relates to an unfinished agenda, but challenges have arisen that he feels committed to resolving.

Secondary suites, transit and poverty are likely among the reasons for 3rd term as mayor

Naheed Nenshi has announced he will run for mayor again in 2017. (CBC)

Naheed Nenshi says he's not quite done being Calgary's mayor.

In announcing he wants a third term, Nenshi is signalling a few things. Much of it relates to an unfinished agenda. But it's also about challenges that have arisen that he feels committed to resolving.

Being mayor isn't a job for a part-timer. You have to be all-in and actually live the job. Well, you'd better if you want to stick around. The office comes with a never-ending list of commitments, appearances and proclamations.

Welcoming visiting dignitaries. And meetings, meetings, meetings. It's a 24/7 deal.

Just watch Nenshi when he's out with Calgarians. He loves being mayor.

Nenshi takes a selfie with people attending the city's Comic and Entertainment Expo. (@nenshi/Twitter)

Incumbency is powerful

In the recent past, Calgarians have been quite content with long-serving mayors.

Ralph Klein put in almost three complete terms in the mayor's chair in the 1980s. Al Duerr completed four terms, wearing the mayor's chain of office from 1989 to 2001. Dave Bronconnier completed three terms from 2001 to 2010.

You could say that part of their legacy of success at city hall was knowing when to leave.

Nenshi came to office in 2010 riding a campaign of ideas. But those ideas hit the hard reality that a mayor isn't like a prime minister or a premier.

Nenshi gestures during a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of devastating floods that hit Calgary in 2013. (The Canadian Press)

A mayor is a leader to be sure. But Calgary's mayor is just one of 15 voices around the council table. An influential voice, but one that can be drowned out if eight others at that table disagree.

For example, there are still tens of thousands of illegal secondary suites in Calgary. Yes, Nenshi has presided over changes that make it easier to have a secondary suite.

But if you don't live in a new community, you still have to come to city council yourself and make the case for a basement suite of your own.

Perhaps the pending retirement of a secondary suites opponent and the promise of another new face around the table beckon Nenshi that real change on this issue could happen.

Finding the green for the Green Line

Yes, there's a 30 year transit plan called Routeahead but realizing that vision will require many more years of work.

And Nenshi desperately wants to round up $5 billion to get construction on the Green Line started — $3 billion is in hand. It's possible that cash could be in place as the province is expected to weigh in before the end of his current term.

Winning another election would give Nenshi the assurance he needs that this landmark LRT project will actually move off the drawing board.

Perhaps with the arrival of city charters next year, Nenshi will realize his dream of true campaign finance reform for municipal politics. Maybe that doesn't require him to win a third term, but running again would allow him to see more reforms in action.

As recently as last month, Nenshi talked about the fight against poverty in this city. Beyond the secondary suite torch he carries, this issue is closest to his heart. And in the depths of a recession, he feels the need to keep making progress on this issue.

If he wins another election, Nenshi could be the mayor who gets to cut the ribbon on a new downtown library, on more rec centres and a state-of-the-art bus garage. But there's other unfinished business.

Nenshi and the Olympics

There's a possible Olympic bid (no mention of this in his 2010 or 2013 campaigns) and whether Calgary gets major new sports facilities — if that's what Calgarians want.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Olympian Jesse Lumsden and Calgary Stampeder Rob Cote enjoy a bobsled ride in 2014. Nenshi is a self-confessed Olympics nut. (CBC)

The mayor was recently in Tokyo to speak at a conference put on by the World Economic Forum. It's perhaps his last kick at the can of being recognized by the group as a top "young leader." Alas, Nenshi turns 45 in 2017.

He spoke at that gathering about the legacies of hosting a top international sports event. The self-confessed Olympics nut that he is, Nenshi would love to see the Olympics return to this town — if it can be done in a responsible manner.

The next step in the CalgaryNext saga will be heard early in the new year but it's uncertain that means a decision. Nenshi isn't convinced Calgary needs a new hockey arena. An Olympic bid could alter that.

He's also smart enough to know that Calgary's aging McMahon Stadium is an outdated throw-back to a different time. Something will have to be done about that. And yes, he's well aware smaller cities like Regina, Winnipeg and Hamilton have new stadium facilities.

Some cause for worry

Rising taxes are a thorn in Nenshi's side even if he keeps saying they're among the lowest in Canada.

An election year freeze — backed by finding millions in savings — may be viewed by some as a cynical ploy. In tough times, it's also smart politics.

A defamation lawsuit filed by businessman Cal Wenzel is settled but the financial hangover will haunt Nenshi's campaign. (CBC)

Now, it's true his mouth has gotten him into trouble now and again.

Nenshi is reaching into his own pocket and raising cash to re-pay the City of Calgary for defending him against a defamation lawsuit filed by businessman Cal Wenzel.

The lawsuit was settled but the financial hangover will haunt the start of Nenshi's year-long run to election day.

Nenshi also had his knuckles rapped by the city's integrity commissioner for "enthusiastically engaging in some extravagant hyperbole" while he was video-recorded in a vehicle in Boston last April, talking about Uber.

But that investigation also didn't conclude the mayor was being dishonest.

What do voters think?

Nenshi's political future rests with voters. While he will be offering a record and a vision, voters aren't averse to wanting change. 

After all, Calgarians handed most of the city's provincial seats to the NDP last year and a couple of federal seats went Liberal.

Conservatives finding themselves out of power in Edmonton and Ottawa could rally around some figures at city hall. There are whispers of an experienced challenger coming to take on Nenshi.

Councillor Andre Chabot has signalled he intends to run for mayor in either 2017 or 2021.

Before making a 2017 decision, he first wanted to see if Nenshi was running again. No surprise, the mayor is in.

As recently as last month, Chabot was hedging his bets, saying other political opportunities — both federally and provincially — are also beckoning.

Speculating on what might happen or who else may run is a mug's game.

But one thing is clear: Nenshi will do everything he can to keep the job he loves.

Nenshi poses for the crowd during the Calgary Stampede parade in 2014. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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