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Naheed Nenshi feeling the heat as Calgary mayoral race tightens

Mayor Naheed Nenshi greets afternoon commuters during a campaign stop in Calgary on Oct. 12, 2017.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Naheed Nenshi is walking through a Calgary hotel lobby after a prayer breakfast with a large group of evangelical leaders when a man shouts out a greeting. Mr. Nenshi pauses for a moment as the man tells him he's rooting for him in the municipal election just days away.

"Tell all your friends. It's going to be a close one," the Calgary mayor says, before again beginning the focused march to the next campaign appearance.

Mr. Nenshi – who rocketed to Canadian political stardom with his surprise victory in 2010 and who used his profile as a brash, intellectual, Harvard-educated son of Tanzanian immigrants to modernize his city's Cowtown image – is in serious danger of losing his job in Monday's municipal vote.

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A weak oil price, the city's still-fragile economy and a list of grievances against all three levels of government are making for an agitated electorate, and are weighing on Mr. Nenshi's re-election chances. A low-tax, pro-business, anti-Nenshi campaign from congenial Calgary lawyer Bill Smith – with close ties to conservative circles – is making for a serious contest. Mr. Nenshi warns the city is in danger of going backward to become a meaner, elite-run city; Mr. Smith says the incumbent mayor always thinks he's "the smartest person in the room."

"Honestly, anything could happen next week," Mr. Nenshi, 45, said in an interview.

Turnout at the city's advance polls set a new record – 75,000 people, or more than 11 per cent of total eligible voters, have already cast a ballot – pointing to a motivated, angry electorate. While earlier polls showed Mr. Smith, 54, ahead by double digits, a new poll on Wednesday showed Mr. Nenshi in the lead – with long-time councillor Andre Chabot in a distant third. Both teams believe the race is very close between Mr. Nenshi and Mr. Smith. A number of the ward races are also in play, opening the door to a council makeup with a much more conservative bent.

"It comes down to a combination of the economy and property taxes, and looking for where to place the political blame," Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said.

"That has wound people up. It's more ideologically focused – more than is typical in municipal elections in Calgary."

Mr. Nenshi was a former globetrotting McKinsey & Co. consultant working as a professor of nonprofit management in his hometown when he won a surprise victory seven years ago against two better-known opponents. His Purple Revolution, named for his signature colour, was dissected for its then-leading-edge use of social media and its reach to younger voters. The first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, Mr. Nenshi received glowing reviews for guiding Calgary through its devastating 2013 floods, and was re-elected later that year without any serious challenger.

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But the city is a much changed place. Unemployment is high, and the prospects for future growth of the oil-and-gas-focused economy are open to question. Calgary's residential property taxes are some of the lowest in the country. However, businesses in particular face great uncertainty about future tax increases as downtown office-vacancy rates soar – placing a greater burden on the remaining firms.

Every candidate says business owners are fuming about a carbon tax and higher minimum wage implemented by the provincial NDP government, as well as tax changes proposed by the federal Liberals. Although not directly connected, that anger is adding fuel to the forces for change at city hall.

"You hear pretty much everywhere you go – they feel like they're being piled on by all three levels of government," Mr. Smith said.

A father of four, Mr. Smith worked as a city firefighter as a younger man – at the same time, he worked to get his law degree. His most public role came years later, in his work as president of the now-defunct Alberta Progressive Conservative party. He was viewed as a steady hand through a tumultuous period that included the resignation of former premier Ed Stelmach, the rise of Alison Redford, and through a 2012 general election when the long-governing PC party was granted a surprise political reprieve – largely because voters were fearful of the social conservative tendencies of the competing Wildrose party.

In the final days of Calgary's municipal campaign, the focus has shifted to personal questions about Mr. Smith and Mr. Nenshi.

For Mr. Smith, it's been about the lack of policy detail. With an aw-shucks demeanour, Mr. Smith has positioned himself as a more conciliatory voice in negotiations with the Flames ownership group in the debate over funding for a new arena – but has acknowledged he is as "confused as anyone about the deal/no deal." Mr. Nenshi has defended council's decision to stand firm in limiting the public dollars committed to such a project, while Mr. Smith uses the impasse between the city and team owners as evidence the mayor can't get a deal done.

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Mr. Nenshi continues to hammer Mr. Smith for not disclosing his list of campaign donors – an action not required by law but an informal expectation in Calgary mayoral races.

For Mr. Nenshi, he continues to be criticized for an air of arrogance, or blunt-speak. His political opponents say he is prone to verbal gaffes – such as comparing a prominent developer with a character from the Godfather movies in 2013 – and is out of touch with average voters.

This week, Mr. Nenshi was criticized for a get-out-the-vote video message directed at Calgary's Pakistani community that warned of hateful, racist messages being circulated on social media. "There are forces out there in the community that are supporting my opponents, who really want us to go backward – that don't want a city that is so inclusive of everyone."

Mr. Nenshi's mention of his opponents and internet trolls in the same breath hit a nerve. Mr. Smith told the Calgary Sun he believed Mr. Nenshi was "throwing the race card into the mix."

In an interview, Mr. Nenshi said he won't back down on the issue. He added that for reasons he doesn't fully comprehend, he believes he's sometimes held to a different standard from other politicians. This week, a woman told one of his volunteers Mr. Nenshi has got too big for his britches.

He points to other men in politics – Brian Jean, Jason Kenney or Andrew Scheer – who speak with conviction and confidence.

"You get built up into something and then people pull you back down again," Mr. Nenshi said. "Can you imagine saying to Stephen Harper, 'You are too big for your britches.'"

Nenshi says emotions must stay out of new Calgary arena talks (The Canadian Press)
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