Naheed Nenshi has secured his third term in Calgary, fending off a more conservative challenger who came close to unseating the once-politically unassailable mayor of Alberta's largest city.
Mr. Nenshi, 45, won against lawyer Bill Smith with about 51 per cent of the vote according to unofficial results late Monday night – a far cry from the 74 per cent support that Mr. Nenshi saw in the 2013 election. The mayor's close call came in large part as a show of an angry electorate in Calgary, which has seen economic fortunes drop alongside the oil price over the last three years. Mr. Nenshi's personality – which some see as wonkish and witty, others view as condescending towards those he disagrees with – also became a key ballot box issue. The mayor, in the late days of the campaign, responded to this criticism, arguing "scrappy" leaders have long been celebrated in Alberta.
Polls in recent weeks varyingly put Mr. Smith or Mr. Nenshi ahead in the contest, and a strong voter turnout appeared to point to a highly motivated electorate. Mr. Smith still received about 44 per cent of the vote, but Mr. Nenshi's win is a repudiation of those who believed Alberta's conservatives – stung by the existence of an NDP government in Edmonton and a Liberal government in Ottawa – were poised to use the municipal election to help stage a comeback.
"This has been a very tough campaign," Mr. Nenshi said in his victory speech late Monday. "It has been tough for many reasons. It was a campaign that was often more about personality than policy. It was a campaign that too often was trying to divide us as citizens rather than bring us together."
He added: "This campaign has also showed us that we as a city are not as united as we may have thought. There are many different points of view on how we move forward. And the best part of city council is we get to leave our ideology at the door."
Mr. Smith, 54, said he set the campaign aside and will get behind the mayor, but vowed to press the city on issues such as taxes, spending and "how we treat Calgarians."
Municipal elections were held across Alberta on Monday. In Edmonton, incumbent Mayor Don Iveson easily won his second term. In the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, former MLA Don Scott won the mayoral race against three other contenders.
In Calgary, Mr. Nenshi's lauded 2010 election campaign saw him go from political obscurity to the popular mayor of one of Canada's largest cities. The Harvard-educated son of immigrants, he worked around-the-clock the weeks during and after the 2013 floods, and has made issues such as public transit and housing hallmarks of his time in office. But he has gained a strong cohort of critics in recent years, and in recent weeks some polls had shown Mr. Smith's campaign, with its focus on freezing municipal workers' salaries and cutting city taxes, gathering steam.
The race was also affected by factors outside the realm of municipal politics. Both Mr. Nenshi and Mr. Smith said they often heard complaints while knocking on doors or meeting with business owners about policies originating in Edmonton or Ottawa – including Alberta's carbon tax and plans to move to a $15 per hour minimum wage, or proposed federal changes to business tax laws.
Budget hawk Andre Chabot – a city councilor for a dozen years – was also one of the 10 candidates in the mayoral race. But it became clear early in September that Mr. Smith had momentum in garnering the support of small-c conservatives and was the main challenger to Mr. Nenshi. Early on, people had the impression this election "was going to be your standard incumbent election in Calgary," said University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas. But "incumbent support goes down as economic difficulties go up."
Mr. Nenshi has significant challenges ahead as he continues on as mayor. He and his council have to grapple with a massive hole in the city's budget as office vacancies stay stubbornly high. Mr. Nenshi has said he will carry over a $45 million program that shields remaining city businesses from the full brunt of tax increases that could come from a partially empty downtown core.
He will also carry the weight of a fraught relationship with the city's professional hockey team.
The start of the campaign coincided with the Calgary Flames' top executive, Ken King, publicly characterizing the negotiations with the city for a new arena as "spectacularly unproductive" and declaring the club was done bargaining. Mr. Nenshi responded by releasing the city's offer in an attempt to convince the public Calgary was being reasonable. The Flames, in turn, produced its offer. The two sides exchanged tit-for-tat public statements attempting to refute the logic of the other side.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. King insisted the club was not in the business of politics. However, one of the team's communications officials lashed out after news organizations called the election for Mr. Nenshi late Monday night. "I can't believe it YYC," Flames director of communications and media relations Sean Kelso wrote, using Calgary's airport code for shorthand. "Having @Nenshi as mayor is worse than @realDonaldTrump being president. #arrogant #bracefordisaster #outoftouch." The tweet was subsequently deleted.
Mr. Smith had worked to capitalize on the perception in some quarters that Mr. Nenshi is quick to upbraid those who don't agree with him. Some of the political opposition to Mr. Nenshi can be traced back two years to opposition to a rapid-transit plan, including the construction of bus lanes, from well-organized residents in the southwest of the city. Others criticize Mr. Nenshi's blunt-speak in lambasting political opponents from the chief executive of Uber to local developers. Mr. Smith's campaign said property taxes "skyrocketed" by 51 per cent during Mr. Nenshi's time in office.
But Mr. Nenshi's campaign team said the tax increase for that period were actually less than 15 per cent, and Calgary still has some of the lowest mill rates in the country. He countered his critics by saying that there have been two or three incidents over his seven years as mayor where he said something he shouldn't have, but he pointed out that his time in office has been devoid of any significant scandal.
Mr. Smith is a former firefighter who became a lawyer in 2004, and also is the former president of the now-defunct Alberta Progressive Conservative party. His campaign was designed to present a contrast to the incumbent mayor, but offered little in the way of policy details – beyond an often-repeated promise that he will rein in taxes and streamline city regulatory processes. He called city plans for a $4.65-billion light-rail transit green line a "boondoggle" but didn't say exactly what he would do differently.
While municipal politics in Alberta has no official ties to the party system, Mr. Smith's campaign team includes former PC party fundraisers and organizers. Attendance at his electoral party Monday night included PC MLAs such as Jason Luan and Jonathan Denis, United Conservative Party MLA Ric McIver, and current UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer – a longtime friend of Mr. Smith's.
Mr. Nenshi and a handful of other candidates running for council released their donor lists ahead of voting day, which is not required. Mr. Nenshi needled his opponents to do the same in the name of transparency. Mr. Smith refused, arguing the rules allowed for that and told a CBC radio program the incumbent was playing a "bullying game."
But Mr. Nenshi said his campaign was in part about standing up to bullying. He called out racist messages on social media and said many of the most hateful messages came from people supporting his opponents – a comment that riled Mr. Smith and others who said Mr. Nenshi was unfairly playing the "race card."