Three years ago I came back from Europe to find Calgary in the throws of a municipal election. The old mayor had retired so there was no incumbent. Instead there was a wide-open field filled with more names than could fit on a ballot and none of them were particularly inspiring.
It reminded me of the race in California that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger who probably won in large part on name recognition. It was overwhelming to follow but two front runners were clear. There was Barb Higgins, a local newscaster, who had name recognition covered and Ric McIver who had being conservative covered. Not much of a choice.
But the seasons changed and so did the tide. Slowly but surely the leaves fell and purple begin to colour the city. A third largely unknown candidate who taught at Mount Royal was making a go at the front-runners. Buttons started to appear all over campus and people started to hear about this Naheed Nenshi fellow.
He liked to paint things purple, a rare and innovative colour in politics. It wasn’t used by any of the major political parties or any of the other candidates. His headquarters on Macleod Trail — that now serve as the Improv Guild’s home — were painted purple and stood out to road traffic and C-Train riders. In the northwest an old car dealership on 16th ave became a part of the little purple machine that could.
Still this was before the surprise victory. There were still some leaves left on the trees. A profile of Ric McIver appeared in FFWD, a local alt-weekly. One of my friends dumped beer on a newsstand full of copies at his birthday party. Barb Higgins remained uninspiring. She seemed okay but what did she really want to do with our city?
A couple of weeks before election day I ran into my favourite professor near the “Prairie Chicken.” He was the type where when you went to his office hours to get a paper topic approved you ended up talking about the best place to buy poutine in town, your favourite TV shows and inevitably the horrible season the Flames were having.
After chatting for a while he asked me what I thought would happen in the election.
“Nenshi, all the way,” I said.
Surprised he replied, “but everyone thinks it’ll be Higgins or McIver.”
I shook my head and said, “People like Nenshi. They believe in him. When I get into an elevator on campus everyone has a purple button on their backpack. When I talk to my friends about the election they don’t tell me to shut up, they tell me how exciting Nenshi is. They’ll go out and vote for him.”
A couple of weeks later he was congratulating me on being right. I don’t say I was right to be smug but because I’ve observed a few elections in my short lifetime and done a careful reading of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Elections are about a feeling. They are about making people believe that their country or province or city or ward will be a better place if you vote for them. It was what Obama and Jack Layton had and it was what Nenshi exuded as well. He made us feel like Calgary would be a better city if he ran it.
Three years later it is hard to believe that there was ever any doubt that this great man was destined to lead our city. He was the leader we needed and he made us care. He was not only charismatic but good a winning battles and picking the right fights. He lead us nap free through the flood. He will win handily again.
Our city is filled with a sense of optimism that is hard to find anywhere else. We are forever evolving and changing. A lot of the people moving here everyday are young and in their 20s. Some of them are even born and raised Calgarians coming back to make something of themselves. There is a sense of possibility; that anything can happen.
This election is just as exciting as the last one but in different ways. Our city is three years older and wiser. We have different concerns. It’s not about an airport tunnel and a feeling. This time around it’s about everyone except Nenshi. There are 14 wards where the 14 other voices on council will be selected. Each ward has its own race.
This election is about how our city will grow and develop. It is about whether or not we will find solutions to how hard it is to get from point a to point b and how expensive sprawl is. It is about bike lanes and public art. It is about being able to walk to the grocery store. Some people find this boring but they couldn’t be more wrong. This is democracy as close as it can possibly come to what it was in ancient Greece. With voter turnout expected to be low each vote will be wonderfully consequential.
In my riding it’s about the bike lanes on 10th street and the Peace Bridge both of which I use on a daily business. This is not about big grand ideas but about how we want to live our lives. We get to decide what kind of communities we want to have and the type of houses we want to live in. It’s about politics at it’s smallest, most local and in many ways most consequential.
With this much on the line staying home on election day is simply not an option.
Photos by RMK.