Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he’s not looking forward to searching for parking spots, but he said he’s excited to dive into this hot-new TV hit, Game of Thrones.
He’s going to miss riding a horse in at the front of the Calgary Stampede parade, though.
Nenshi, Calgary’s three-term mayor, will not be seeking a fourth in this October’s municipal election. The mayor had held off on the decision but made the announcement Tuesday afternoon.
“After 11 years of this, I really do feel like this is the right time for me. And I also think it’s the right time for the city,” Nenshi told LiveWire Calgary in an interview before the announcement.
“If we’ve learned one thing in the last year, what we’ve learned is that there are so many voices – new voices, diverse voices, different voices – that don’t always feel heard. It’s probably time to make some room, to make some room for us to be able to hear those new voices and those new perspectives.”
The decision will bring an end to what is Calgary’s third-longest mayoral term in office, behind Andrew Davison (15+ years) and Al Duerr (12 years). When complete, Nenshi’s term will be one week shy of 11 years.
In the end, it was a personal decision. It was one he’d been reflecting on for months.
“It’s hard. But I think ultimately, I asked myself a few questions,” Mayor Nenshi said.
- Am I leaving it better than I found it?
- Can I still find a way to be part of the story of Calgary’s future?
“It’s not about the mayor; it’s about a community that is imagining and building its future,” he said.
Nenshi’s decision leaves the door open for new leadership on city council and a packed mayoral race shaping up already.
Couns. Jyoti Gondek and Jeromy Farkas are the perceived front runners in the campaign to replace Nenshi, joining Brad Field, Zane Novak, Grace Yan, Teddy Ogbonna and others in the race.
First elected in 2010
Naheed Nenshi wasn’t a household name when he began his run for mayor in 2010. Then-alderman Ric McIver challenged for the mayor’s seat, along with popular CTV Calgary evening news anchor Barb Higgins.
Nenshi was a professor at Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business, was a founding member of the grassroots Civic Camp group and helped build the Better Calgary Campaign prior to his run.
Early on in that race, Nenshi was polling at a paltry eight per cent. He reminded us that earlier on he was closer to one per cent. He went on to win that election with 39 per cent of the vote.
“Who the heck did I think I was,” Nenshi said.
“That concept of politics in full sentences, of trusting people, trusting citizens that they can make the right decision, is the philosophy that I’ve tried to hold on to for the 11 years since then, through the highs and through the lows, and tried to bring a little bit of that fun in that whimsy and that excitement about the future, back into a world where our political discourse is so angry and bitter in divided.”
Nenshi was the first Muslim mayor elected in a major Canadian city. It was how many in the media defined his first term as Calgary’s mayor.
In the beginning, he said it was irritating.
“Nobody wanted to talk about my ideas for how cities can work better for everyone,” he said.
“In fact, I remember I’m also the first non-white mayor of a major city in Canada. No one wanted to talk about the colour of my skin. All they wanted to talk about was my faith.”
He decided at that point to tell a story about a Calgary that embraced pluralism and multiculturalism.
Flood, fires, oil and COVID
Mayor Nenshi presided over one of the most difficult post-war decades in Calgary’s history. The 2008 financial collapse, the 2013 Southern Alberta floods, the 2014 oil disaster and subsequent economic doom, and today, COVID-19.
He often refers to the fact Calgary has only declared a state of local emergency three times in its 136-year history. Nenshi brought it up again in the interview: All three were during his tenure as mayor.
The mayor said you don’t get to pick how history unfolds.
“My colleagues on council and most important, the citizens of Calgary, just have been unrelenting. We never let anything slow us down,” he said.
“That’s because people just put their put their shoulder to the grindstone and go to work.”
Despite the turmoil, the mayor insists there haven’t been missed opportunities. He believes the city continues to move forward.
When asked about significant annual tax increases, spending at city hall and other challenges at city hall, Mayor Nenshi reiterated that Calgary continues to have the lowest taxes in the country.
He pointed to a billion in savings by city administration in recent years and ongoing high citizen satisfaction ratings in Calgary’s annual survey.
“The vast majority of Calgarians, despite roasting on social media, seem to actually be very happy with the value for what they receive,” Mayor Nenshi said.
‘It’s not about how I will be remembered.’
While many would have considered the years-long struggle to build Calgary’s $5 billion Green Line a legacy builder, Nenshi doesn’t see it that way.
He rattled off a list of accomplishments – from new rec centres, to refurbishing city libraries and the construction of a new one, the BRT system and work on affordable housing – but the mayor said that’s not what he’ll be most proud of.
“I’ve really been thinking about how I would answer that because I don’t think of it that way,” the mayor said.
“It’s not about me, it’s not about how I’ll be remembered.”
He said he’s checked off a lot of the things on the list he made when he first ran in 2010.
One that he takes the most pride in is the heightened civic engagement. He said Alberta politics a decade ago was rigid; people didn’t take active role in municipal issues because the future would just happen, and politicians would manage it.
“What I’m really excited about, probably the most, is the incredible increase in civic engagement. Even when it’s nasty. Even when it’s mean,” he said.
“It is people really feeling like they’ve got a stake in the future of their city. And for me if that can continue, then that’s probably the biggest legacy.”
195 days left
The mayor said you can ask Siri how many days are left until the Oct. 18 municipal election.
It’s 195 days.
There’s still work to do, the mayor said. But, a city is always unfinished.
“I think tons of work needs to still be done because in a city that’s growing like this, there will always be more dragons to slay,” Mayor Nenshi said.
“There will always be more ideas and more investments to move forward.”
Looking back, however, there are regrets. One in particular: Calgary’s second Olympic bid.
“I think we could have done, I could have done, and the provincial and federal governments could have done, a much better job on helping people understand the benefit of that,” he said.
A city plebiscite was held and Calgarians voted against hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics.
He said the city had so much to gain from hosting the international event. It was the will of Calgarians, he said, and he respected it.
Of course, he’ll miss the people
On days where he had 30 community events to hit, Mayor Nenshi saw it as 30 opportunities to meet more Calgarians. It was a chance to see the cool things happening across Calgary. He said he believes he’s been to every community in the city at one point or another over 11 years.
“I was just so happy to have that and I’m going to miss that a lot,” he said.
And yes, he is going to miss riding a horse at the front of the Calgary Stampede parade.
As for the future? Undecided, to a degree.
He said he’s got 10 good years of television to catch up on. After that, he’s open to conversations.
“I know that I’m not going anywhere,” Mayor Nenshi said.
“I know that I would like to continue helping Calgary grow, and I would really look forward to finding out what kind of service opportunities there are out there outside of politics.”