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Campaign perspective: Field, Damery and Novak look back on Calgary mayoral race

Brad Field said he was at peace going into the night of the Oct. 18 Calgary municipal election, regardless of what the outcome might be.

“I was totally good with where I was at,” Field told LiveWire Calgary.

“I woke up the next morning, made my wife breakfast – I haven’t made her breakfast in many years – then, I went to the office.”

Twenty-seven candidates sought the mayor’s seat, vacated with the departure of the three-term mayor, Naheed Nenshi.

The eventual victor was former Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek. Gondek was one of three councillors to run for the job, including Jeff Davison and Jeromy Farkas.

From the start, it was pegged as a two, perhaps three, horse race. Early on, Farkas was the leader, followed by Gondek, then Davison.

In the next tier sat Field, Jan Damery, Zane Novak and Grace Yan.

Out of that group, Field ultimately came in fourth, Damery fifth and Novak in seventh. The gap between third (Davison – 50,654) and fourth (Field – 19,329) was substantial. It dropped another 10,000 votes to Damery at 8,935.

Vote tally aside, the roughly year-long official campaign journey for three of the candidates – Field, Damery and Novak – provided an opportunity to see their city, and its politics, in a different light.

The three weeks following Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s historic mayoral victory also gave these candidates an opportunity to reflect on the campaign.

“It's tough, even if you're an incumbent and well-funded,” said Novak.

“It's still an arduous task, an undertaking to run for political office and put your life on view.”

Campaign night: A celebration

Jan Damery was with her team on election night, gathered together at Calgary’s Craft Beer Market on 10 Avenue SW.  Damery thought that was the ideal setting as she campaigned hard on giving the hospitality sector in Calgary a lift.

“It was also a lovely surprise because my family from Edmonton and Vancouver joined me that night. I didn’t know about my Vancouver family coming,” she said.

“It was a really warm atmosphere and just kind of celebrating the race and what we’d accomplished.”

Even then, a flicker of hope remained with Damery. Despite the recent polling, she still thought the outcome might change.

“I think it was the traction we were finding,” Damery said.

“Even still, the conversations that weekend before the election, how many people were still undecided, really wrestling and only now starting to pay attention.”

When Field gets asked what went wrong on the campaign, he tells them: “Nothing went wrong.”

“We ran out of time. I’d say given more time, we would have been there because what we were selling people, it was resonating,” he said.

When the clock struck 8 p.m. and polls closed, Field told his campaign team, parked at Trolley 5 on 17 Avenue SW, that it’s out of their hands now.

“We did what we did, and we did it right,” he said.

Novak said it was obvious to him and his team they weren’t going to win on election night. That didn’t stop them from celebrating their accomplishments.

“At the end, it was just a celebration of my team and myself and the hard work we put together and that's kind of the attitude we took into the election night event.”

Campaign bumps

When asked, none of the three said they’d change much of how they unfurled their respective mayoral campaigns.

Damery’s campaign was progressive; Field and Novak ran more business-friendly, conservative-ish campaigns. Novak’s platform tended to be further right on the political spectrum.

Damery focused a great deal on Calgary’s downtown and the arts, hospitality and social sectors.  Field’s campaign hit on things like priority-based budgeting and while he supported the Green Line, the notion of making sure it was aligned right and perhaps above ground in the downtown may have pushed voters away.

Novak distanced himself from the Green Line – a project popular with thousands of Calgarians. He also opposed the provincial and city mandatory vaccination policies. Novak said people asked him if he would be that voice for less government, more freedom, fewer restrictions.

“I'm not an anti-masker, I'm not an anti-vaxxer,” Novak said.

“I'm just really all about pro-informed choice, freedom of choice.”

We reached out to both Jeromy Farkas and Jeff Davison to talk more about the campaign. Davison’s team acknowledged the request, but he didn’t reach out.  Farkas declined to be interviewed, saying further commentary would be a distraction.

“I am enjoying my return to private life and wish our new mayor and council the very best,” Farkas wrote in a text message response.

All candidates dealt with a deep field, COVID's impact on the campaign and the intersecting federal election campaign.

Outsiders in a two-horse race

Platforms aside, these three were relative unknowns compared with three vocal, media-friendly sitting city councillors.

While Novak, a successful oilfield services company president, had launched a platform called Calgary 2.0 some time ago, most citizens and the media hadn’t heard of him until he launched his campaign.

Field said he began his road to the 2021 campaign back in 2018. Still, outside of Calgary’s business community, Field was a relative unknown.

Damery, an economist who worked in the oil and gas industry before landing on the executive team for YW Calgary, was also unknown to many Calgarians.

While it’s not unheard of for lesser-knowns to win as mayor, it’s a steep uphill climb. Especially when a trio of city councillors stand in the way.

“I think there was also just a narrative that really we couldn't break was that two-horse race,” Damery said.

Novak said the race really became controlled by the media.

“The big media, they picked a winner and a loser, they picked a right and a left, they picked a two-horse race and it shut everybody else out,” he said.

With 27 candidates, it wasn’t possible to give other candidates space, Novak said. 

“People just love to be uninformed and just vote on a passion,” he said.

It’s all about name recognition, said Field.

“Coming in from the outside, you've got to work that much harder to build name recognition and profile,” he said.

Field said he thinks it wasn’t until September, and after the federal election, that Calgarians started clicking on websites and learning more about candidates. That didn’t leave much time for outsiders to break through.

Damery said the lack of resources in local media became apparent.

All of this led to tall odds for anyone outside the establishment.

“The system is very, I believe, very stacked against an outsider coming in,” Novak said.

Voter apathy

Many signs pointed to a scenario where Calgary could see high voter turnout. There was a competitive mayoral race, 10 potential new councillors, recognizable names, and, nearer to the Oct. 18 election, record turnout at the advanced polls.

According to the City of Calgary, voter turnout was 46.38 per cent. That’s 12 per cent lower than the 2017 municipal election.

Looking back, the candidates saw an electorate that was fatigued to the point of disinterest.

Damery said people weren’t paying attention to the mayoral race. She’s been reflecting on voter fatigue, COVID-19, other competing priorities. 

“People just weren't ready for the change. They talked about it, but they weren't really to act,” she said.

Calgary did elect five women (including mayor) and increased the diversity on council.

Novak said given the economic struggles in Calgary, he was surprised by the low turnout.

“I was kind of disappointed that the city didn't rally more for representation that would have promoted business and employment,” he said.

“It certainly made me reflect a lot about the path that Calgary is on right now. And what it would take to turn around.”

Campaign turning point

For much of the campaign, former Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas was the front runner. Jyoti Gondek was in second.

Most of the polling in the early part of the campaign showed this dynamic.

Then a Sept. 22 ThinkHQ poll had Gondek gaining – to the point of being close to the margin of error. It was a dead heat.  

Polls in the first week of October saw Gondek edge out Farkas for the lead in the race. Still, it was close.

Field isn’t shy about saying a letter sent out by the Farkas campaign days prior to the Oct. 18 vote sealed the win for Gondek.  That letter was a plea to Davison and Field supporters to join the Farkas team to defeat Gondek.

He said Farkas had a chance to win. In the last three weeks, he struggled in debate and his message was unclear, Field said.  Then, the letter.

“For an average person reading that letter, it showed weakness and desperation,” Field said.

“And the last thing a person is looking for in a leader is that. Whatever votes he thought he was going to gain, he actually lost.”

Novak said he thought Gondek would have a harder time winning than she did.

“I know that she checked off a lot of boxes that society now puts a high value on,” he said, thinking that there were still enough conservative-leaning people to put Farkas on top.

“I never expected the gap to be as big as it was.”

He thought Gondek’s connection to third-party advertisers would play a bigger role. Novak also has questions about the voters' list and vote irregularities.

Damery said she was struck by how many voters cast an anti-Farkas ballot. Once that became clear, the tide had turned.

“I found it very interesting that people were voting against what they didn't want. The fear of that as opposed to the belief in what they wanted,” she said.

Post-election return to life

All three of the former mayoral candidates are back at work. 

Each said they were warmly welcomed back by friends and colleagues. Of course, there were some armchair campaign managers and lingering social media trolls, but virtually all feedback was positive, they said.

“Everybody thought that we ran a really strong campaign,” Field said.

“Even people that didn't vote for me chimed in and said, ‘Look, I didn't I didn't vote for you, but you ran a super campaign. Very proud to call you a Calgarian,'” Field recalled.

“I’ve never received so many thank-yous from strangers.”

Damery said well-wishers tell her they’re happy she remained authentic throughout the campaign.

“They’ve been so proud of me,” she said.

She said being back at YW Calgary with this experience in her pocket is helping provide more exposure, knowledge and relationships to help her move those projects forward.

Reality also sets in. Damery said even though she’s in the field of fundraising, raising cash to run a campaign was hard. Novak said he’s taken off the better part of four years and it’s time to pay the bills. Raising cash for the campaign was hard.

“My runway is a bit shorter than it was four years ago,” he said.

“I’ve got to get things rocking and rolling just personally here to pay off bills and to catch up with life.”

Time for reflection

Damery said the morning after the election she and her husband Paul sat in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee, albeit “incredibly discombobulated,” she said.

“Paul and I, we just reflected and talked about it, and talked about all of the great things that had happened; the people that have dropped into my life, that became part of this team, a part of this movement.”

Damery said there’s a gratitude that goes along with finishing up a campaign, taking a deep breath – and not being on the phone.   

The Vancouver and Edmonton family members stuck around, and they all hit a local pub for dinner. It was a soft return to reality.

Damery said she’s learned a lot about herself.

“It was I think how strong my center and value set is,” she said.

“I had never experienced, where almost hourly some days, my value sets were tested.”

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Field said he won’t forget how many Calgarians he connected with over the campaign. Looking back, for him it wasn’t about winning or losing.

“I hate using the phrase losing because we didn't lose, we just didn't win,” he said.

“Because we worked our asses off. We did everything right as far as I'm concerned, and (we were) authentic.”

The past three weeks have been a time of quiet contemplation for Novak. He’s trying to figure out where he fits in Calgary. 

“I still have a love for the city. I'm still concerned about the path Calgary is going, in fact, I’m more concerned than ever,” he said.

“I think that there is still room in my world to take leadership roles, but I have to be very strategic and pragmatic about it.”

Never say never: Calgary 2025?

The trio of candidates each said they would continue their work in the community. It may not always be high profile, but they want to roll up their sleeves to help where possible.

Field said he and then-mayor-elect Gondek had a conversation the day after the election win. Of course, he offered his congratulations.

"I said, 'Look, no fanfare, no name recognition, like nothing, just literally if you need my help, or you want someone else's insight, call,'" he said.

"I don't need anything for it. I'm just I'm a concerned Calgarian that wants to do right."

Neither Damery nor Field would count out a future crack at the mayor’s chair again.

Field, though, said it’s obviously not at the forefront in his mind.

“I’m still… I wouldn’t say recovering. I’m not recovering because I have no regrets,” he said.

“I’m getting my bearings straight and looking at my new opportunities in the community, in the business community. But, yeah, I’ll never say never – of course not.”

Novak said he wouldn’t take anything off the table, but he doesn’t have any specific political role in mind. He said that he would have to look at things realistically, in terms of time and revenue.

“Am I the wrong view at this point in time for what Calgarians and Albertans want?” Novak asked.

“Why am I going to waste time, effort, volunteer hours and donors’ money trying to make an impact? Those are the questions that are in my mind right now.”

Damery said it’s been a rich learning experience.

“I have learned across my varied career, Darren, never say never - but I’m much wiser if I'm going to do it,” she said.