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Passing grade: City profs’ analysis of Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s first 100 days

Three Calgary political scientists agree that the first 100 days of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s term have been challenging, but say she’s mostly weathered it well.

Feb. 2 marked 100 days in office for Calgary’s newest mayor.  

In that time, she’s had to deal with Sean Chu, the city budget adjustment and a four per cent tax increase, the homeless situation and bitter cold, transit security, the Bill 21 legal challenge, the Event Centre, Green Line cost worries, the reintroduction of fluoride, home protests / security costs, convoys, Stephen Carter’s dismissal, and on day 101, the announcement that the province’s Restrictions Exemption program would end and that the Premier may look at limiting municipalities’ ability to construct their own.

Even the sentence is long.

University of Calgary political scientist Jack Lucas said that it has been a first 100 days unlike most council terms. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It may be that some of this actually had the effect of causing at least a substantial chunk of council to really pull together quite quickly, knowing that they had to act,” he told LiveWire Calgary.

“It maybe gave the mayor an opportunity to build relationships with those councillors in a way that kind of deepened quite quickly, just because of the seriousness of the challenges they’re facing.”

Fellow UCalgary political scientist Lisa Young said Mayor Gondek has fared well. Young said the Green Line, Events Centre and others do “crystallize” some of the ongoing challenges this group will face.

Young said there’s a power structure at city hall and a group of affluent folks who feel they’re entitled to call the shot on big files.

“She’s managed to not look like she’s being bullied by these forces,” Young said.

‘Rocky for her’: MRU’s Duane Bratt

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said he’s not a particular fan of the 100 days metric. He said its origin in 1932 under Franklin Roosevelt was a depression-era benchmark.

For some reason, it’s stuck around. Even on a four-year term.

“So, if we do that 100 days, it’s been rocky for her,” he said.

Bratt said Mayor Gondek came out with a climate emergency declaration, which he said she didn’t have front and centre in her campaign.  It took people by surprise, he said.

Then the Event Centre collapse. He said fingers pointed at the mayor, perhaps unfairly. She’s just the mayor when it happened.

“You’ve got other city councillors blaming her, anybody who didn’t vote for her has come out and blamed her,” Bratt said.  

“I think a lot of that criticism is unfair, but because the bomb landed with her holding it, you know, she takes the heat for that.”

Young said the Event Centre deal wasn’t a political mistake in the first 100 days.

“Capitulating to the organization would have been a mistake and they didn’t do that,” she said.

“It totally creates a huge challenge for them going forward, but I think it’s the lesser of two problems.”

Young said there was disagreement among councillors in how the Event Centre file was handled. Still, they came out unanimous in support of pursuing a new deal.

“I think that was the moment where it could have all come apart and they would be facing accusations of being a dysfunctional group who can’t work together, and we’re all in terrible trouble,” she said.

Slow news day?

While to many Calgarians, particularly city hall watchers, the first 100 days were eventful, many of these issues may have paled in comparison to what was happening on the provincial and federal stage.

“It’s been, shall we say, a news-heavy few months at all levels of government,” Lucas said.

Some issues, like the Event Centre may have broken through to the general population, but not others.  Especially when you’re dealing with COVID, the federal Conservative mess, convoys and the like.

“The fact that the mayor’s Chief of Staff also departed, I think is probably… it’s high on the list of topics for you and me and other people who watch Calgary Council closely, but I think it’s probably not something that broke through in a more substantial way,” he said.

Lucas said that’s just based on the way people attend to civic matters versus provincial or federal ones.

Young called Stephen Carter’s dismissal “inside baseball.”

“People care about the taxes. They care about where the Flames play hockey. They really don’t care who’s advising the mayor,” she said.

Bratt disagreed that Carter’s dismissal was minor. He said he might even consider his initial hiring a mistake. Carter’s got a great track record as a campaigner, not as a governor, Bratt said.

“Carter has tried to have, and has, a very big profile,” he said.

His removal happened amid a trucker convoy, Erin O’Toole being removed as CPC leader and the Coutts blockade.

“It got lost in the shuffle. Had this occurred on a slower news day, there would have been a lot more attention paid,” Bratt said.

“Carter is different than most staffers because of his track record and public profile.”

Successes, mistakes

Neither Young nor Lucas saw any major blunders for Mayor Gondek in her first 100 days.

Difficult files and tough decisions, yes.

Lucas said that the one success early on could be the coalition building. Few major policy items have been caught in political snags.

“In general, one thing that does seem to have been pretty successful is that there’s quite a bit of consensus on council,” he said.

“Even if the votes aren’t unanimous, the mayor has had a lot of success in moving her agenda items forward.”

Young said the early climate vote was a win, as was getting the budget through. She also said keeping the group focused, despite the challenges, was a win.

“There was a non-trivial possibility that being elected as the first racialized woman in this position, there was a risk of being seen as a pushover, as being seen as weak,” Young said.

“I don’t think anybody’s walking away with that impression. So that was important.”

Bratt alluded to the potential Carter mistake. The climate change declaration maybe caught folks off guard. She got stuck with the arena deal, Bratt said.

“I think getting the budget through with as less drama as what we saw, I think that is (a success),” he said.

“But really, the big success was winning election night.”

Lucas and Bratt both agreed that successes and failures today may not mean much four years from now.

Lucas said “recency bias” tends to come into play when we’re closer to a municipal election.

“It’s quite unlikely that anything that has happened in these first 100 days is going to be front-of-mind for people when the time comes, years from now, for us to have another municipal election,” he said.

Headwinds in the next 100 days

The province.

(End story.)

Whether it’s handling of the pandemic or general intergovernmental relations, the trio agreed the province is the biggest headwind for Mayor Gondek.

Lucas said the mayor was critical of the province on the campaign trail and in her first 100 days. He said municipal provincial tensions aren’t going to let up any time soon. The potential removal of Covid public health restrictions could be an upcoming test. Not only for policy, but for how council functions.

“For this council, it creates possible provincial / municipal tensions and those could be manifested in inside council as well,” Lucas said.

Young said how the city responds to the rapid rollback of public health measures and the city’s response, could “suck up a lot of oxygen over the next 100 days.”

“We’ve seen that there are loud voices on the side of moving these restrictions back, but there’s also going to be pressure to do what some people see as the province’s work,” Young said.

Bratt was blunt in his thoughts on potential headwinds.

“I think the challenge remains the provincial government,” he said.

He said to expect more fighting with the province. Bratt said the province was a headwind four months ago and it remains so today.

“Some of the other challenges around the emerging new culture of city council, there’s still a learning curve that’s emerging,” Bratt said.

“Are we starting to see a new sort of conservative, anti-Gondek block emerging on council with (Dan) McLean and (Andre) Chabot and (Sonya) Sharp, Terry Wong, etc.? Is that going to harden?”

Final grades

Lucas said the first 100 days have shown that there’s a consistent base of support for the mayor’s policy agenda.

“I would say that people can be fairly optimistic given what we’ve seen so far that this isn’t the kind of council where the mayor is going to propose item after item and then be defeated on council,” he said.

“That seems to be partly to do with a real commitment to building coalitions of support on council for these items.”

Young said that ultimately people’s views on the mayor’s first 100 days will be shaped by their own perspectives.

Those who supported Gondek will have seen her as strong, firm, resolute, Young said.

“I think those who are not inclined to be supportive of her politics will probably see the mirror image of that. That she was uncompromising, as opposed to resolute.”

Despite some of the challenges Mayor Gondek has faced and ones that lay ahead, particularly with the province, Bratt said one thing stands out.

“She is still much more popular than Premier Kenney in the City of Calgary.”