So, tomorrow is election day here in Cowtown.  And while I’m more interested in this election than I have been in a civic election for, oh, pretty much forever, I still have some pretty mixed feelings about our civic government and our civic electoral process in general.

First let’s cover the upbeat part of the program.  Namely, why I’m more interested in this civic election than any prior election.  Really, it can be summed up by one candidate, and what he has managed to achieve in a relatively short period of time.  Naheed Nenshi.

While Calgary likes to portray itself as an All Grown Up, 1 million strong City of the World, with a diverse population and culture, when it gets right down to it, the heart and soul of this place is a of a redneck small town dominated economically by the Oil Patch and our single largest cultural event, “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Calgary Stampede, a glorified giant rodeo.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good that goes with that.  A firm belief in prosperity through hard work, a “know and help your neighbor” attitude, and a lot of other things.  And hey, this city really gets behind the Stampede in a way that’s admirable and really drives community spirit.  Also, given the fact that 3 out of 4 of my grandparents were born here (the fourth was imported from Saskatchewan), I come as close to a “Good old boy” as you can get, so it’s hard for me to critique some of this.

The downside to this cultural center is a decidedly old boy/conservative way of running the city.  Traditionally, incumbents have a 70-80% re-election rate, which is enormously high.  Once you’re in, you’re in for life.  And there’s a decidedly “Caucasian” tinge to the vast bulk of our elected officials.  Most campaigns are financed by the oil and gas sector and by land developers (look up the donor rolls of the candidates if you don’t believe me).  And all this has led to a decidedly entrenched elite of power brokers, and a quietly accepted level of crony-ism and corruption.

You could argue that last paragraph with me as much as you want, but I’ve spent my life in this city, have dealt with the local bureaucracy on both a personal and professional level, and have witnessed it in action.

Nenshi breaks that mold.  For one thing, in spite of being raised in Calgary, you still here a lot of “he’s one of them” comments.  And that’s pretty unfair.  He was raised here, received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Calgary, and has spent the bulk of his professional life here.  Sure, he may have gone to the U.S. to further his education, but that actually speaks well to his qualifications.  It takes a sharp mind to be accepted to the Kennedy School at Harvard.

But he is definitely an outsider in terms of the power brokers are concerned.  His funding for this campaign comes from a grass roots fund-raising program that was pretty incredible, and sidestepped the big money brokers, developers, and business elites.  While he did work in the private sector for a time, he is currently working as a professor at Mount Royal College.  And he stepped into the campaign with a very well laid out, clear policy platform, and has stuck to it.  The other major candidates have stuck to the typical populist “good governance, lower taxes, trim the fat” crap that you hear from every politician.  Nice words and thoughts, but exactly how do you propose to achieve that?  Are you going to go toe to toe with the Police Chief over police funding?  Pick fights with the entrenched bureaucrats?  Take a close look at urban sprawl and affordable housing, with clear cut plans on how to deal with both?  The answer to ALL of those questions, for the other front-runners, was a decided no.  They just fed the usual glib words and assurances and hoped we’d all buy into it.

Nenshi did something shocking, he tackled all of these issues head on, including picking a very public fight with the Police Chief (which was probably the turning point of his campaign, the point where the papers and the electorate started taking him seriously).  He has laid out a plan for allowing legal basement suites in residential communities, which to most of the world seems a no brainer, and a great many Calgarians are surprised isn’t already the case.  Trust me, it isn’t.  Developers hate basement suites, because it cuts down on their ability to build endless new suburbs.  And because the developers have funded virtually all of the successful mayoral and Aldermanic campaigns, they have remained legally verboten, even if they’ve been allowed, with a nod and a wink, for decades.  Legalizing them would provide cheap, regulated housing for lower income, working class people.  Right now, because they’re illegal, they’re a hodge podge of un-inspected, midnight reno, firetraps.  And there’s not enough of them.  To help keep rents down (and Calgary has become in recent years one of the most expensive housing cities in Canada), legalized basement suites would go a long way.  Not to mention probably improve home ownership rates.  A mortgage becomes much more bearable when you can subsidize it by renting out a basement suite.  They also go a long way to increasing density, which is a good thing.  It cuts down on the sprawl, commute times, and with luck, maybe cut down on parking costs too.  Calgary has the most expensive parking in Canada, by a very wide margin.

And this all needs to stop.  We don’t need better/more roads, and more parking palaces.  We need better public transit.  We need a workable plan to increase density without diminishing the standard of living, and we need strong leadership to achieve this.

Now, here’s the downside of my feelings toward the upcoming election.  Virtually all of the Aldermanic candidates with a chance of winning are heavily funded by land developers and house builders.  The entrenched bureaucracy is the result of decades of crony-ism and established interest groups.  And the Mayor is just one seat on council, with very little extra real power.  Even if Nenshi does win, he’ll face a decidedly uphill battle.

But here’s hoping.  Right now, it’s a three way horse race, and it looks like Barb Higgins has stumbled.  Ric McIver has run the ultimate non-campaign, as he was declared the heir apparent right from the beginning.  But Nenshi has “the Big Mo” as they say, so he might just sneak in.  And if he does win, I hope he proves good to his word, and is able to make some of the changes this city so desperately needs.

Come on Calgary.  It’s time to grow up and become that City of the World that we keep pretending we are.

Above all, follow the advice in the picture below:


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