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Politics in Full Sentences. The Story of Naheed Nenshi’s Purple Army.

18 Oct

Their rivals bet on a city that existed one second in the past. They bet on a place that existed one second from right now. This is an unedited account, one year later, from inside their unprecedented campaign.

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
-Bob Dylan


A highly educated, fiscally conservative multicultural meritocracy average age 35.7 elects a fiscally conservative 38.7-year-old mayor who graduated from Harvard. The fact that he is pious, possibly gay and lives with his parents did not register. We picked the best person for the job. We sometimes do that in Calgary. Or so we like to tell ourselves.

The question then: why was everybody—including the people who built the campaign—astonished that it happened?


A political campaign is a series of very intentional bets. You bet that you understand the people in your city more profoundly than every other candidate in the election. Ric McIver, the heavy favourite, bet on who we’ve always been told we are. He did this because he’s not an idiot. You don’t win an election in Calgary by telling people what you are for. We are raised, as Calgarians to vote against. We vote against Liberals, against Central Canada, against Edmonton and rural Alberta, against misspending, against anyone that would take away our proverbial latte or crap in our cornflakes.

Consequently, the actual ideas that swell inside Calgary—“innovative, risk taking, not afraid of change” (to quote the candidate’s stump speech)—do not always match the brand of Calgary. We are seen by outsiders as predictable, short-sighted, greedy and bitter. We have, for three decades, bought into the stereotypes others have placed on us. You get dismissed enough times as the soulless bad guy in the world around you, your instinct is to go against.

Thus we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of being praised for, well, something. The redneck image is gone. We’ve done what the self-proclaimed progressive cities only talk about. They’re in awe that we’ve elected this precocious ethnic kid from NE Calgary, and though that may be his most outstanding qualification, it’s not what we voted for. None of us—least of all those who live in NE Calgary—voted for brown.

When the campaign team set to branding its candidate in mid-July, brown was not seen as the first, nor even the second issue. Despite the fact polls had him in 10th place with less than 4% support—directly behind Alnoor Kassam and the urban chicken advocate Paul Hughes—there was “an arrogance over confidence issue.” The candidate, whose sense of humour takes some getting used to, would start sentences with the words: “Here’s why you’re wrong…” As the campaign progressed, he had to force himself to pause when asked about, say, the SW ring road. He’d bite his lip a little bit, and begin: “You’re not going to like my answer.” We liked this about their campaign. The world has become too urgent for pandering.

The second issue was a “gay issue.” A gay issue has to do with inflection and mannerisms. With exuberance. His face becomes animated, for instance, whenever he makes an excessively valid point. “Gays and nerds are closely-related species,” a University of Calgary Sociologist who goes by frege64 half-joked on the Calgary Flames discussion forum 48 hours after the polls closed. The candidate is an exuberant nerd, who started his academic career taking drama classes. And though the team worked on his mannerisms, there is not much that can be done about exuberance. From a distance, in the purple, he and his team looked like a grown up version of Barney and friends. “Women seem to like that he’s the biggest nerd in the world,” the campaign strategist said, shrugging his shoulders. He is who he is. And if you still need to know, “the answer’s no—and why does it matter?” Continue reading