CALGARY -- The mayor of Calgary is among the best-known municipal political figures in Canada, and he just might also be pioneering a new form of political communication.
A surprise winner in the 2010 municipal election, Naheed Nenshi is now poised for a coronation in the Oct. 21 election.
Nenshi is a Harvard grad, a former university professor, a visible minority and a Muslim, and he is also smart, charming and a little bit cheeky. He's also proving to be a sophisticated communicator who, either by personality, conscious design, or both, is engaging politically with the public in the way he and millions of others do routinely: through social media.
Nenshi's 2010 campaign was widely promoted as a triumph of social media designed to appeal to young voters. There is no question Nenshi's purple (his campaign's colour of choice) push to electoral success used social media effectively, particularly Twitter-chatter, which was still relatively new then. But as Nenshi underscored at the time, the campaign was bigger than a Twitter account and his thousand-watt smile. Clear policy directions, combined with the chance for young voters to engage in politics, were all explored.
Three years later, Nenshi still has the smile and broad presence in the community (it seems you can hardly go out in the city without bumping into him). He also has a high approval rating.
But now, with a record to defend, Calgary's portly prince is a little edgier, a little more aggressive. Nenshi's pugilistic nature could just be who he is, but it also mimics the base nature inherent in social media, where every comment results in another and another. Just as television altered political campaigns, public space embodied in social media could be where political discourse is heading. If so, Nenshi is at the point of the spear.
Case in point: Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning's Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Its slogan is "Building Canada's Conservative Movement." As part of its mandate, it trains potential candidates for public office. Predictably, its supporters include business people with money, one of whom was caught on tape being openly critical of the current Calgary council for a perceived anti-development bias. In the video, he also called on Calgary developers and homebuilders to donate copious sums to the Manning Centre. The video, combined with Manning's efforts to train candidates, immediately stirred-up Nenshi, who openly criticized all concerned.
That was back in May, but Nenshi's tweet-for tat-approach simply won't let up on the notion the Manning Centre is running a "slate" of conservative candidates in ward contests, including against some incumbent aldermen.
The poor folks at the Manning Centre were just doing politics as usual. You organize around your core principles, raise money and seek to influence the outcome, and your opponent does the same. Yes, you take shots at one another; you take your best shot and then move on. Not Nenshi. If social media has taught him anything, it is the public sphere is influenced by the next tweet up. You can't afford to allow political issues to play out over time anymore. If you do, you end fighting a rear-guard campaign against your opponents.
On Oct. 21, Nenshi will be re-elected mayor of Calgary. We can expect to see more social-media savvy politicians take note of how the purple road leaves no tweet unturned to frame the debate.
Terry Field is an associate journalism professor, Mount Royal University, Calgary.