Calgary’s Civic Election of 2013: Why did Manning get involved?

Manning Nenshi

October 21 will be an important day in Canadian politics. Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi will be elected in Edmonton and Calgary respectively. Why should Canada care? These two individuals represent the fresh, young, and engaged face of politics in the country. Their election is a sign of some major shifts in the country’s political landscape – and an interesting one over the last eight months, specifically in Calgary.

Let me first disclose that I was a pollster and strategist for Naheed Nenshi in 2010, but I have not been involved in the 2013 campaign. When I was involved, Nenshi’s victory caught many of the old guard off guard. How did this youthful candidate, with a team of with few political operatives, a message of change and drive for transparency, pull off one of the biggest upsets and Canadian political history?

This much-analyzed campaign was driven by building a foundation with the hyper-engaged online voter. It also changed the rules of campaigning. Further, Nenshi, true to his word, took his transparency mantra to Office, and upset how business was done at City Hall. Among the changes instituted, his monthly disclosure of who he met with was likely the most drastic, especially for a host of Calgary home builders. This group was used to doing business with a call, handshake, and generally favourable access to Council.

So how did Preston Manning get involved in this matter?

Ever since his departure from federal politics in 2002, Mr. Manning has settled into the role of patriarch of the modern Canadian conservative movement – fondly called the “Calgary School.” Yes, Calgary is considered a natural home for Canadian conservative politicos. But all of a sudden, with Nenshi’s election, the city had an articulate, Harvard-educated, outspoken, centrist mayor, and he was talking about new ways of doing politics. This clearly did not align with conservatives’ perception of the city (e.g. MLA Kyle Fawcett’s tweet, and some of Ric McIver supporters who took this loss exceptionally hard) and the so-called “Calgary School.”

It may be difficult to establish an exact causal link, but Preston’s new conservative think tank, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, launched the Municipal Governance Project. This initiative squarely focused on Calgary.

Why do I raise this causality?

At the Manning  Networking Conference in Ottawa on March 8 (which I attended as a curious onlooker), one of the speakers at the “Conservatives in the City” session, David Seymour, Senior Fellow, Municipal Governance at the Manning Foundation, talked about creating the conservative “manifesto” or script. He also talked about Calgary’s governmental “megalomania” – a thinly-veiled reference to Major Nenshi’s almost  celebrity-like status. Manning himself, during his closing keynote the following day, stated:

“[There is] an enormous amount of work to be done to apply conservative values and principles at the municipal level right across the country… the level where there are 25,000 elected officials compared to around 800 at the provincial and territorial level, and 308 at the federal level.”

Earlier, during introductory remarks at a plenary session, Manning even cited Rob Ford’s mayorship as a victory for Canadian conservatives.

Manning is an enigma on the Canadian political scene. He is most likely a moderate libertarian, and is generally well-liked and respected across the political spectrum (yours truly included). Most of his political problems occurred with the company he kept, namely the former Reform Party. His ideas on policy and governance are thoughtful and supported by solid arguments. But as the Reform leader, he was never able to deliver a winning formula for this conservative faction. Under Harper, and with the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada (essentially the Reform Party Part 2), the movement became more disciplined, focusing on engineering victory, which was finally achieved with the 2011 majority. This was a change for Manning: Conservatives found a way to win, and win convincingly. In this, Manning, with over 25 years of hard work, realized that this boiled down to a simple fact: to pursue your ideas, you need to win elections.

Preston embraced this fact with the establishment of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Located in downtown Calgary, it houses a think tank (the Manning Foundation) and the Manning School for Practical Politics. The School, to this point, teaches little about policy and governance. It teaches students how to campaign. Clearly, Preston has taken his realization to heart. His mission has since then been dedicated to raising the next generation of conservative politicians and sustaining the winning ways for the conservative movement. This, based on the School’s offerings, is more about feeding the Conservative party engine than building better politicians.

For those following Calgary municipal politics, in the now famous 18-minute leaked video of Cal Wenzel (CEO/CVO Shane Homes)  (readily available online), he stated his dissatisfaction with Nenshi, and his desire to shift the balance of power back in favour of the home builders by ensuring that they had an assured eight votes (out of 15, including the Mayor) on City Council. He also stated that he and ten other home builders donated $100,000 each (total $1.1 million) to the Manning Centre to help make this happen.

I want to emphasize that these home builders are actually pretty good guys, and are upstanding members of Calgary’s business community.  They have every right to do and support whoever they please – within the bounds of election law. They are also free to donate as they please to the Manning Centre and Manning Foundation. But the video did more than reveal these facts – it was a peek into the world of backroom politics and those obsessed with having political decisions go their way*. Jack Abramoff, the famous former American lobbyist, indicated that lobbying had one of the best returns on investment of any form of government relations. With an estimated $33 million development fee (as some call it, a “sprawl subsidy”) at stake, the coalition of home builders, in their best interests, voted with their dollars on how to sway the balance of Council with a potential rate of return of 30 to 1 on the City’s revenues should they manage to keep any development charges at the current level. But more than this, citizens found out that what they sought was to have Council organized to serve their best business interest.

With the leak of the video in April, the backlash in the media, especially social media, was instant. And Nenshi made political hay with the content of this video. But what occurred subsequently was equally as strange. With the so-called Manning Centre/home builders’ “slate” identified, party lines were drawn; and Nenshi, in an unprecedented move, endorsed all incumbents – some of whom were endorsed by Wenzel in the video. With campaigners for the province’s political parties staking their support in candidate camps, Nenshi’s campaign took a page from Tom Flanagan‘s book (the same Tom Flanagan who teaches a course at the Manning School of Practical Politics), leveraged this video, and carved it out as a wedge issue to divide camps. Yes, this was old-school Conservative Party campaigning.  The 2013 iteration of Nenshi the candidate looked and felt very different than he did three years earlier.

Meanwhile, amidst the official campaign period (nomination day was September 23), the Manning Centre’s Municipal Governments Project released a steady stream of pointed reports on the performance of Calgary’s municipal government. While this appeared to be carefully staged to disrupt the flow of the election, the Cal Wenzel video has been ever-present to remind voters of the home builders’ intentions – which effectively destroyed any traction that could have been gained by the content contained within these carefully researched reports. Further, a leaked memo from Greg Lafebre (CEO, Excel Homes and Apex) Thursday, October 17 (originally dated September 27), encouraged employees to vote for identified preferred candidates; this added more fuel to the fire created by the video. The reality remains that a video plotting control of government trumps any municipal finance facts.

Nenshi’s victory on Election Day is practically assured if the overwhelming support identified in a recent Leger poll in the Calgary Herald comes to fruition. Should he get his wish to keep Council intact, that is another matter. This is a test of his leadership, and he has expended much capital to make the point that Council is, based on his brand of politics and perspective, delivering Calgarians a balanced representation from their elected municipal officials. This perspective clearly is not shared by the home builders, the Manning Centre, and the staunchest conservative voters.

The odd thing about this situation is that, looking at the core values of Nenshi and Manning, they are surprisingly close. Nenshi is likely the type of politician that Manning would love to see more of running for office. Manning has said that a barista at Starbucks gets more training than a politician running for office. Nenshi entered office with a tremendous foundation in civic politics and citizen engagement.

So why this tension?

The reality is that this was never a suburban/urban thing. Nenshi gets along fairly well with most developers and home builders and agree on most things. And most agree it was more about the equity of who pays for what.

The true dynamic of this cuts at the core of Canadian party politics. It is about power. And the power to control. And the power to affirm the way that a (perceived) establishment likes and wants to do business. And an establishment that thinks that that they are naturally in charge.

Manning, thoughtful as he may be, with support from corporations and the well-moneyed (i.e., the old boy network), was seeking ways to continue finding ways to explore his ideas, reaffirm the strength of “Calgary School,” and consolidate the power base of the traditional party system. Nenshi, and his Edmonton counterpart Iveson, represent the new guard of those seeking transparency, breaking down political walls, driven by better representation and open dialogue in their vision for government. That is, those aspects that undermine the core of the party system.

While this round may go to the young bucks, the old guard is observing carefully, adapting, and seeking ways to quell this movement before it infiltrates party politics. And the reality for this new breed of politicians is that they need to adapt to the tools of traditional campaigning. And like Manning, they will realize that you need to keep winning and have the necessary support to make your ideas count. The preferred reality seems to be somewhere between these two camps, with a lean to the new guard, to reinvigorate politics for in Canada.

* Author comment: The response by the home builders remains curious. They dug in, and the video continued to have a life through out the election. From a crisis communication perspective a better response would have been to admit being caught, state that this is an unfortunate view into backroom politics and apologize that public had to witness, with an additional statement that there real civic issues that have to be dealt with and sometimes options like this are explored and pursued.

Additional Resources:

CBC Calgary: Preston Manning breaks silence on home builders video

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