‘Real’ Conversation with a ‘Real’ Calgarian: Saturday Night with Naheed Nenshi

It’s Saturday evening, I’m sitting on the couch with iPhone in hand. I was awaiting an important email – an email from Naheed Nenshi.

His “people” had originally planned a get together a week ago – was suppose to be a casual morning meeting at his favourite Calgary cafe. A few days beforehand I received an email rescheduling for the following Saturday night; Mr. Nenshi needed a tag along to the Calgary International Film Festival Closing Gala. My casual coffee had turned in to a night out on the town … I was assured that I would get a chance to see the real Naheed in his element.

“Ding” – it was the email I had been waiting for.

“9:30. And bring a plus-one. We’ll talk our way in. I’m wearing a suit but dress hip and cool if you like … ”

I already had a big spoonful of the man behind the candidate. He is emailing me directly and including smiley faces, and encouraging me that getting in would be no problem – I could only assume that he was just as excited for this meeting of the minds as I was.

As any 20-something girl would do I ran to my closet and tried to personify hip and cool. As well as texting my plus-one (@ppilarski) making sure he was doing the same. I settled on a dress and blazer; in my mind typical Saturday night on the town citizen-blogger attire.

Walking down 8th Avenue towards Seven Restolounge I can already hear Nenshi politicking. His easily recognizable voice was meeting and greeting passersby as he waited for us. Big smile, big confidence, and big energy. He knew it was me right away – I was flattered. He explains that this really is a typical event for him to attend. “I’m a big movie buff. I usually have a pass to the Film Festival and spend the entire 10 days watching films. This year I wasn’t so lucky because there is tons of work to do.” He’s not kidding – with the election a little more than 2 weeks away his time needs to be spent on meeting the people and GOTV-ing.

This place is hip – and its guests certainly are what I would define as the cool of Calgary. We walk in and immediately Nenshi is greeted by several different people. But these people aren’t recognizing him from his big purple signs … these are his people. They are excited for him, relaxed around him, and all willing to spend time helping him. Throughout the entire evening we watched this candidate being embraced by Calgary’s film community: From old acquaintances yelling, “This Guy! This Guy for Mayor!” over the loud music, to lots of hugs and canoodling. This was a glimpse of his social circle and it was increasingly clear that whether he was running for mayor or not he was the big man on this campus. “I’d normally be talking film here. I would have just seen the last movie and came over to meet with my peers and pick it a part. Instead I’m talking politics. This is just as important.”

Between his chats with gala attendees he surprised me by how much he knew about me. He took genuine interest in what I was doing online through this series of blogs; it was clear that he had read what I had posted to date. He also knew of my political background with the PC Party and a few tidbits about my MA work. Needless to say this was impressive to me. Having this information allowed our conversation to flow, he knew where to meet me on certain points, and he knew what questions to ask of me. This was something I asked for in my first blog … I was curious how a mayoral candidate would engage someone like me. After all as a voter I shouldn’t have to do all the work … they are the ones after my checkmark! At this point, of course, I wonder if he just has great staffers with the ability to brief him as if he were a provincial Minister.

“We have no one on a paid salary. My entire campaign is made up of volunteers. It’s incredible to me and I still don’t believe it.” He goes on to explain that volunteers are made up of people from all political persuasions, from all pockets of the city, and even from outside Calgary. It is clear he is overwhelmed by the support he is receiving, and has been receiving since he made his official announcement to run in April of this year. “We weren’t going to do any door knocking. We just figured it would be impossible to cover all the doors while trying to prioritize everything else. But we have had so many respond to our continued call for volunteers we’ve been able to start getting them out to doors.”

By this time in the evening I had bumped in to a former student. She was volunteering for the Festival and was a bit of a lost sheep that evening. Nenshi invited her to tag along with us. He didn’t think twice and treated her as if he knew her well. I was impressed that he was so natural around people … all people. So natural in fact he was invited upstairs to a private birthday party. Upstairs he does more politicking – including with a former student who thought it was “neat” that his former prof was taking a run for the mayor’s office.

As Nenshi chatted, I found myself in a strange conversation with a Calgarian making sure he was making the most out of his Saturday night. This almost coherent conversation came to an end when Naheed whisked us away to sit and finally chat one on one. “Looked like you needed some rescuing,” very perceptive of him and appreciated by me. The four of us sit down, @ppilarski, my former student, myself and Nenshi. He has a diet Coke in hand, while my beau and I finish our beers (I’m a born and raised Calgarian girl, you shouldn’t expect I’d be drinking anything else).

Naheed is giving me his utmost attention. Hands folded on top of his glass and his chin resting on top. The only word I can use to describe his posture is cute. He begins telling me his story of beginning to search for the perfect mayoral candidate; those searching with him began realizing he was exactly what they were all looking for. “When Dave announced he would not seek re-election my phone was ringing off the hook. People asking when I would be announcing I was running. People asking if I was running. And people telling me they needed to meet with me as soon as possible so they could convince me to run.” After conversations with family and close friends it was clear that a run at mayor was something Nenshi needed to do. He was, and is, confident he can usher in the change the city needs. So confident in fact he believes it is a two horse race: McIver and himself. He repeated this several times throughout the evening.

For the next hour we talked provincial politics, aldermanic races, towing party lines, social media, Calgary, and Calgarians. He was open, transparent, and honest. He let me know his honest opinions when I asked. It was like talking to a friend. No awkward pauses, moments, just a fluid conversation.

I was impressed that Naheed Nenshi really did let this Calgary blogger see the real him. The real Nenshi is a passionate guy – passionate about his friends, his students, his network, and this city. “I was just a kid who grew up in NE Calgary. I know what it is like to live in this city, to make this city your home. I’ve lived here longer than any of the other mayoral candidates.”

I was most impressed that he gave me so much time. Just as I was impressed that Derek McKenzie was so conscious of being late. To me time is the most important thing you can give to someone. He was never rushed or looking at his watch. At midnight we all decided to call it a night, very Cinderella of us.

CR xo


(this has been cross-posted from CalgaryPolitics.com on October 8, 2010)

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