Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Naheed Nenshi and Chris Tindal: Defying Mainstream Media in Municipal Elections

I've been following the municipal elections which just took place in Alberta only half-heartedly, given that Ontario goes to the polls next Monday, and there are several Greens running throughout my home province, including rising star Chris Tindal. Nevertheless, it's been hard not to be engaged by what's been going on in Calgary. And after last night's results were announced (which I've only just read about this morning), it's hard not to be excited!

Progressive Naheed Nenshi was elected Mayor of Calgary. He defeated two candidates with considerably more money backing them. Council member Ric McIver was the early favorite, after out-going Mayor Bronconnier announced that he wouldn't be seeking re-election. McIver was joined by former CTV anchor Barbara Higgins, a late entry into the fray. Higgins brought considerable name recognition, and her entry may have ultimately paved the way for Nenshi to become Mayor.

Like it or not, vote splitting is a reality. It looks like Mr. Nenshi's team capitalized on the opportunity created by having two credible right-wing candidates vying for the same votes. With the conservative vote split, Mr. Nenshi was able to come up the middle. And literally that's what appears to have happened. It was only a few weeks ago, well into the campaign, that the mainstream media began to rumble a little about Mr. Nenshi, and even than only to recognize that there appeared to be some momentum to his campaign. Certainly no media outlet that I'm aware of predicted that on Tuesday, October 19th, Nenshi would be Mayor.

Yet Mayor Mr. Nenshi has become. Nenshi and his campaign team ramped up their efforts in the past couple of weeks, taking advantage of the fact that they were offering the only credible progressive candidate to a City which has a long history of being the bastion of conservatism. But that's a misnomer to an extent, given that there exists a very active progressive counterweight in Calgary politics; it's just that usually the numbers don't add up.

Calgarians and progressive Albertans must take note of Mr. Nenshi's upset victory. You should be emboldened by what Mr. Nenshi and his campaign team have accomplished. With provincial elections in a few years, and the upstart ultra-right-wing Wildrose Alliance prepared to vie for the same conservative votes as Ed Stelmach's (so-called) Progressive Conservatives, there are certainly opportunities for the campaigns of progressive Liberals and NDP candidates (and others) to come up the middle.

Without money, though, it's difficult to win an election. However, by all accounts, Mr. Nenshi ran his campaign on a shoe-string budget. He seriously tried to invigourate the electorate, and engage those who might otherwise not vote, especially youth. He used social media to get his message out, and apparently experienced some success in doing so. He's shown us all that limited resources need not stand in the way of running a credible campaign, even in situations where the mainstream media fails to engage the public. He forced the mainstream media to take notice of his campaign to the point that the Calgary Sun actually endorsed him.

Maybe Mr. Nenshi's campaign says a little something about the waning influence of the mainstream media, given that they were playing "catch-up" with Mr. Nenshi throughout his campaign. I'm not yet prepared to state categorically that the mainstream media is playing less of a role in elections; perhaps, though, what we're seeing might be considered the beginning of the end for MSM's strangle-hold on influencing election outcomes.

There are a couple of other lessons here. With limited resources, progressive campaigns have to be that much smarter. It looks like Mr. Nenshi's campaign did everything right, and were lucky to boot. Barbara Higgins entry into the race was probably the biggest factor in Mr. Nenshi's victory. Sure, it didn't hurt that Mr. Nenshi offered a compelling and practical vision for Calgarians, which may have resonated with many (it's always good to have one of those), and that he was able to communicate that vision effectively. But having two front-runners daily bashing one another in the media, and playing to the politics of negativity, while vying for the same votes, was certainly a significant help to Nenshi.

Further, there was no incumbent in this race. Incumbency, especially in municipal elections, is usually the most determinative factor in the outcome of an election. Even when incumbents lose a race, their incumbency is usually cited as the determining factor; most often incumbents "lose" rather than having their opponents "win". In Calgary's case, a lack of an incumbent opened the field somewhat, and even through both Councilor McIver and media personality Higgins brought with them significant name recognition, it was hardly on the level of Calgary's Mayor Bronconnier, a household name (in Calgary at least).

A lot of Greens are learning these lessons. Take Chris Tindal, running for municipal Council in Toronto's Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale). His situation is similar (although not identical) to Nenshi's, and certainly worth a close watch next Monday. Ward 27 has no incumbent, with long-serving progressive Councillor Kyle Rae having stepped down. As a result, there are about 15 candidates running for Council. The Toronto media has dumbed-down this ward election to a two-person race (likely as a result of the extremely limited ink they've been allocating to ward races throughout Ontario; it's certainly not just a Toronto issue). The mainstream media would have us believe that either Kristyn Wong-Tam or Ken Chan is going to be the next Councillor. Both are somewhat progressive (Wong-Tam is backed by the local NDP machine, I believe). Former federal Green candidate Christ Tindal's name is barely mentioned by the mainstream.

Yet Tindal is all over the internet, using social media to raise his profile. He's also unique in that he probably already has the highest level of name recognition of any candidate running for Ward 27, due to his past federal level election activity (he finished third, just a few votes shy of second, in the 2008 bye-election which brought Liberal Bob Rae onto the federal scene). Only "Supermodel" Enza Anderson, also running in Ward 27, has the same level of name recognition as Tindal.

Tindal is also running a fully funded campaign, in part as a result of progressives throughout the City (and indeed, the province of Ontario) recognizing that his election to Toronto City Council will be a victory not just for the good people of Ward 27, but for the rest of us as well. Like it or not, what happens in Toronto matters to the rest of us. Toronto is often the leader which drives provincial issues, and governments too. That's just the way it is. And that's why Toronto's local politics matter as much as they do for the rest of us in this province. Tindal's voice and work on Council will assuredly be a good thing for all of us.

So, there are definetly some similarities between the Tindal and Nenshi campaigns; to me, though, it looks like Tindal might actually be in a more advantageous position than Nenshi was prior to yesterday's vote. Let's keep our fingers crossed for Tindal, and do what we can to help him.

And let's congratulate Nenshi and his campaign team for a superb effort. Nenshi's success at the polls is something which we can all take heart in.


Chris Tindal said...

Thanks Steve! (I had to comment to keep my "all over the internet" reputation. ;-) )

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