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A mayor fluent in Twitter embodies a new Canadian diversity

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CALGARY, Canada >> Officially, Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of this oil-fueled city, is meant to be addressed as Your Worship, a stuffy, colonial-era honorific that has somehow managed to survive Canada’s transformation into a modern, multicultural nation. “It’s weird,” Nenshi, a rotund, curly-haired 44-year-old, said one recent afternoon as he sat behind the large wooden desk that dominates his office.

In practice, Nenshi is far more likely to be addressed as @nenshi, his Twitter handle, which he wields with obsessive, daily devotion. At any given moment, he can be found shepherding constituents’ queries to relevant government agencies or firing off sarcastic retorts to his detractors, who are usually complaining about the use of their tax dollars. His faith rarely comes up, if at all.

For a Muslim man who broke ground when he was elected mayor of a major North American city in 2010, Nenshi has proved that very few Canadians have a problem with how His Worship actually worships. “Nobody cared,” he said, recalling his first win, a success he repeated in 2013, with 74 percent of the vote.

The son of ethnic South Asian immigrants from Tanzania and a professed public transit nerd, Nenshi has thrived in a city and country where personal attacks and cultural issues capture little of the political oxygen that has inflamed voters in the United States and Europe.

Indeed, after London elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, in May amid a campaign tinged with Islamophobic sentiment, Calgarians were rather pleased that their city had demonstrated a penchant for tolerance long ago. Even as hijabs have come to outnumber cowboy hats on the streets of Calgary, a city of more than 1.2 million in Alberta just a few hours north of the Montana border, local opposition has focused on issues like bike lanes and affordable housing, rather than Shariah law or the arrival of Syrian refugees.

The city’s demographic shift is a microcosm of Canada’s integration of immigrants, and Nenshi, who fasts during Ramadan and has led Calgary’s gay pride parade, embodies the country’s increasingly diverse population. Still, Nenshi is the first nonwhite mayor of Calgary and among the few in a nation that is 80 percent white, according to a 2011 government survey.

Then there is Nenshi’s fixation with purple. The color symbolizes his commitment to inclusive, nonideological government and dominates his professional wardrobe: lavender dress shirts, violet ties, purple shoelaces, loafers the color of grapes. A local rabbi gave him a purple skullcap, shipped from New York, inscribed with his name. In his office hallway, a framed illustration depicts the mayor as a caped superhero in purple spandex.

Born in Toronto and raised in a Calgary neighborhood that was already a mix of cultures and languages, Nenshi grew up keenly aware of the need for civic participation. After obtaining a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, he worked as a consultant for New York-based McKinsey & Co. before returning to Calgary, where he eventually became a university professor, teaching nonprofit management and marketing.

Nenshi’s journey into government reads like a do-it-yourself guide to disrupting politics as usual. For years, he pursued his wonkish passions strictly from an academic distance, writing reports on how Canadian cities, including Calgary, could become more environmentally sustainable and economically competitive. A failed run for the City Council in 2004 confirmed his role as an outsider.

But five years later, with elections for the council and mayor looming in 2010, he began encouraging corporate chief executives, soccer moms and other Calgary residents to run. “I struck out every time,” he recalled.

Then friends challenged him to run for mayor, an idea he initially rejected. “I like research; I do the data,” he said. “I’m not the guy kissing the babies.”

But the campaign proved a tempting chance for Nenshi to turn years of public policy recommendations into action. Along with a group of volunteers that encompassed Calgary’s diverse population, the college professor created a grass-roots strategy aimed at harnessing social media’s potential to engage the city’s traditionally apathetic young and minority residents.

Branded the Purple Revolution, Nenshi’s campaign used Facebook and Twitter to discuss issues directly with Calgary residents. Supporters opened their homes for caffeine-infused parties at which the candidate spoke, and they organized huge rallies to cheer him on. While such tactics may seem obvious today, at the time they were novelties in Canadian politics. So were the results: Nenshi won nearly 40 percent of the votes in a crowded field, amid the highest turnout in four decades.

Nenshi’s zeal for change has fueled the city’s revitalization and raised its profile beyond oil and the Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo and festival that is Canada’s equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A few blocks from his office, gleaming, mixed-income residential and commercial buildings rise in the downtown East Village neighborhood, once home to vacant lots and high crime rates. A new library and National Music Center are set to open there soon, and dozens of food trucks now ply the streets.

Outside the city, the Calgary Film Center, which opened in May and was funded partly by the City Council, features sprawling sound stages and studio space intended to lure more film and television projects to the city. The center is a major element in Calgary’s strategy to diversify the local economy beyond the oil and gas industry, which has suffered as the price of oil has plummeted in recent years.

More than 33 miles of bicycle paths have been installed across Calgary since 2011. Despite vocal opposition and a close City Council vote, Nenshi championed a downtown bike network pilot project that was built last year and is now favored by most residents.

“Nenshi has always been the guy who can help people get motivated to bring about change,” said James Boettcher, a Calgary gelato entrepreneur who pitched the idea of food trucks to the mayor in 2011.

Nenshi said he has no desire to seek higher office. Instead, he has embraced the role of Calgary’s head cheerleader. There he was on a recent afternoon, speaking in the indigenous Blackfoot language before a crowd of film industry executives, then posing for selfies at a bar across town on National Caesar Day, which celebrates a uniquely Canadian concoction that includes tomato juice, vodka, Worcestershire sauce and clam broth. (His cocktail was virgin.)

The mayor’s popular personal style, which he says is perhaps too unscripted, comes with some risks. “My mouth still gets me into trouble once in a while,” he said. Much of that public interaction occurs on Twitter, starting when he wakes up in the morning and continuing until lights out.

“Nobody else has my password,” he said, explaining his more than 47,000 Twitter messages as a vital means of addressing constituents’ needs and improving municipal government. “If I don’t know the answer sometimes, I Google it for them.”

Nenshi is perhaps most famous beyond Calgary for his online “smackdowns.” These range from giving polite advice to a driver who demanded an end to parking tickets (“I don’t know, maybe consider not breaking the law”) to challenging personal insults. (“Your casual racism can be fun, but you really need to stop before people actually notice.”)

Still, he is happy to inspire his critics to do more than just rant online, even if that means being voted out of office. As he told one Twitter user eager for his electoral defeat: “You’ll get your chance in 2017! Better start organizing now, though.”

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