October 19, 2010 / 5:15 PM / 7 years ago

Calgary elects Canada's first big-city Muslim mayor

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - An academic and political newcomer staged a come-from-behind victory over a conservative favorite in Calgary’s civic election on Monday to become the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city.

Naheed Nenshi, a politically progressive, Harvard-trained business professor, began the six-week campaign for the top job in Canada’s fourth-largest city as a long shot. But he used social media and frequent debate appearances to great effect to storm past better-known names in the late stages.

The 38-year-old’s victory -- dubbed the “Purple Revolution” for the color of his campaign materials -- bucks a common view that Calgary is overwhelmingly white and conservative.

The city of 1.1 million people, up from 900,000 a decade ago, is the center of Canada’s oil industry. Its most famous politician is former mayor and Alberta premier Ralph Klein, remembered as a staunch right-winger and budget-cutter.

“It really draws the attention of the rest of the country that this is not a Ralph Klein conservative by any stretch of the imagination,” said University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young.

“The fact that he’s a visible minority, the fact that he’s had this progressive voice in the media, the kind of campaign that he ran -- he is very visibly different from people’s perceptions of Calgary.”

The vote is unlikely to affect federal politics, where Alberta remains a stronghold of the ruling Conservatives.

Young said Nenshi had taken a page out of U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign book by reaching out to young voters through Twitter and Facebook and positioning himself as the face of a movement promising change.

Nenshi, born to immigrant parents in Toronto and raised in Calgary’s working-class and ethnically diverse northeast quadrant, took 40 percent of the vote in what was one of the city’s highest voter turnouts for a municipal election.

He beat former city council member Ric McIver, who had the support of Calgary’s Conservative establishment, by a solid eight percentage points. Barb Higgins, who had been a local TV anchorwoman for more than two decades, was a close third.

Nenshi inherits a C$60 million ($58 million) budget deficit, strained transportation infrastructure and public anger over tax hikes and many expenditures under the administration of outgoing Mayor Dave Bronconnier.

The story in Calgary could end up the mirror image of that in traditionally liberal Toronto, where right-wing candidate Rob Ford is neck and neck in opinion polls with liberal George Smitherman. Toronto’s mayoral election takes place on Monday.

Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Toronto; editing by Janet Guttsman

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