Recent ThinkHQ opinion polling shows Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek to be very unpopular. It is unusual to see such unpopularity so early for a new Calgary mayor, observers say. Why is she so unpopular?
Gondek’s unpopularity is not only the result of troubled times and voter crankiness, as the mayor tried to explain – which is not to say that times aren’t troubled, or voters aren’t cranky. By contrast, however, Edmonton’s mayor, being of similar political vintage and in the same province, does not stimulate the same unpopularity.
The well of Gondek’s problems is not circumstances but Gondek herself: her unwillingness to adhere to fundamental political wisdom. Gondek bucks at tradition and established processes intended to organize and constrain power. Instead, she goes by her instincts, rashly reacting to things. That might be okay if she had good political instinct, but her instinct is terrible. She doesn’t know how to “read the room” that is Calgary, and she doesn’t have the humility to question her inclinations and resulting actions.
The list of her self-inflicted wounds is long. Gondek’s “climate emergency” surprised even some of her supporters. It looked like she was attacking their bread and butter and made her look devious. There was only one obscure reference to climate emergency on her website, but she never campaigned on it as being her first priority on her first day in office. She then fired her brand-new chief of staff, a guy with tons of experience. Firing one’s own key people that early raises questions of judgement.
Gondek snubbed established practice from the start with her desire to embarrass Councillor Sean Chu. She showed an unwillingness to set personal feelings aside to do her job. Instead, she embarrassed herself and the people of Ward 4 who chose Chu by refusing to swear him into office. In rejecting him, she rejected their democratic authority.
Later, the mayor somehow thought it good to try sending public money for a Quebec court case. It involved a principled human rights issue, to be sure, but it was the wrong way to try helping. Gondek was carelessly blind to the giant cue of the “fairness” referendum result when she got elected. There is no appetite among Calgarians to send even more money to Quebec.
Gondek then botched the new arena deal. It’s partially true that she inherited the problem from former mayor Naheed Nenshi. But instead of solving the problem, regardless of its origin, she aggravated it. And Calgarians know that Gondek’s job is to solve problems for them. So do Councillors, who now want Gondek to have nothing to do with arena negotiations.
Unsuccessful at playing politics, Gondek later jabbed the similarly unpopular Alberta premier for “politicking” on the issue of COVID-19 restrictions. She wanted the medical emergency in Calgary to continue, in opposition to the premier. In her haste to score, she again misread the field, lost the vote in Council and upset supporters.
Calgary mayor already straying off course by Marco Navarro-Genie
Declaring an environmental emergency without debate is manipulatively undemocratic
Finally, the mayor also botched the protests of federal mandates in the Belt Line district. She pushed the police to adopt a hard line while trying to appear she wasn’t directing the police. The protests have not abated. They’re now at her doorstep in City Hall, and she alienated protesters and anti-mandate supporters.
Canadian voters are certainly cranky, but Mayor Gondek has done much to become a magnet to that crankiness in Calgary.
Gondek’s miscalculations are not rookie mistakes. Her many mistakes are those of someone acting on impulse, who thinks she knows best and has no need to consult to earn support for her actions. Gondek seems, by nature and practice, always accustomed to getting her way. But that’s not politics. The mayor fails to follow the tried-and-true methods to build support. Those interactions with people, even those one disagrees with, make for the essence of the art of politics done successfully.
Leading in a liberal democracy is not about having your way on everything. Proper leadership in a liberal democracy is acting in the service of others. It requires careful consideration of the needs of others. It requires the prudence to put oneself and one’s feelings aside.
If Gondek wishes to succeed and climb out of the unpopularity hole that she has dug for herself, she needs first to stop digging and stop blaming circumstances. And then she will have to act against her nature. She’ll need to consult, be inclusive in making public decisions, and learn to read the whole room – not only her close supporters.
Marco Navarro-Genie is president of the Haultain Research Institute. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).
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