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 alone 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. It’s her unwillingness to adhere to basic political wisdom. Gondek bucks at tradition and established processes intended to organise and constrain power. Rather, she goes by her personal 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 own inclinations and resulting actions.
The list of her self-inflicted wounds in so short a time 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. Gondek had one obscure reference to climate emergency on her website, but never campaigned on it being her first day in office priority. Then she 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 in her desire to embarrass Councillor Sean Chu from the start. She showed unwillingness to set personal feelings aside to do her job. Instead, she embarrassed herself and the people of Ward 4, who chose Chu, in 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 the night she got elected. There is no appetite among Calgarians to send more money to Quebec.
Gondek then botched the new arena deal. It’s partially true that she inherited the problem from 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 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.
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 the mistakes of someone acting on impulse, who thinks she knows best and fails to consult to earn support for her actions. Gondek seems by nature and practice accustomed always to get her way. But that’s not politics. The mayor fails to follow the tried-and-true ways to build support. Those interactions with people, even with those one disagrees, make 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 from the unpopularity hole that she has dug for herself, she needs first to stop digging. 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.
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