07/18/2011 06:42 EDT | Updated 09/17/2011 05:12 EDT

Rob Ford And Naheed Nenshi: Rookie Mayors Are Opposite In Style, But Face Same Fiscal Foe

CP File

Ever since they pulled off stunning election victories within a week of each other last year, the rookie mayors of Toronto and Calgary have shared the spotlight as political outsiders promising business not-as-usual in local politics.

Halfway through their first year in office, are Toronto’s Rob Ford and Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi living up to the hype?

True to form, the popular mayors are shaking things up, each in his own way: Nenshi by reaching out, Ford by embracing his base.

The obvious differences have caught the headlines.

The 39-year-old Nenshi, Canada’s first Muslim mayor, will be the first Calgary mayor to serve as grand marshal in the Pride parade this September. Ford, 42, criticized for past shoot-from-the-lip remarks about gays, was the first Toronto mayor in 16 years not to march in Toronto’s parade on the Canada Day weekend. Citing family tradition, he went to the cottage.

Nenshi, a Harvard-educated business professor who had never held elective office, pulled off a grassroots, social-media-fueled “Purple Revolution” campaign that stunned the elites in his city. Toronto-born and Calgary-raised, Nenshi promised to be inclusive and dial down divisive rhetoric. He’s doing that.

Ford, a lone-wolf suburban Toronto councillor for the past decade, upset the political apple cart too. Under a “respect for taxpayers” banner, the Etobicoke small business owner mobilized disgruntled voters to derail what he described as a “gravy train” of wasteful spending at city hall. He also promised no service cuts. Since taking office, Ford has lost none of his combative style – on some council votes he is a minority of one – impressing his “Ford Nation” fans and infuriating critics with his small-government ideology.

An avid Twitter user (he even tweeted on horseback in the Calgary Stampede parade), Nenshi has more than 22,000 followers; Ford has more than 10,000.

Both mayors are upending stereotypes of their cities.

“Nenshi is the mayor that everyone in Toronto who lives south of Bloor Street wishes they had elected,” quips one Toronto political observer. “Ford is breaking the latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, granola-crunching Toronto stereotype. Nenshi is breaking the cowboy-boot-wearing, ass-kicking cowboy image and that is great.”

But on the most pressing question for Canada’s big cities, namely how to pay for billions in infrastructure needs like transit, Ford and Nenshi are in the same boat. Overly dependent on property taxes, they have little access to sustainable sources of revenue.

“It is going to be pretty tough times for both mayors with a fiscal situation that will be relatively tight,” predicts tax expert Jack Mintz, the Palmer Chair in Public Policy at the University of Calgary, who also spends time regularly in Toronto. No fan of Nenshi’s “muscular urban agenda” that looks to redefine fiscal relations with senior governments, Mintz says cities should focus at home first to balance the books.

“It means one has to make tougher decisions to get priorities funded,” says Mintz, adding that Ford and Nenshi are off to “a good start.” But he warns the heavy lifting lies ahead for both mayors.

In Toronto, residents got a peek last week at what a smaller city government might look like. Earlier this year, the city hired outside consultants KPMG for a $3-million review of city programs, with an eye to savings by eliminating non-essential services.

The first reports released this week gave little ammunition for Ford’s “gravy train” claim. But the recommendations, if adopted, would narrow the scope of government: fewer city-run day-cares and old-age homes, an end to fluoridated water, more privatized services, scaled-back recycling and less frequent grass-cutting and snow clearing.

“The ‘gravy train’ was a sound bite,” says former Toronto councillor and budget chief David Soknacki, who worked under right and left-leaning mayors and served with Ford. “The reality is intruding and it’s a question of whether he [Ford] carries enough of council to make a credible result.”

The threat of cuts, tied to a $775-million budget shortfall for 2012, builds on campaign pledges already delivered by Ford. He won council support for a freeze on property taxes this year (thanks to a big surplus left by the previous administration) and an expansion of privatized residential garbage pick-up. He scrapped signature moves by his left-leaning predecessor David Miller, including billions in provincial funding for a new light-rail transit network and a vehicle registration tax.

How Ford pulls off his promise to cut spending, maintain services and get the private sector to build a promised new subway line remains a mystery. “He [Ford] has been very good at shutting things down,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. “We haven’t seen what will be built in its stead.”

In Calgary, the new mayor hiked property taxes by 4.4 per cent hike this year and set the stage for additional increases of about 5 per cent a year for the next three years. He spent $80,000 on a budget consultation exercise, criticized by some, which asked residents and businesses for input on spending priorities. He pushed through a near 100 per cent rise in development charges, an anti-urban sprawl strategy to make new subdivisions pay for roads and sewers.

But in hiking taxes, Nenshi also promised fiscal prudence, targeting $140-million to be trimmed from the budget over the next three years. He also introduced a business-friendly measure to cut red tape at city hall. He narrowly won council backing for a controversial $400-million tunnel to the airport, seen as essential to future transit development. Vowing transparency, he released information on who meets with him at city hall.

Calgary business leaders warn that it is early days, but speak highly of Nenshi’s performance so far.

“From a Calgary business perspective, he has put a whole new spin on the youth, vitality and energy that Calgary has,” says Adam Legge, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.” His own personal style, brand and persona have done a lot to change stereotypes and that is effective for business.”

Maggie Schofield, executive director of the 3,000-member Calgary Downtown Association, is similarly impressed.

“Even with the toughest message he has to tell you, he has the most endearing smile and personality that he can sell it, he really can.”

In Calgary, as in Toronto, observers agree that the fiscal challenge looms large for Ford and Nenshi. It’s a big-city budget crunch with the power to make or break their political fortunes by the next municipal election.

Jennifer Lewington is the former Toronto City Hall bureau chief for the Globe and Mail. She writes, edits and speaks on urban affairs and education issues.