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Calgary mayor and council approval continues to slide

City of Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek listens during an announcement of the signing of agreements on the new NHL arena deal in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh City of Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek listens during an announcement of the signing of agreements on the new NHL arena deal in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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Our semi-annual Calgary municipal survey, conducted in mid-June this year, did not bring good news for Mayor Jyoti Gondek and many of her council. Indeed, from a public opinion perspective, their path over the past three years has been a rocky, downward journey.

The ratings for the mayor and council are unprecedently low. They managed to break their own record for negative approval ratings set in December of last year.

The average rating for councillors is down four points, sitting at just 33 per cent approval today, while 47 per cent disapprove of their councillor’s performance. Ouch!

The typical councillor prior to 2021 would generally hover somewhere in the mid-to-low 50s for approval (with about one in five unable to rate their local rep).

In fairness, it should be noted that this rating for councillors is an average – Calgarians rate their ward councillors.

There are 14 of them, after all, and some score better than others. That average includes ratings for councillors like Gian-Carlo Carra, Sean Chu, and Kourtney Penner, who have miserably low assessments; Dan McLean, Andre Chabot, and Sonya Sharp, who are “high and dry,” so to speak; and everything in between.

On the other hand, the mayor’s ratings are hers and hers alone. Just over one-quarter (26 per cent) of Calgary voters approve of Gondek, while almost two-thirds (64 per cent) offer negative ratings of her performance.

Nearly one-half (48 per cent) strongly disapprove of the mayor, compared to only seven per cent strong approval. Before this council, a dip below 50 per cent approval would send most mayors into a panic.

One curious note about Mayor Gondek’s ratings this June is that the survey was conducted during a municipal crisis—the failure of a critical water main necessitating water restrictions in Calgary and many surrounding communities.

In times of crisis, the public tends to “rally to the leader.” Politicians who capably lead during an emergency are often rewarded with public support.

In 2013, Mayor Nenshi’s leadership during Calgary’s flood emergency vaulted his approval ratings with voters.

During the pandemic, there was a period of time (albeit a very short one) when Prime Minister Trudeau was more popular in Alberta than Premier Kenney!  

This crisis, no such boost for Gondek – she actually lost four percentage points in approval since December of last year. Which begs the question, why? There are several possibilities.

It could be the nature of the crisis itself. A major feeder main break isn’t a natural disaster, act of war, pandemic or alike. While we don’t know the cause yet, presumably, it could have been avoided. Or at the very least one hopes it can be avoided in the future (as I sit here writing on my second day without a shower).

It could be that Calgarians don’t believe the mayor has handled the crisis well. I’m not sure that’s the case. The first few days were, and I’m trying to be diplomatic, a bit shaky, but since the official declaration of local emergency, Gondek has been a steady hand.

As Calgary’s first female mayor, is there some latent gender discrimination amongst the electorate? This question comes up from time to time. The answer is not really.

There’s no doubt Gondek suffers from a sizable gender gap in the sense that men are considerably more negative than women, but it is comparable to the gender gap in ratings of Mayor Nenshi in the closing months of his last term. Age and partisanship of voters are more relevant intervening variables.

Or, and this is the most plausible explanation, any positive “bump” the mayor might have received in handling this crisis was nullified by unpopular decisions in the preceding six months. A few come to mind: the single-use bag bylaw debacle, passing blanket rezoning after a month-long public hearing and property tax bills going out.

There’s likely some causation at work there. Our June survey revealed that among councillors, those who have seen the most negative turn in their ratings also backed blanket rezoning.

For Gondek, if she plans to run for re-election, she’s running out of runway. For an incumbent politician, trying to mould public opinion in a four-year election cycle is like working with wet cement.

It’s taken Gondek almost three years to reach the depths she’s in today, and it becomes more and more difficult to change the public’s views as their opinions harden leading up to a campaign.

With numbers like this, Jyoti Gondek’s prospects for re-election, if she runs, are pretty grim. She’s a “long shot,” barring a significant vote split in October 2025. That said, with numbers this bad, many candidates could be waiting in the weeds who could split that vote for her. After all, you only need one vote more than the person in second place to win.

Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ, a Canadian-based market and public opinion research firm, and a partner in the consulting firm Integrated. Strategic. Partners.

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