It is a rare glimpse into some of the backroom politics going on in Calgary, ahead of October’s municipal election.
Global News has obtained a recording of a November meeting hosted by Cal Wenzel, founder of Shane Homes. In the video, Wenzel presents a plan to defeat select members of city council who are perceived to be anti-development.
Some in the housing industry have been clashing with the city over growth and who should be responsible for infrastructure.
In the video, Cal Wenzel tells the group, apparently made up of about 150 industry leaders, that while Mayor Nenshi is unbeatable, that may not be the case for other council members.
“Dimitri asked me the question a little earlier on, ‘Can anyone beat Nenshi?’ And I said ‘no, likely not’. I am not sure what he’s hoping for – I don’t think he can and I had in my notes here, ‘I don’t think he is beatable. But you know when I talked to [former mayor] Dave Bronconnier, Dave is sitting there saying, ‘it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the mayor on your side or not. You need eight votes. As long as you have eight votes you can control whatever happens.’
“So for whatever and however, we have to ensure that we end up with the eight votes.”
Wenzel runs through a list of councillors he approves of and says he is supporting with campaign donations including Ward 12 Councillor Shane Keating, Ward 13 Councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart, and Ward 14 Councillor Peter Demong. He also names those he does not support or is unsure of.
“One time where [Ward 6 councillor Richard] Pootmans was kind of guided as to maybe vote for us, when it comes up he forgot to ask any questions and forgot to vote the right way.”
Wenzel claims millions of dollars a year are at stake for developers.
“Unless we get somebody in there that is you know really going to be on our side, rather than the dark side you know, we are talking another four years after next October.”
So they have raised quite a bit of money and have a celebrity supporter.
Preston Manning’s name is also mentioned at one point in the tape. Wenzel talks about a big donation from members of his group to the right-wing think tank founded by the former opposition leader.
“…in order to bring Preston on board, 11 of us put up $100 thousand, so a million-one, so it’s not like we haven’t put up our money and we are going to be there to put up again, and we are also supporting candidates.”
I love the response by Cal Wenzel
Cal Wenzel has declined Global News’ repeated requests for comment until he sees the video.
Part of the problem may be the lack of campaign finance rules in Calgary.
While candidates pump out press releases and smile for news cameras, Fast Forward has been digging into campaign records from the 2004 civic election and investigating the way these campaigns are financed. Compared to other Canadian cities, Calgary has few campaign finance rules. Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa have rules on how much candidates can fundraise and when, but Calgary candidates fundraise and spend without limits anytime they want — and they can keep whatever’s left over for themselves tax-free.
Candidates aren’t required to report where many of their contributions come from, and their contribution statements are littered with errors. Many candidates don’t file their statements at all. “Basically, there are no rules,” says Naheed Nenshi, of city hall watchdog Better Calgary Campaign. “It’s the Wild West out here.”
How bad was it? (in 2004)
Of Bronconnier’s $673,498 war chest, more than $150,000 came from development, construction and real estate companies. If engineers and architects are added to the calculations, the number reaches almost a third of his total contributions. “That’s tradition,” Bronconnier says. “The development industry is interested in what happens at city hall…. Just like the oil and gas guys contribute to the provincial campaigns, because they’re interested in what happens.”
Most contributions from developers go to incumbents. Ward 10 Ald. Andre Chabot learned this first-hand in the 2004 election, which he lost. “I wasn’t ever viewed as a front-runner by some of these guys that typically will contribute to whomever they think has a chance of winning,” he says. After Chabot won the 2005 byelection, developers regarded him differently. “They’re all coming left, right and centre. I can’t even keep track of all of the contributions that are being given to my office.”
Remington Development Corporation donated to 10 of 13 incumbent aldermen in 2004, with sums ranging from $300 up to $2,500 for Ward 2 Ald. Gord Lowe. Remington donated to only one non-incumbent. President Randy Remington says his company uses “similar principles applicable to finding the best candidate for any job” when deciding which candidates to support. “Both businesses and individuals have a responsibility to the city in which we work and live to ensure the best leaders are in civic office,” Remington says.
All the current aldermen took donations from developers. “They are key partners in building the city, and so access to the political process is hugely important to them,” says Ward 8 Ald. Madeleine King, who got over $16,000 from those in the industry. “We need to recognize that and dignify it.” However, King says voters hold the most power. “I don’t feel they’re getting short shrift.”
In other Canadian cities, many of these donations from developers would be illegal for one reason: they’re too big. A contributor can’t give more than $2,500 to a mayoral candidate in Toronto, and no more than $750 to a councillor. In Winnipeg, the cap for mayoral contributions is $1,500, and $750 for councillors. Contributions are also capped in provincial and federal elections, but in Calgary there’s no such rule.
Some of Bronconnier’s developer donors aren’t based in Calgary, or even Alberta. Trinity Development Group, an Ottawa company currently building a big-box complex in northwest Calgary, donated $7,250 — almost 10 times the amount that would be legal in Ottawa. “There’s a real problem at the municipal level because there are so many people who… contribute to political campaigns who stand to get some kind of benefit out of political decisions being made,” says Danielle Smith, Alberta director for the Canadian Federation for Independent Business (CFIB). “It doesn’t look really good.”