Every great team has, behind it, a great captain. For the last nine years, that is what Stephen Mandel has been to the City of Edmonton: mayor and team captain. Whether you love him or you passionately dislike him – and we have seen the public sway both ways – it is difficult to contest that leading a city for nine years is an impressive feat. For nearly a decade, Mandel has served as this city’s mayor, before which he served four years as a councillor.
With thirteen years of public service on Edmonton’s City Council behind him, there is no doubt that this city would look different today had he never ran for council back in 2001. Mandel took time to sit down with me this past week to reflect on his time with the city, discuss his hopes for Edmonton, speak to university students, and even share some of his personal story that got him to where he is today. In all of the chaos of exams, assignments, seminars, classes, lectures, post-class get-togethers, and new friends, students can sometimes forget the endless possibilities for their lives that await them once they leave the doors of post-secondary education.
Stephen Mandel wasn’t always leading our city. If we rewind time a few years, he was a university student working towards his bachelor’s degree in Miami, and then earning his masters’ in Political Science at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Mandel didn’t dream of being a mayor, or leading a city; he had fun, he got his degrees, he fell in love, he became a businessman, and somehow, along the way his path led to Edmonton.
Mandel made it clear as we talked that this city has been a labour of love for himself and for his team, emphasizing the team effort when it comes to council matters. As much as criticism and recognition are often associated with the mayor and the mayor alone, achievements are reached by the hard work of the entire council. Sitting in the boardroom of the mayor’s office, on the second floor of City Council downtown, rained poured as I had the opportunity to sit down and speak candidly with the mayor about his perspective and time in Edmonton. Whether or not he decides to run again this fall for what could potentially be his fourth consecutive term as mayor, the legacy he has left behind him so far has been significant.
B: Why did you want to start your career as a public servant here?
Mandel: To begin with, I retired from business so I was looking for a second career, and municipal politics is something where the opportunity arose and and it was the right timing for me. I didn’t have any ulterior motive [or] any issue why I was running, it was simply that I thought I could add, as some people always say, a perspective. I could add a business perspective to this city. So I ran and I won by I think thirty-three votes the first election. It wasn’t anything of grand scale.
B: So what has held your attention in Edmonton for so long? You’ve started so many initiatives, like the LRT, and the community sustainability task force. You’re everywhere in this city.
Mandel: I’m lucky I have a very good council who do an awful lot of work as well. The mayor is one vote on council and the fact of the matter is, if city councilors don’t want to do anything, they don’t do anything. So I’ve been lucky to have a group of people who are forward thinking and want to develop the LRT, that want to have good strong communities, that want to respect property rights, that understand the importance of recreation centres and all kinds of things that they’ve wanted to do together. We’ve been able to do a lot of things, so it’s not a one person [job].
B: You’ve also been personally involved in so many different organizations in this city.
Mandel: Well, you know, again it’s because I’ve got a great staff and group of people. I go say, you know, “I’d like to go and do something,” and I go and do it. They do all the work; I don’t do anything. It’s really a good job because for the most part you don’t do any work. Everybody else does. You tend to get a lot of recognition for things that everybody kind of worked together to accomplish.
B: Nine years as the Mayor. Are there any shining moments for you? Anything you’re really proud of?
Mandel: I think that there are many. I think when we signed the accord with our first nations community, I am very proud of that. It was important because of the mistreatment that they’ve received over the years and there’s still a long way to go. I think that that’s one of the great challenges facing the city: they’re people who are marvelous [and have made] great cultural contributions.
I think that the homeless commission and the results of that report [is one]. Not that we did that much, but it’s the idea that people started to look at the social side, and the agenda that not everybody has the same opportunities and that people aren’t homeless because they just woke up on Thursday afternoon and said “Jeez, it’s Thursday, let’s be homeless.” Circumstances are very very difficult. Circumstance have created that atmosphere which we need to work to help.
I think that another big one was [what is] called “Breakfast with the Guys.” It’s an event that we’ve taken across [the country]. We were the first to do it here, but it’s now gotten to various cities around the world, as a result of Edmonton. We put a twist on it a couple of years ago. We got a bunch of businesses to donate money to put on courses at their businesses so that they would begin to understand family violence. Family violence is not just in that house or that house; it’s in your house too. It’s everywhere, we don’t know [where], but it’s everywhere […].
There’s many, many others that have happened over the course of time. I mean, the development of the LRT: that’s more of an infrastructure [project], I mean that will help the community an awful lot [in terms of] recreation, and improvement of roads. But I think it’s the social emotional changes that you’ve been able to impact on people’s lives that’s the most important thing, in my opinion.
B: How taxing has being mayor for nine years been on your personal life?
Mandel: You know, you’ve met my wife. I’ve got the best wife in the world so no, it’s not been hard at all. I mean it’s about having great staff, and having a great council […] so it isn’t that taxing at all.
B: What do you think your legacy will be when you leave?
Mandel: That’s not my concern. Other people determine “legacy schmegacy” but I think if any one thing, no matter how long I stay, that when I go, that people will acknowledge that we did it in a very forthright, honourable way, whatever we did. You know some people might not agree with what we’ve done, but we’ve never done anything that’s underhanded or [in a way that] people could morally challenge what we’ve done. I think that’s quite important, the morality of politics, […] and that’s something I value a great deal.
B: You’ve been all over the country, you went to school in Windsor, you’ve been to school in the States, what is it about Edmonton that stands out?
Mandel: Well I think that […] as the Mayor you always look at things a bit differently, but it’s the people. I think we have the most friendly city in the world. I think that’s something that people underestimate, that we are [a] very warm, accepting, and congenial community. You come here from wherever you come, [and] you are welcomed, warmly in your neighborhood. Doors are opened for community leagues, or involvement in your church, involvement in the art galleries or involvement in arts and culture or involvement in anything you want to do.
I think it’s a very open society and I think that’s one of the great things about this city. I’ve talked to people that have lived [in] many other places and they find that people aren’t that friendly. Maybe [it’s] because we’re a northern community, a bit more isolated, that people need to be more friendly. I think that’s what I love about this city, it’s got a great arts and culture scene, it’s got a great quality of life, but all of it boils down to people being nice. You go to a restaurant, people are nice. You meet your next door neighbor, they’re nice. I think that’s a great characteristic about this city.
B: What do you see for this city ten years down the road? What do you hope for this city?
Mandel: The one thing that we need to do that […] we have done but we haven’t done long enough, is work very, very hard to ensure that we are a city that attracts and retains people your age. That should be our number one priority. Those are the people we need to show [that] this city has a lot of cultural opportunities, economic opportunities, quality of life opportunities. A lot of fun opportunities; you can go to a bar, go to a restaurant, a nightclub. It’s all part of being young, and so I think that’s really [important]. There’s good intellectual life, so if you want to go to a poetry fest, we have a poetry fest. If you want to go to a comedy fest, we have a comedy festival. To me that’s the biggest challenge going forward. To create that environment where the younger generation sees this is the place they want to be, and I think this council has listened to the younger generation.
When we’ve made major decisions, the people we listened to are those that have come to council under the age of 40, probably under the age of 35 […]. I think they’ve had tremendous influence on what this council’s done, and I’m very proud of that. When we talked about closing the airport many people came and said keep it open, but those, predominantly, under the age of 40 years of age, had no vested interest [in the airport]. [They] said “we should develop this, why don’t we?” Same with the arena: another one that those who came forward [in support] were young people. Recently, we were approached with densifying the city. The young people came forward. That’s who we have to meet the needs [of].
B: Now talking about developing the city socially, what would you say to the U of A students graduating this year?
Mandel: I would say that you’ve got a wonderful education, that doors will be open to you because of the education institution you went to and that we should have great pride in our wonderful school. We wish you good luck, we hope every one of you will find a job in Edmonton […] I mean that’s not realistic, but we hope that they have a good life, that they enjoy themselves. We ain’t here forever! Enjoy yourselves, work hard and you’ll find that life will unfold as it will unfold. There’s no “road map,” as the world will say. There’s no map that says tomorrow morning you’re going to do this or that. You’ll work and you will find ways to build your life with family, and with friends and an environment that is good for you.
B: Is there anything you would change if you could go back in your career?
Mandel: Oh gosh, you know there’s always things you’d change but I don’t think much. You can’t go back and change. Would I like to be twenty years of age again? Sure, […] I wish my kids had had grandkids earlier because I love my grandson, but then it wouldn’t be the same grandson.
B: How old is your grandson?
Mandel: He’s six months old. He’s the joy of both my wife and my life. He plays, jumps, and plays and plays and plays.
B: What was it like raising your kids here?
S: Oh it was great. My daughter still lives here, she’s an optometrist. And my son owns a bar in Phuket, Thailand.
B: What was the best advice you got leaving university?
Mandel: I never got any advice. It was a different generation, god it was two-hundred years ago. I’m a big believer that people should enjoy what they’re doing and their career will unfold as they work. If they want to work really hard it will unfold quicker. Put everything into perspective. I didn’t get any advice though. Go to Europe and travel is probably the only advice I got. I don’t like travelling much anymore, though. I like staying at home, with my wife and my dog.
B: What kind of dog do you have?
Mandel: It’s my son’s dog, it’s a pitbull. Oh he’s the sweetest little guy in the world. The other day he was at the dog sitter’s and she has these two puffy little dogs. And her one was playing pulley with Dice [my pitbull], and her little dog wins. [Dice] looks up at the lady and starts crying because the little dog took the rope away from him. He’s just the sweetest dog. Most of them are like that if they’re properly trained.
B: Your wife and yourself are so involved in this city, so how do you balance being involved with organizations and everything with the dog, and with your grandson?
Mandel: My wife does all that: she’s involved in every organization in this city. The other day [were were talking and] I say “You don’t know anything about that, you don’t know what you’re talking about” and I’m arguing with her and she says “Yes, I do” and I said “No you don’t, how would you know?” and she said “I’m on the board!” I said “When the heck did you get on the board?” [It was the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation]. It was about giving money for heart research. [With the dog] we found a dog sitter, so we’re neglecting the dog a little bit, but I try to spend as much time with him as I can on the weekend.
B: What’s your favorite place to spend downtime in the city?
Mandel: Oh just at home watching tv with the dog. I play golf a little bit. My favorite thing at night now is just going to bed. I get into bed, the dog hops into the bed and we go to sleep.
B: In 2001, you decided to run for council because the opportunity came up, but why? Just because the circumstances were right?
Mandel: As I said, I was retired, the circumstances were right, I wanted to lose some weight knocking on doors [laughs] so I did it, and I was lucky enough to win. [But] when I ran for mayor, that was more serious. I just didn’t like what anyone was doing. None of the candidates were talking about the future of this city or what we could do, what we couldn’t do. Why we weren’t doing this, why we weren’t doing that. They were all talking about, always, not doing. Edmonton for too long had not done everything. We hadn’t built a recreation centre, we hadn’t fixed a road, we hadn’t built a new library, we hadn’t invested in anything. We were stagnant and people your age don’t want stagnancy. They want growth. They want opportunity. They want creativity. So why would you stay here?
So we’ve invested a lot of money. […] For the province to match us [proportional to their budget] they’d have to give five-hundred million dollars in the arts. Right now they’re giving twenty-eight million. Arts are very important in the community. They’re important for enjoyment. My wife and I love the symphony. But it’s about creating a quality of life that people like. The arts are just as much [about] having a good concert at Rexall or having a bar that’s going to have a jazz group. That’s still quality of life, that’s no different than going to the symphony. I mean I prefer the symphony, but it’s about creating that eclectic environment people want to live in.
B: What else would you say if you could speak directly to university students?
Mandel: We love you! Have fun! Enjoy yourselves! You get old quick. Don’t lose the thought of building a good life, but have a good life while you’re doing it. Don’t be so serious. Students are more serious than when I was going to school. […] There’s nothing better than being a student. What better life is there? You get up, study a little bit. It’s a great life. At some point in time you have to go to work but there’s nothing better than being a student. The intellectual environment, having fun.
B: What was your masters’ thesis?
Mandel: Content analysis of the Cuban revolution. I looked at how different newspapers interpreted events as opinion leaders on the Cuban revolution before and after the revolution. Castro, leading up to, and after the revolution. I’ve still got a copy of it at home. No-one’s ever read it but me and my advisors. I was enrolled in the PhD program at Dalhousie but I was tired of school and wanted to get married.
B: Is that where you met Lynn?
Mandel: No, I met her in Windsor. […] Lynn was a professional dancer. She was in Toronto, an incredible dancer. She was on shows like The Pig and Whistle and then she was on different tv specials and she had her own ballet school. At the CN exhibition she was in the chorus line. She did some stage production.
B: Are you glad you did your masters’?
Mandel: I flipped a coin between Sociology and Political Science. I just wanted to be back in school. I wasn’t ready to settle down and to work. I wanted to kind of get a sense of life. I loved it. It was a great time. Did it in the early 70’s not far off of the Quebec referendums and fighting with the FLQ, and all of the stuff in Eastern Europe, and Russia, and the States, and Czechoslovakia. All kinds of things. China was emerging, the Vietnam war. But it was a good time. I loved it.
CC Photograph courtesy of bulliver on Flickr