A Few Minutes With...Stephen Mandel

Did the Mayor just serenade me? Not exactly, but he did tell me that he wants to travel more, that he doubts his kids will follow his political footsteps, and that he probably doesn't even know what a PVR is...

BY EMIL TIEDEMANN

That's me chillin' with the Mayor, Stephen Mandel, at City Hall. 
Mandel was born in July 1945 in Windsor, Ontario, 
and moved to Edmonton in 1972. 
IT seemed as though he didn't really want to be there--as though me and my casual questions were just another laborious errand in a day earmarked with 'em--when he sat down next to me in his very own boardroom. I can't say that I blamed him though, considering just how many folks like me he answers questions for...and I'm sure a lot of the very same ones. He is the Mayor, afterall.

Erica, his (I assume) personal assistant, sat across from us with a notepad in her lap, and remained practically mute for the 30-minute appointment. I set my tiny digital recorder on the table in between my seat and the Mayor's, and then read off the first question I scribbled down in my own notepad.

His voice was quiet a lot of the time, and there were moments when Stephen Mandel seemed to struggle to remember the names of people and shows that he wanted to give as his answers to some of my more irregular questions. He's not good with names, he professed. But all the while Mandel warranted my obliging patience and my candid respect, never once suggesting that he was feeding me bullshit. I knew everything that came from his mouth was true, and real.

Never more so than when he told me, "My Mom and Dad," almost before I even finished asking him who he'd like to spend one full day with, dead or alive, past or present. That's when the interview stopped feeling so scheduled and obligated. Stephen, a father of two, told me he missed his parents, both of whom have passed on, and when I mentioned to him that I had recently lost my father, too, that's when he seemed to alter any precipitated perceptions he may have had of me. Or it could just be me.

"Edmonton has more choices than people can shake a stick at."

He asked me when my father died. "September," I told him. "Oh, that's really recent," Stephen said. "I'm sorry to hear that." Erica spoke up then, whispering an appropriate, yet genuine, "Sorry." The Mayor and I had found a connection, albeit tragic, and that allowed some common ground, and I seemed to relax even more than I already was. He did, too.

We discovered further mutual views on things like the downtown arena district proposal, on Edmonton's vast selection of events & affairs, in improving issues in the Aboriginal community and revering its heritage (btw, I'm Metis), and even the literary work of one George Orwell. "When that pig stood up for the first time, I got goosebumps," I confessed to him, conversing about the classic Animal Farm.

Mandel is appointed the mayor of Edmonton for a
third consecutive term, in 2010. 
By that time the Mayor had rested his feet--wrapped in shiny black dress shoes probably more expensive than my last bonus...actually, probably not!--on the adjacent coffee table, like I'm sure he does when he's at home about to watch his favourite TV show. Scratch that, as I soon discovered, Mr. Mandel doesn't even watch TV. That's just crazy!

But he loves cinema! Mostly "older ones," he insisted, as I soon realized I uncovered a guilty pleasure of his. Minus the guilty. Mandel's demeanour shifted slightly, like it does for me when somebody wants to discuss The Office, zombie movies, or Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (that's a shout-out!). "Oh gosh, that's a tough one, because I love movies," he admitted when I asked him what his favourite movie of all-time is.

For the next minute and a half Mandel listed off some favoured Hollywood standards and actors he'd admired throughout the years--namely Bogart and Gable--and even couldn't help himself reciting a musical note from Doris Day's 1953 classic Calamity Jane: "Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away!," he cooed. "The windy city is a mighty city." I had to laugh.

It was a definite relief and a certain pleasure to see Mandel, our city's mayor since '04, be himself, to indulge in conversation I hope he enjoyed. Rather than ho-hum chatter on fiscal budgets and Edmonton's over-the-top murder rates. It was unnecessary. I didn't need to, or want to for that matter, hear about those all-too-familiar topics, of current affairs and council congregations & concerns. To be honest, I'd rather learn about the best concert Mr. Mandel ever attended. FYI, he couldn't remember the act's name. "Richie something."

And I think--I hope--that the Mayor enjoyed that as well. From then I briefed him on 'I Heart Edmonton,' took advantage of a couple photo ops, and then we said our thank-you's and goodbyes, before me, my notepad and my trusty Canon strolled back to my vehicle, somewhat smug in my unbeknown ability to have our mayor warm up to lil' ole me. But I still can't get over the fact that he doesn't watch TV! Craziness.

The Questions, Part I:

Mandel was first elected to Edmonton City Council
in 2001, as Councillor for Ward 1. 
I understand you moved to Edmonton in 1972, from Ontario. What brought you here and what made you stay? "Well my father had been in business here for a number of years, and so I came out to work with him."

And that's what made you stay as well, I guess? "I also liked it here, too. So I stayed because I liked it, not because I had to."

What made you decide to run for mayor of Edmonton? "Running for mayor in 2004 I felt that the city had been treading water for too many years, and that we weren't moving ahead and doing things, and taking advantage of the 'Alberta opportunity'. And also, during that election, I felt that a more positive campaign was necessary rather than a negative campaign."

What did you do to celebrate when you were elected mayor? "It was a fun night. Just being there with my friends and family...my mom was there, which was great. You know, the first time you do things it's very special, and we were the big underdog; nobody thought we were ever gonna win, and so we ended up winning. It was a very, very special time. We had our campaign team and all our supporters at the celebration location, and that's what we did...kind've hung around, talked. I mean, I don't drink much...I don't know if I even had a drink...talking to my friends, in hoping what we would accomplish. Just having my family there was nice."

If you weren't in politics, what do you think you would be doing? "Now I'd be just travelling. We do a lot of travelling, I'd probably still do some business, but not too much. I think travelling, seeing the world, volunteering for some organizations ([my wife's] a much better volunteer than I am)...that's probably what I would do."

What would you tell your children if one of them wanted to get into politics? "My children would never want to get into politics. They see it from the dark side of things, rather than the positive side sometimes. You know, they see criticisms and it's their dad, and they don't like that. Our house was never a political home to begin with; we didn't decide to do these things until my kids were quite a bit older, so they don't have that motivation for politics in their system. Not that I had that much. I think from a distance both kids like to keep it there."

"My children would never want to get into politics. They see it from the dark side of things."

That's probably a good thing? "Well I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing; I think it's been great being the mayor and a councillor, and I've enjoyed it thoroughly. You know, that's up to them in time. My guess is they won't."

In terms of your work as Edmonton's mayor, what are you most proud of, and why? "There's different kinds of things you're proud of...I'm proud this council was the first one to actually build more LRT in 30 years. I'm very proud that we're building not only one line, but we continue to build two lines, and funding the design of a third. I think that's vitally important for the psyche of the city. I think I'm very proud of the infrastructure that's been built...rec centres, libraries...for 30-odd years nothings was built. 

I guess if I have to say a couple things I'm most proud of would be some of the social programs we try to put in place: the 10-year plan to end homelessness is going so well; the Africa Centre; the new Abbotsfield Recreation Centre. I think the social issues give me way more satisfaction in helping people accomplish what they would like to accomplish. That's our job, to be facilitators, to act as creators of opportunity for people. I think that's probably my most satisfying part of the job."

Mandel is a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, and was vocal in his
approval of the controversial downtown arena district. 
What is one thing about Edmonton that you think stands out from other Canadian cities? "The people. I think Edmonton is an incredibly friendly city, and I attribute that because we're a northern city and so we have to be more self-contained. I'll compare it to our southern neighbour, which is a great city, but in Calgary people can hop in their car and in 45 minutes be at the mountains. They can drive the 2-1/2 hours from southern B.C., so the structure of their community is different. Our city has really needed to be more self-contained, because we're a more northern city and so we have a far more advanced cultural community, far more advanced arts community, a very strong community-based organization with community leagues. 

I think the volunteerism is a result of that, and the friendliness of people. People come here and [are told] 'oh, why are you gonna go there?'...when they come here and they meet the people they don't want to leave. Now, people leave...I mean, there's no question about that...but they always have a very strong fondness with the city of Edmonton, because it is a very friendly, warm place. It's an amazing city when it comes to those things."

What do you think are the biggest obstacles our city is facing in moving forward? "I think one of the real challenges is learning how to deal with a changing population, which are different than the challenges those people faced 100 years ago, 'cause society's a lot more complicated today than it was 100 years ago. I think that's one challenge that we have to face and find solutions to. Another one is to celebrate the great history of our First Nations people. I think that's something we've not done well enough, and I don't think given them the kind of credit and support necessary to allow them to have more pride in who they are, what they're about. I think they're an incredible community. 

"We don't celebrate the successes. We tend to want to celebrate the failures, which is ridiculous."

I go to events and I hear the drums, the spirit of the people...it's remarkable. But we don't celebrate it enough; we don't celebrate the successes. We tend to want to celebrate the failures, which is ridiculous. So we hope to do a bunch of things to help celebrate that and work with the community. We've got the Accord, we've got Wicihitowin, we got a new business group we funded which we hope will help move some things down the road. It's a great community; a bit disorganized...that's part of the problem. Some communities are better organized, but the reason is they got different reservations, different tribes, so different groups of people." 

Why do you feel it is important that the arts are an integral part of our city's identity? "Well I think it's the same reason, that we're a northern city. Arts and culture form a foundation of defining who you are and what you're about, and it creates an opportunity for people to express themselves. And those who don't express them very well, like myself, enjoy that expression; so to go a concert, to go to a play, to go to an art gallery, to go to a pow-wow, to go to these things are a part of our arts and culture, and so I think they make the mosaic up of your city. And that mosaic attracts other people, because they see that mosaic working. I think arts and culture are also great at attracting and retaining people. If you have a city that doesn't have any arts and culture and more cultural facilities, people tend to leave. And you think of the challenges some of these smaller northern communities is what's there for a younger person? 

Edmonton has more choices than people can shake a stick at. But the younger generation knows. People know what's here and what isn't here, those who wanna search it out; and we're doing more and more and more. I think that's a big part, arts and culture...it's foundational to growing a city, attracting people, and retaining people."

If you could spend a full day with anybody in the world, dead or alive, past or present, who would it be, and why? "My Mom and Dad. My Mom and Dad have passed away, so if I could have another day with them that would be far more important than anything else."

Do you know if you will seek a 4th term as Edmonton's mayor? "Not sure, too early. Even if I didn't want to do it now, I might wanna do it then, and vice versa. It's too early to tell."

And if not, what do you think you would do with yourself? "Probably travel." 

The Questions, Part II:

Mandel's favourite movie growing up
was Doris Day's 'Calamity Jane' (1953).
Favourite movie of all-time? "Oh gosh, that's a tough one, because I love movies. For the first number of years of my life I would say 'Calamity Jane,' with Doris Day. I love Doris Day. Was in love with Doris Day. As I've gotten older that movie isn't my favourite anymore, but I've seen the movie probably like 20 times. 'Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away! Whip crack-away! The windy city is a mighty city!' I guess another one would be 'Schindler's List.' I really thought that was a phenomenal movie, a remarkable movie. I love old movies. I mean, I love 'Casablanca', any of the movies by Bogart; I love Clark Gable. I love old movies, that's all I watch."

Last album you bought? "I don't buy a lot of music, but my favourite last album I think I bought was the music to 'Les Miserable.' Seen that play eight times, listened to the tape 10 million times. I love that play."

Do you remember the first album you ever bought? "You know--growing up in Windsor--it might have been some of the Motown people."

Best concert you ever attended? "Oh, wow, that's a tough one. We had one here quite a while ago, it was a great concert at the Jube, with Richie Havens. No, it wasn't Richie Havens...oh, shit...it was Josh...he was the pre-show...can't think of his bloody name. It was one of the best concerts I've ever been to. It was at the Jubilee Auditorium, which fits like 2,500 people; there was like 70 people there...there was no one there! I thought it was Richie...Richie, Richie...or was it Josh White, Jr.? Anyways, doesn't matter. There was only a few of us there and it was just such a great concert. I'll never forget that. I don't remember the damn name...I have it on the tip of my tongue...bald guy, plays a guitar...."

Favourite book? "There's all kinds of books, I don't think I have a favourite book. I mean, different books interest you at different times. I think one of the most relevant books would be 'Animal Farm.' But I just read a really fascinating book about the Israeli economy...I don't remember the name of the book, or the author...but it was a really interesting book. But 'Animal Farm' I always thought was a fascinating book; you know, some animals are always more equal than other animals. I would never say that Shakespeare is one of my favourites, I hate Shakespeare."

Best Christmas gift you ever received? "I used to give myself a lot of gifts. I used to put, 'To Dad, From Anonymous'...a pair of shoes. Just having all my family together would be the best, because there's really nothing I could be given that I can't go buy; so I would think just having my family at Christmas is really the most enjoyable part about it."

Best show on TV right now? "I don't watch TV."

You don't watch TV?! "The only thing I watch on TV is older movies. I go to bed at night, channel 227, Turner Classic Movies." 

Alcoholic drink of choice? "If I have a drink it'd be a Crown Royal and water. Crown Royal, a little ice, and water." 

Mac or PC? "Well, I have a Mac, but as far as either one, I could care less. I'm not a techy! But I have a Mac iPad." 

Motto you live by? "'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', maybe...I don't know."

Thank you, Mr. Mandel.

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