Two sides of the same Nickel: Mayoral hopeful Mike Nickel positions himself as an outsider candidate after a decade in municipal politics

From firebrand student politician to city hall’s resident skeptic--and from anonymous rabble-rouser to very public rabble-rouser--Councillor Mike Nickel's story is a strange one. Now once again the Ward 11 councillor's ambitions seem to be in a position he has chased before: the mayor's seat

Nickel did not make himself available for this story but old newspaper clips, interviews with members of the city's community and documents leaked to Progress Report all help shed light on the mayoral hopeful's past and future in Edmonton city politics. A few common themes run through his career: Nickel has a demagogue’s knack for stirring up resentment, a keen eye for other people’s mistakes, and a willingness to drag political opponents through the muck.

Nickel got into politics as a political science student at the University of Alberta. Nickel ran for president of the school's Student Union in the 1985-86 academic year, pledging to lower SU executive salaries, SU fees, and the price of beer on campus.

Leading up to the election, Nickel said, “It's time to take the SU back from political hacks and return it to the students.” And he’s saying something similar now, 35 years later. A recent post on his Twitter account, which reads “This is our home. The people built it. Not the politicians. And the people want it back!”

Portrait of Mike Nickel by Tim Mikula

Nickel won his SU election on Valentines Day 1985. His political alignment was already right-wing. He attended the Progressive Conservative Party's leadership convention as a delegate supporting former Alberta premier Don Getty. Years later, Nickel would make a bid to be the United Conservative Party candidate in Edmonton-South for the 2019 provincial election--losing the nomination to Tunde Obasan, who then lost the election to the NDP’s Thomas Dang

In spite of his rightward tendencies, as SU president he championed policies that might be more progressive as well. He pushed for the creation of a sexual harassment task force. He also expressed interest in creating a SU health and dental insurance plan--which exists now. Student newspaper the Gateway reported that at an all-candidate forum held the February prior to the election, members of the crowd even called Nickel a “socialist.”

On his way out of office, Nickel praised his own accomplishments in an op-ed in the Gateway. But his record had its blemishes. The student newspaper reported that SU funds may have paid for a stripper to perform at an SU changeover party--in a separate room--held the April before. The Gateway reported that Nickel had signed a $130 cheque for “party expenses” around that time. According to the article, The Gateway could not verify where that $130 went, though $130 was paid to the dancer. However, others believed that she was paid using money collected from spectators. 

After his graduation, Nickel seemed to lay low from political life--working instead with various businesses, sometimes with his father and brother--until the 1995 municipal election. Prior to the election, mysterious billboards began popping up around Edmonton, courtesy of a group calling itself the Edmonton Stickmen.

Critical of then mayor Jan Reimer, the billboards often showed a slogan, a phone number and occasionally crudely-rendered drawings, from which the group--made up of young, local business owners--derived its name. One choice slogan from the underground campaign included: “Edmonton City Council--The best advertising Calgary ever had,” according to an April 3 article in the Journal

Despite being anonymous, at the time, the Stickmen drew regular attention from the media. At the time, Reimer called the group’s mysterious members “back-room curmudgeons” in the Journal article. 

Reimer was largely considered to be a progressive candidate, one concerned with the environment. The Stickmen criticized her for being anti-business. According to Michael Phair--who was an councillor on city council from 1992 to 2007--the Stickmen seemed concerned about property taxes, and the price of public services, like park maintenance. 

The group also didn’t want tax increases and, according to Phair, it viewed things like historic building preservation as a waste of money. At the time, he noted, the city was also in a good deal of debt. 

“They were pretty much anti-everything, from my perspective,” he said.

Five of the members--including Nickel--released their names, which appeared in a column in the Edmonton Journal on May 26. The article notes that several others had been asked to join the Stickmen, and some had donated money to the cause. 

By the time of the election the Stickmen had reportedly blossomed to between 50 and 60 members and the campaign had spent around $10,000, according to a piece in the Journal that ran on Oct. 10. 

Jan Reimer lost that election to Bill Smith by around 1,000 votes after a long election season which featured many more attack-ad billboards. According to Dave Cournoyer, who runs the political blog Daveberta, the Stickmen may indeed take some credit: they generated a healthy amount of media and may have tapped into an undercurrent of discontent. 

Edmonton Journal clipping from May 26, 1995.

After Reimer lost, the Stickmen seemed to run out of steam, Phair recalled. Smith billed himself as a fairly conservative mayor, so there was less to rail against. The Stickmen took out billboards in other major Canadian cities, hoping to woo people to Edmonton for its lower housing prices, according to a Journal article that ran on July 15, 1996. In 1997, it also put up another billboard, lampooning what the group saw as the Edmonton Journal’s left-wing bias, the paper reported on April 12, 1997. “Their reason for being was kind of diminished,” Phair said. 

And this is when Nickel--arguably the public face of the Stickmen--entered the political arena. He announced on Aug. 5, 1998, that he was running for mayor in that year’s election because Smith had “abandoned his pro-business principles.” 

In the 1998 election, Nickel placed a distant second to Smith. Then, in the 2001 election, he placed a distant third, once again to Smith. In 2004, Stephen Mandel took the mayor’s chair, and Nickel became a councillor for what was then called Ward 5 (at the time, Edmonton was divided into six wards, each with two councillors). 

Nickel held that position until 2007 when he was unseated by a young upstart named Don Iveson--quite an accomplishment for Iveson as unseating an incumbent councillor in a municipal election is quite rare. Then, in 2013, the year Iveson became mayor, Nickel was elected as a councillor in Ward 11, a position he’s held since. 

Nickel has become a fixture on council, relishing his self-appointed position as a defender of the taxpayer and fighter of public spending. But according to Cournoyer, it would be hard to pinpoint exactly what Nickel’s actual accomplishments have been.

“He positions himself as a populist, but I don't really think he's a populist. I think he's much more of a critic, and that's his role,” says Cournoyer. 

Nickel’s positions over the years include criticizing lowering some speed limits in Edmonton residential areas and the creation of a solar farm in Edmonton's river valley. Just as in his days as a student politician, Nickel has regularly argued against increasing councillor pay--though, most recently, the call to not raise salaries passed unanimously.

And, harkening back to his Stickmen roots, Nickel has recently become more openly critical of Edmonton’s current council. In particular, Nickel's Facebook page posted a meme of fellow Councillor Andrew Knack, of Ward 1, in which Knack is seen throwing money on a fire--the fire labelled bike lanes and the money labelled property taxes. He has also been critical of Mayor Iveson. Nickel’s rhetoric about Knack got to the point that he only narrowly escaped official council sanctions for his posts about him. 

Screenshot from Mike Nickel's Facebook page

When former 630 CHED host Ryan Jespersen compared Nickel’s bizarre social media content to the work of monkeys at typewriters, Nickel torqued the story for outrage, taking exception to Jespersen calling his staff  “chimpanzees.” The host was promptly fired. Jespersen declined our request for comment, but drafted a post on social media after his departure. 

This behavior seems to, at least on paper, run against recommendations made to Nickel’s campaign by various marketing agencies, documents leaked to the Progress Report show. A document produced in 2019 by a local marketing and advertising firm advised creating a more “rounded” and “softened” public persona for the councillor.

The document, which includes some notes about social media, messaging and other campaign strategies carries with it a list of negative terms that have been used to describe Nickel. They include: “says no,” “an I-told-you-so guy,” “frustrated” and “irritable.”

But the document also goes on to say that when people meet Nickel in person, they find him easy to talk to, smart, pragmatic, business-savvy and trustworthy, and counsels the councillor’s campaign to show off  those more positive traits. 

But it doesn’t appear from Nickel’s present behavior that he’s taking much of that advice. According to Cournoyer, Edmonton’s upcoming election is seeing echoes of the Stickmen’s activities. Nickel has just moved from billboards to Tweets and Facebook posts. 

“What [Nickel's] doing really has the feel of online bullying. It feels like a high school thing. It feels like he's picking on the high school nerd,” he said. 

Andrew Knack says he doesn’t see it that way. He recalled Nickel being supportive of his first time running for council in 2007, he said, adding that councillors may not always agree, but they try to make it work. He also noted that he tries not to let these kinds of things bother him.

“We all have bad days where I don't get along with folks, but that's the case with virtually everyone,” he said.

Councillor Knack has not announced whether he will run for mayor. There are some people he would like to see run and, if they do, he will keep out of the race, he says though he declined to say who these people are.

Nickel’s intentions are much more transparent. A tweet from October says “he is being actively encouraged to run for mayor,” but that he hasn’t made a firm decision. New rules around municipal elections only let municipal candidates raise $5,000 in non-election years and Nickel maxed out his donation limit, according to his campaign website.  

Another big set of changes that’s been made to municipal elections law is around third-party advertisers often called political action committees or PACs. Critics worry that these changes will open the door for PACs and third party advertisers to play an inflated role. While candidates are no longer allowed to accept union or corporate donations, PACs can, and as we’ve seen in the last provincial election PACs can spend serious money blanketing the airwaves with political messages. Municipal PACs can register with the city of Edmonton starting January 4, 2021 and Edmonton Elections has not yet determined a process for displaying information about third party advertisers.

It seems that allies of Mike Nickel are interested in creating a PAC. Thomas Hochhausen, a former Stickman, said via email that a PAC had been created, but also that it hasn’t been active. “The PAC was set up but hasn't had any active operations due to [COVID-19]. We are unlikely to be newsworthy,” he wrote in the email. 

The PAC appears to be taking the form of a numbered corporation, #2018963 Alberta Inc. A corporate search shows both Hocchausen’s email, and Julian Martin as a director. Martin was appointed by the UCP to MacEwan University’s board of governors, he worked in Rona Ambrose’s Edmonton office as director of regional affairs and he was a professor of history of science and medicine at the University of Alberta.

In an interview with the Progress Report, Knack--who was unaware of the possible existence of a Nickel-aligned PAC--noted that, this municipal election, candidates should be upfront about whether or not they are getting money from PACs. Knack said PACs will be able to “run rampant,” and should be open about where they get their money from. 

According to Phair, it seems that Nickel hasn’t changed all that much from his early days on council. Even back then, he tended to not support any motion that had a price tag, and he regularly voted against annual budgets. Further, Nickel had a tendency to be a bit of a “lone ranger,” which can be tricky--especially for a mayor--considering passing motions needs getting people to cooperate. 

Much like 1995’s election, it seems that Nickel is trying to tap into feelings of resentment by mining issues like bike lanes, conspiracy theories around foreign meddling in Edmonton’s elections, and government waste for controversy. 

But, according to Cournoyer, there could only be a very vocal minority of voters who are interested. Edmonton, as everywhere else, is in the midst of a pandemic, and it might not be the time or place for divisive politics. Finally, he said, Nickel may have been on council a long time--10 out of the past 16 years--but considering his role as critic, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“I think name recognition cuts both ways with him,” he said. 

Doug Johnson is a Canadian writer, editor and journalist.