Calgary Sun political columnist Rick Bell, hatless at the NDP annual convention in 2019.
Calgary Sun political columnist Rick Bell, hatless at the NDP annual convention in 2019. Credit: David J. Climenhaga Credit: David J. Climenhaga

If Jyoti Gondek took off her shoes one summer day and walked across the Glenmore Reservoir, Rick Bell’s next column would probably say it proved she can’t swim.

Gondek, of course, is the mayor of Calgary. Bell is a veteran journalist and political commentator employed by Postmedia as the Calgary Sun’s political columnist. 

Mind you, the difference between the Calgary Sun and The Calgary Herald is nowadays largely fictional – so Bell’s columns appear on both of Postmedia’s Calgary publications’ websites, which even in the twilight of the newspaper business gives his thoughts a certain cachet.

Bell’s beat includes Calgary City Hall in addition to provincial politics, so it is quite properly within his job description to write critical columns about the city’s chief magistrate from time to time. 

But Bell, 69, writes so many critical columns about Mayor Gondeck that it’s starting to, shall we say, raise eyebrows. 

How many negative columns? Well, as of last Thursday, Bell had published 89 columns since the start of 2024. It would be fair to call 39 of them hostile to Gondek. We can round that up to 44 per cent of his output so far this year. A couple more mentioned her but struck a more neutral tone. 

His critiques, delivered in his distinctive bullet-point writing style, often seem unreasonable to the old journo who writes this blog – as in, Gondek hits new low, slams Smith, plays politics in water crisis.” (How dare she point out the province has been under-funding municipal infrastructure in a crisis caused by crumbling infrastructure!) 

This kind of sustained negativity by a newspaper columnist is highly unusual, or used to be, anyway, back before newspapers became websites and turned to clickbait to survive. 

Since Thursday, Bell has published at least one additional column about Gondek. Unsurprisingly, it was critical of her too. Wait! There’s another one this morning. Looks like it is too. 

Bell’s second favourite topic is Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, about whom he takes quite a different tack. 

He’s praised the premier in 24 columns (28 per cent as of Thursday) and been more neutral about her 10 times (12 per cent). Now and then – five times – he’s had something to say about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, in the context of Alberta issues. Those nine columns were all critical, too, of course. Readers will get the general picture.

Every time Bell publishes a column, he posts about it several times on social media. He’s posted more than 550 times about all his columns so far this year on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. So, lots of negative tweets about Gondek, too. 

This pattern is starting to attract more than just attention. It includes some very sharp commentary on social media, especially in light of the recently growing awareness of the pattern of harsh attacks on women in positions of political authority, especially those with progressive views like Gondek and former NDP environment minister Shannon Phillips, who announced last week she’d had enough.

For his part, Bell is not apologizing for his constant criticism of Mayor Gondek. 

“I will not be deterred by those who believe any naysaying of the mayor, city council and city hall is just not appropriate,” he huffed in a June 10 column, which was critical of Gondek. 

Well, in half-hearted defence of Bell, he does have a more personal interest in the performance of his city’s mayors, whoever they may be, than most city newspapers’ political columnists. 

After all, he once ran for the job himself, in the 1998 civic election

His employer, in those days Sun Media Corp., let him do it while he continued to write columns, which isn’t something you used to see very often in the newspaper business either, back when it was still halfway viable. That wasn’t a conflict, he argued at the time, because the paper hadn’t endorsed him or given him any money other than his paycheque.

The election campaign was just a year before the strike at the (then) rival Calgary Herald, where I worked as night city editor.

With a little database digging, one can still find a copy of The Herald’s profile of “The Dinger,” as Bell then liked to be known, by my former colleague Juliet Williams, who went on to a great career in the United States with the Associated Press and the San Francisco Standard, where nowadays she’s the opinion editor.  

“As he parades the streets of Calgary in the ‘Dingermobile’ a large 1979 Lincoln Continental Towne Car with hood horns and faded flames, people honk at the Calgary Sun columnist,” Williams wrote in The Herald on October 11, 1998, eight days before the election.

As an aside, most news organizations no longer have enough reporters on staff to write stories about fringe candidates, let alone those who are columnists for competing publications. But in 1998, The Herald had more than 130 employees in its editorial department alone. It probably has about a dozen now.

Judging from Bell’s responses to Williams’ questions, he seemed to think the attention he was getting was going to give him a chance to emulate Ralph Klein, another former reporter who became the mayor of Calgary, and actually win. 

“It’s those people who are the key to getting him elected,” Williams wrote, paraphrasing Bell’s analysis of how horn honking and waves were going to turn into votes, “because ordinary citizens have lost faith in the ability of politicians to represent them.”

“You’d be surprised at how many votes I’m going to get,” Bell told her. “The one advantage that I do have is that a lot of people know me. I think they know a lot more about who I am than they know about who Al Duerr is. Or who Ray Clark is.”

And it’s true, it was surprising how many votes he got: 20,812, or 8 per cent of the vote, as reported by The Herald on election night. Still, that put him far back in third place. 

Alas for The Dinger, Al Duerr, the popular if low-key mayor who was seeking his fourth term, did a little better – 182,780 votes, or 73 per cent of the ballots cast, down from an astonishing 92 per cent in the previous election. Proof, I guess, that colourful doesn’t always trump colourless when voters are paying attention.

As for Clark, he came second with a little more than double Bell’s votes. 

Well, that was then and this is now. But still, if Calgary’s current mayor makes him so mad, Bell could always dust off his old campaign fedora and take another run at her job. 

If he’s going to keep writing political columns, though, maybe he should find a few more things to write about! 

People are starting to talk. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...