Standing before a group of aviation professionals in Scottsdale on a busy campaign day in May, Smith – a Republican who stepped down from his Mesa mayoral post in April to run for Arizona governor – challenges his audience’s perceptions of Arizona’s third-largest city.
“Be honest with me,” Smith prods them about their impressions of Mesa six years ago, before he became mayor. Back then, Mesa, with its sleepy downtown sometimes derided for “wide streets and narrow minds,” was heading into a recession and already reeling financially from voters’ rejection in 2006 of a ballot measure to create a primary property tax to fund government operations. Smith rattles off his mayoral accomplishments and makes his pitch: “Great things happen when you shoot high. Great things happen when you lead using common sense principles and you make decisions. Great things happen when you are positive in your vision.”
Running on what boosters call “the Mesa Miracle,” Smith, 58, has emerged as the centrist in the crowded Republican primary for Arizona governor, which takes place in late August. On the campaign trail, he talks about optimism and common sense, espouses moderate positions on social and fiscal issues, and criticizes the angry tone and red meat rhetoric that tend to dominate GOP primaries. “I think people want a discussion of real conservative leadership, not toxic political rhetoric,” Smith says after a Republican candidate debate in Phoenix. “To me, toxic rhetoric doesn’t answer the question of how do we create a better future for our kids.”
Tucson-born Smith moved to Mesa at age 11 when his father became superintendent of the Mesa public school system. He was a basketball player at Westwood High School and studied accounting at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife of more than 36 years, Kim, on a blind date. The couple now has three children and five grandchildren.
Smith, who earned an MBA from Arizona State in 1985, changed careers and the direction of his life by going to law school at age 36. He describes the decision as one of “desperation and aspiration.” As a CPA working with clients often in dire financial straits, he struggled to collect on bills – and, consequently, to pay his own bills. While doing research at the law library at ASU, he picked up a pamphlet about the law program and decided to apply. He didn’t necessarily want to work as a lawyer, but he wanted the knowledge and opportunities the degree would bring, he says.
In his final year of law school, he went to work for a homebuilding company, Great Western Homes. The board of directors soon asked him to take over as president of the company to liquidate it. Instead, he grew its business and, five years later, bought the company. After selling it to K. Hovnanian Homes and working for them for about three years, he decided to run for mayor. As Mesa mayor, he worked with the city council to close a $62 million budget deficit, backed a bond proposal that resulted in the city’s first secondary property tax levy, negotiated a voter-approved deal to keep the Cubs in Mesa, invested in infrastructure projects and became the city’s biggest cheerleader. In 2012, he ran for re-election unopposed.
Smith brought “an infectious optimism that the city is a great city and it is capable of doing great things,” says Mesa City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh, the council’s sole Democrat. Kavanaugh describes Smith as a policy wonk who tends to dominate conversations, but says he’s also collegial, and creative in problem solving. “His approach has always been to leave partisanship in the parking lot and focus on the issues, focus on the pragmatic,” Kavanaugh says. “That’s the mark of a true leader: Don’t let partisanship get in the way of problem solving.”
Last year, Smith was the first Arizonan elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the national organization of big-city mayors dominated by Democrats. Smith cites the role as evidence of his ability to put aside partisanship to find policy solutions, but the post has been used in the GOP primary race to attack him as too close to President Obama. He opposed SB 1070 as an unfunded mandate and supported Governor Brewer’s decision to expand Medicaid – moves that raised questions about his ability to appeal to Republican primary voters.
Former Republican state legislator Amanda Reeve, who chairs Conservative Leadership for Arizona, a political committee supporting Arizona State Treasurer Doug Ducey’s gubernatorial bid, criticized Smith for, among other things, signing the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, which calls for reduced carbon emissions. “I don’t think he’s conservative enough for Arizona,” Reeve says.
Drew Sexton, Smith’s campaign spokesman, counters that Smith “is pro-life, opposes amnesty, a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, opposes a federal takeover of education” and “cut the size of government by 10 percent.”
Even so, Smith finds himself discernibly to the left of his Tea Party-backed rivals on the eve of the GOP primary. Strategically, his moderateness may prove to be a liability – primaries, after all, are where political activists often turn out in the greatest numbers – but it could also facilitate a victory if his opponents divvy up far-right voters and leave him the centrists. Most pundits agree it’s a wide-open race. Poll results released in March by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling had Smith trailing Secretary of State Ken Bennett and former GoDaddy legal counsel Christine Jones, but ahead of State Treasurer Doug Ducey. More recent polls have also pegged him in the top three.
Smith can make the case that he has the best chance in the general election, where moderates fare better: The PPP poll found him to have the greatest advantage among the Republican candidates over presumptive Democratic nominee Fred DuVal, leading 39 to 33 percent in the hypothetical match-up.
Smith says politics reminds him of something he learned as a 20-year-old Mormon missionary: He couldn’t find converts at the church. “I got converts by going out with people who didn’t believe as I believed,” he says, adding the same lesson applies to politics.
“I could sit back here in Arizona and scream and yell at the wall – and that is what we like to do; we like to scream and yell,” he says. “I hoped to... build bridges and to be part of [the] solution. ”
Secretary of State Race
Arizona voters will also choose their next Secretary of State on November 4. Ho-hum? Ho-no. Three times in the last three decades, the SecState has succeeded an outgoing governor mid-term. So, if history holds, a vote for any of these candidates could actually be a vote for Arizona’s top office:
Terry Goddard: At press time, the former attorney general of Arizona and mayor of Phoenix is the sole Democrat among declared candidates.
Justin Pierce: A Republican serving as a state representive in District 25, Pierce’s platform focuses on jobs and education.
Michele Reagan: The Republican state senator professes a passion for small business issues.
Wil Cardon: Mesa-based investment fund manager was a 2012 Republican senate candidate.
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