Dead Heat

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Valley News Issue: November 2011

Traditionally nonpartisan and suspense-free, the Phoenix mayoral election goes down to the wire on November 8 with the city’s first runoff vote in six decades. Bye-bye, civil transfer of power. Hello, slashed tires and partisan bickering. 

 

Iwant Greg Stanton to call Wes Gullett a “dangerous and unprincipled capitalist toadie,” but the affable ex-City Councilman won’t oblige. Nursing a cup of burnt coffee in the midtown sandwich shop where he sometimes spends his mornings, Stanton – an always-smiling 41-year-old – characterizes his opponent’s lobbying career as an “ethical liability” in the race to be the next mayor of Phoenix. Still, he strikes a conciliatory tone. “Look, Phoenix is a strong city,” the Democratic frontrunner says. “It was strong before I got to City Council. It will be strong when whoever wins [the election] leaves.”


Later that same day, I try to get Gullet to call Stanton a “devious union-kissing pinko.” Once again, no dice. Seated in his cluttered corner office at Phoenix-based First Strategic Communications and Public Affairs – the office that he has promised to relinquish, along with his partnership in the firm, if he wins the mayoral runoff on November 8 – Gullett lives up to his reputation in political circles: He is thoughtful, self-possessed and hardly prone to superlatives. Smoothly deflecting the conflict-of-interest issue (“I only spend about 20 hours a year as a lobbyist,” he demurs), the bearded, bespectacled, carrot-toned Gullett evinces practical conservative concern for the desert city’s well-being: “My fear is we find ourselves in 10 or 15 years having to revitalize the community. I don’t want to see us become another Detroit.”

All things considered, I should be grateful for what muted trash talk the candidates do pony up. After all, this is Phoenix, one of the least mayor-centric metropolises in the country. Our elections tend to be one-sided, nonpartisan and assiduously ignored by the majority of the voting public. They’re like genderless fashion shows. Scant sex appeal. Low stakes. Bad theater.

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At least, that was the case. In the month following the candidates’ interviews with PHOENIX magazine, the tone and temperament of the campaign soured considerably. There were accusations of hypocrisy, name-calling and, astoundingly, a tire-slashing. For better or worse, the city appears primed for the kind of bloody-knuckle campaign fisticuffs that other, more traditionally partisan American cities have always taken for granted.

The ball was set in motion on August 30 of this year, when a motley field of six candidates – including Stanton and Gullett – appeared on the ballot for Mayor of Phoenix. Five candidates claimed at least 10 percent of the vote. None collected the required majority to win. Stanton led the field with 37.9 percent of the ballots; Gullet was second with 20.5 percent. The upshot: Phoenix would have its first runoff election in over 60 years, and its first meaningful one-on-one showdown since 1984.

Longtime Valley pollster Michael O’Neil offers a sensible, oft-voiced explanation for the city’s traditional lack of mayoral fireworks: The office itself is somewhat emasculated. “We have a city manager form of government,” O’Neil explains. “The mayor has limited control. He’s first among equals on the City Council, he has a bigger bully pulpit, but that’s all. In Phoenix, it’s illegal for the mayor to give an executive order to a department head. The city manager runs the city.”

And once they take the job, Phoenix city managers tend to stay put. Frank Fairbanks held the position for 19 years before stepping down in 2009, a record-setting tenure that spanned three mayors and 30 council members. “It’s not like Philadelphia with the spoils system, where everybody gets thrown out en masse,” continues O’Neil, who leads the Tempe-based consultancy O’Neil Associates. “It’s one of the reasons we don’t get vituperative races like in other cities. The stakes are less. Everybody fundamentally agrees what people should do.”

Phoenix changes mayors almost as infrequently. Every sitting mayor from Margaret Hance (1976-1984) to current mayor Phil Gordon sought and won a second term. The lesson: Phoenix voters tend to stick with the incumbent, which tamps down competition. (Even in the hard-fought August election, only 13.2 percent of age-eligible Phoenicians cast votes.)

What’s more, outgoing Phoenix mayors have proven uncannily successful at tapping their successors, often reaching across party aisles to do so. After Paul Johnson, a Democrat, left office to futilely pursue the Arizona governorship in 1994, he endorsed ultimate successor Skip Rimsza, a Republican who held office for a full decade. Rimsza, in turn, endorsed Gordon, a Democrat.

These orderly, party-blind transfers of office are the legacy of the city’s officially nonpartisan elections; it seems reasonable to conclude that the absence of on-ballot political affiliation is largely to blame for Phoenix’s history of consensus. “It doesn’t completely take the [partisanship] out of the mayoral elections, but it massively mitigates it,” O’Neil says.

That lotus-sniffing nonpartisan stuff is largely a matter of history in the current election. The ongoing recession and opposition to Big Government have stoked partisan tensions nationally, and the wave of populist, fiscally-focused discontent that swept Tea Party candidates to power in so many congressional districts in the 2010 U.S. elections also exacted a profound effect on the Phoenix mayoral race. Jennifer Wright, the Arizona Tea Party-backed attorney, took almost 12 percent of the vote in the August mayoral election on a platform of radical government austerity. Longtime Phoenix City Councilperson Peggy Neely claimed roughly the same amount of votes on an anti-union, anti-spending platform. Absent those votes, Stanton would have won the election outright.

 

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According to pollster O’Neil, anti-spending, small-government rhetoric is a relatively rare phenomenon in municipal politics: “Local government is about delivery of city services, trash pickup, the police coming when you call them, clean parks…. Less government typically means more potholes and less cops. You don’t take it away from people without them feeling it right away. That’s why the range of disagreement is less.”

Ironically, Gullett (the former John McCain campaign manager and longtime Republican insider) absorbed more jabs from small-government doctrinaires than Stanton (a union-backed former Deputy Attorney General) in the heat of last summer’s pre-election campaign. Neely pointed to lobbying work Gullett’s firm did for the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) five years ago and attempted to paint him as union-friendly. Gullett scoffs at that. He says the SEIU partnership was brief, that his firm ended the contract in favor of representing management at Bashas’ grocery, and that the work was consistent with the “principle of competition.”

“That’s what happens in campaigns,” says Gullett, who also served as Chief of Staff for former Arizona governor Fife Symington. “They’ll take this little nugget of information that is accurate and use it to spin an entire fiction.”

Having out-performed his fellow Republicans to advance to the runoff, Gullet immediately turned to the business of wooing their constituents. That’s his biggest challenge as the campaign for Phoenix mayor enters the home stretch – proving to dyed-in-the-wool Tea Partiers and conservatives that he’s got the bona fides. Only by snatching up Wright’s votes – and Neely’s – can Gullett hope to close the 17-point gap behind Stanton on November 8.

To that end, Gullett unveiled an ambitious, multi-pronged strategy to control operating costs, mainly by instituting a new merit-based system to regulate city employee salary bonuses and raises. Gullett says that 98 percent of eligible city employees receive longevity bonuses and 89 percent receive performance bonuses. “That’s a curve we can’t afford, and it doesn’t incentivize employees,” he says, adding that he would mandate performance evaluations for all city employees upon taking office.

He also pledges to end the practice of so-called “double dipping,” whereby a city employee draws a salary while simultaneously enjoying pension benefits from a previous city job. The practice became a conservative cause célèbre when it was revealed that Jack Harris – the former Phoenix police chief – was getting pension payments on top of his new job as Public Safety Director.

Some critics – including ex-mayor Rimsza – doubt that certain features of Gullett’s far-ranging plan for fiscal discipline can be implemented. “It’s unrealistic to ask employees to accept a [merit-based] pay structure like that, or to implement it,” says Rimsza, who initially endorsed Neely but threw his support behind Stanton after the August election. “You just can’t dictate that from the mayor’s seat, or with council support. There’d be litigation.”

Still, the mere notion of bringing government employees – and their unions – to heel will surely gladden many Tea Party voters. Can Gullett depend on them? O’Neil says it’s iffy.

“Gullet, to my eyeballs, ran one of the better campaigns,” the pollster says. “He came up against some people who had City Council cachet and he beat all but one of them. But I think the Tea Party has a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. We didn’t win? Fine, I’ll take my ball and go home.”

With his quasi-victory in the August election, Stanton would seem to be the prohibitive favorite come November 8. But how much of that 17-point spread was party-line cherry-picking? As O’Neil notes, “You’d much rather be the guy out there alone, the only Democrat, than be stuffed in a cage fighting over a carrot.”

Now, Stanton must avoid inflaming the same conservative voters that Gullett hopes to mobilize. “We’re in an environment where people want austere government,” O’Neil points out. “Stanton’s Achilles heel is letting his opponent portray him as insensitive to that issue.”

Gullett has characterized Stanton as a free-spending political lifer, singling out the former councilman’s courtship of federal money for education and his desire to expand the city’s pricey Light Rail system. Stanton, naturally, denies harboring any extravagant tendencies. “People are frustrated about Washington, D.C. like never before,” Stanton says. “And you have candidates trying to tap into anti-Washington sentiment and bring it to City Hall. The difference is we have a balanced budget every year. From a stewardship standpoint, Phoenix has the highest fiscal rating in the Valley of the Sun.”

Inevitably, the issue of jobs was raised early in the campaign, and just as inevitably, both candidates identified job creation as their No. 1 priority. Stanton subcategorizes his jobs policy within his broader mandate to improve education and help repair Arizona’s SB1070-damaged national profile: “Saying education is a top priority sends a message to the nation. It tells them that this is a good place for long-term investment. The truth is, we have a high profile in this state, and it’s not always good. We need a high profile mayor who sends a different message, who says: We want your jobs, we want tourism and – oh, by the way – we respect diversity.”

Gullet’s jobs plan is more left-brained; he aims to spur growth and infill development by deregulating city building codes so engineers and architects can self-certify their blueprints and plans. “I want to reduce friction between businesses and the city,” Gullett says. “A one-day permitting process will help businesses grow.”

Yawn-inducing political arcana? Don’t tell them that. In their first one-on-one debate following the August election, the candidates came out swinging. Gullett accused Stanton of hypocrisy for opposing the appointment of lobbyists to public boards and commissions when he voted to appoint 12 such lobbyists in 2008. Stanton returned the hypocrisy charge, noting that Gullett – who opposes the city’s recent water-rate hike – repped Chaparral City Water Company as it sought a nearly 30 percent rate increase. Gullett called Stanton a “taxpayer-funded lobbyist.” Stanton demanded to see Gullett’s secret client list. And so on.

 Lost in the fusillade were the candidates’ positive branding efforts: for Stanton, calling attention to his blue-collar, West Phoenix roots while trumpeting his successes as Arizona’s Deputy Attorney General; for Gullett, presenting himself as a savvy outsider with new ideas who can deliver a much-needed kick in the butt to a stagnant political machine.

The contentious tone of the campaign – contentious by Phoenix standards – evidently spilled over into the parking lot of an art gallery in Sunnyslope the following week, where Stanton found that somebody had slashed the tires on his family sedan following a fundraiser. “My family will not be intimidated,” the rattled candidate told local media. Your grandfather’s Phoenix mayoral race, it ain’t.

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Wes Gullett (upper left); Greg Stanton (upper right)


MAYOR/COMPARE
See how the would-be mayors stack up against each other with this handy and easy-to-grasp chart

Age
Stanton: 41
Gullett: 50
 
Education
Stanton: Earned Bachelor’s at Marquette University, Juris Doctor at University of Michigan
Gullett: Earned Bachelor’s at University of Iowa
 
Previous Employment
Stanton: Practiced educational law in Phoenix; served as a Phoenix City Councilman (2001-2009); Arizona Deputy Attorney General under Terry Goddard (2009-2011)
Gullett: Ran John McCain’s 1992 Senate campaign; served as Chief of Staff to Gov. Fife Symington (1993-1996); political lobbyist and strategic planner (2001-present)
 
Key Policy Positions
Stanton: Staunchly pro-education; supports tax credit for payroll deduction benefiting education; favors letting the city’s two-percent food tax expire in 2013; wants to end appointment of lobbyists to public boards and commissions; favors eliminating position of Public Safety Director
Gullett: Business-friendly; favors immediately repealing the food tax; austerity plan includes putting city employees on a merit-pay system and overhauling pension policies; favors cutting red tape by
allowing builders to self-permit; opposes day labor centers; supports SB1070

Pet Peeves
Stanton: Pay-day loan lenders and usury scum; Tea Party voters; tire slashers
Gullett: That darned free-enterprise-smothering red tape; disobedient City Manager David Cavazos

Signature Fashion Accessory
Stanton: Dad jeans
Gullett: Paul Giamatti beard
 
Key Endorsements
Stanton: Former Phoenix mayor Skip Rimsza; Arizona Council of Police and Sheriffs; Border Patrol union; former Phoenix mayor and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard; Congressman Ed Pastor
Gullett: Arizona Senators John McCain and John Kyl; Arizona Governor Jan Brewer; former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson; former Governor Fife Symington; Arizona Tea Party favorite Jennifer Wright
 
Reaching
Stanton: Harsh criticism of Gullett’s proposed tax to fund the arts reeks faintly of hypocrisy, considering Stanton’s long-standing support of METRO Light Rail and other costly revitalization projects.
Gullett: Branded Stanton a “taxpayer-funded lobbyist” for legislative work he did on behalf of the Attorney General’s office, even though Stanton was representing voters and fighting the likes of pay-day loan operators.
 
Achilles Heel
Stanton: The “career politician” thing; voted for water-rate hikes as City Councilman; close ties to unions and support of food tax may inflame small-government voters; sometimes appears too polished; labeled “plastic man” by local columnist
Gullet: The “lobbyist” thing; refusal to release list of past clients raises transparency issues; past support of Democrat Janet Napolitano rankles GOP hardliners; proposed $100 million “art tax” seems at odds with small-government message; ginger bias
 
Did You Know?
Stanton: Lost 50 pounds two years ago as part of a personal health makeover;
occasionally enjoys live-music shows at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix; favorite bands include Foo Fighters and Valley rockers Jimmy Eat World
Gullett: His adoptive daughter Mickey was orphaned in the Bangladesh cyclone of 1991; Mickey was one of two infants whom family friend Cindy McCain brought to the U.S. for medical treatment; the McCains adopted the other girl, Bridget

Same Same
Stanton/Gullett: Both like to take credit for bringing nonprofit TGen biotech research facility to Phoenix (Stanton was lead Councilman on the project; Gullett helped recruit TGen President Jeffrey Trent); both cite job creation as No. 1
campaign priority



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Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon gives his 80-something mother a hug as she leaves his City Hall office. As a charter member of her son’s Senior Task Force, Judy Gordon has been a semi-regular fixture at 200 W. Washington Street for eight years.

“She wants to make sure I’m working,” Gordon says of the intense maternal oversight. “You know, that her tax dollars are going to good use.”

Gordon weathered much controversy during his two-term reign over America’s sixth-largest city, but his work ethic was never at issue. As such, he cautions the winner of the mayoral runoff to expect an all-consuming, full-time job: “Phone calls at dinner, late at night. A senior citizen crying because her water is leaking. A police officer killed in the line of duty. There’s very little filter between you and the public, and that can be addictive.”

It was a costly addiction. Gordon and his wife of 15 years, Christa Severns, divorced in 2009 amid speculation that the demands of the job had taxed their partnership. Two years later, Gordon’s romantic relationship with fundraiser Elissa Mullany collapsed under accusations that he unethically paid Mullany large sums of money out of his personal campaign coffers and set up her business partner and other associates with city-related jobs.

Gordon maintains that he’s a victim of “misrepresentation.” He also intimates that a year-long internal investigation involving his son, Phoenix Police Department officer Jeffrey Gordon, was politically motivated, possibly in response to Gordon’s controversial opposition to SB1070. “A lot of innocent people paid the price, and I regret that they were targeted instead of just me.”

Discussing his newly-single status and unenviable finances – “I leave office with much less money than when I entered office,” he says – Gordon can’t help but indulge a wisp of pathos. Still, he’s proud of his job performance: “We rebuilt Downtown and have the lowest crime rate in 20 years. We have new parks and a good water delivery system. So no regrets.”

A City Hall insider who asked to remain anonymous says that Gordon’s legacy is tarnished, but hardly broken: “In the long term, I think history will view him favorably. His heart was always in the right place. If he did one thing wrong, it was surrounding himself with people whose intentions weren’t pure like that.”

The 60-year-old mayor is uncertain what kind of work he’ll undertake when he vacates City Hall in January, other than he’s “open for interviews.” As this issue went to press, he’s also not decided on which mayoral candidate he’ll endorse: “I’ve tried to steer clear of politics over the past six months. That’s subject to change if the issues change and it’s something I feel strongly about.”