As he reaches the mid-point in his term, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton ponders his future.

Mayor at a Crossroads

Written by Bill Wyman Category: People Issue: May 2016
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It is an optimistic uplift in his jaw when he speaks in public. When he talks, he seems to be looking out off into what he plainly believes is a positive future. It’s a nice asset for a young and smart politician to have, and it certainly played a part in his election to the Phoenix mayor’s office in November 2011. 

Four-plus years later, his first term is complete and his second one is underway, with term limits making it his last. (Barring something crazy like a run for governor in 2018, he’ll leave office in early 2020.) He’s a well-liked politician in a city with a great future, but without a clear future of his own. Even his past in a certain sense has become unmoored: He and his wife Nicole announced a few weeks into 2016 that they were separating.

Phoenix makes it hard for a mayor to leave a mark on the city. The so-called weak mayor system puts bureaucratic power at the hands of an appointed city manager, and leaves the mayor as basically a glorified council member. Still, there is power even in a figurehead position, and he is the latest in a line of three mayors – with Phil Gordon and Skip Rimsza before him, two-termers all – who, one by one, bet the city’s future on a set of initiatives that have inexorably altered Phoenix: big transportation bond measures that created the light rail; the migration of ASU to Downtown; and aggressive moves on the business-development front that might finally lead the state out of its crack-like dependency on boom-and-bust real estate. 

Stanton has doubled down on this momentum, spearheading a gigantic new transportation bond measure of his own (it passed last year), ramping up the city’s import-export industry, seducing

any new business he can to town, and becoming an outspoken advocate of a progressive agenda of inclusion and tolerance.

He’s been an effective advocate for the city, and was easily reelected last fall. It’s easy to forecast him topping a Best Phoenix Mayors of All-Time list, if someone were to publish such a thing.

But what will he do after? It’s a difficult question. The mayor considered the issue recently as he sat with his father on an ancient couch in the living room of the house he grew up in on the northwest side of town, the fulcrum of his past and future. This champion of new urbanism in a desert city grew up in a stolidly working-class, quietly religious, and adamantly service-minded family. He went away to college and law school but returned to his home to find himself and create a future. And now that future is here.

What will he do when his term is up in three years? 

“I don’t know,” he says.

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PHOENIX IS AN UNPRETENTIOUS CITY, and Mayor Stanton is possibly the most unpretentious big-city American mayor alive today. Consider his work space, which reflects the asceticism of his blue-collar upbringing and can only be described as “monk-like.” He selflessly converted the mayor’s office at city hall into a conference room – a conference room, it should be noted, plain enough to give the word “functional” a bad name – and moved his personal office to the secretary’s anteroom, which is even less interesting than the conference room. (One potential bit of decoration – what seems to be a painted portrait of the mayor – is tucked away on the floor between a side cabinet and a wall.)

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A little after 8 a.m. on a weekday, Stanton and Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner are having their monthly meeting. They sit, cordially, on one side of the room’s bland table, displaying an easy rapport. “He’s a local guy, just like me,” Stanton says. “Phoenix through and through.” The chief, a 30-plus-year veteran of the force, is in official dress, but in a short-sleeved shirt. The four tiny gold stars on his collar are by far the flashiest thing in sight. 

The mayor himself is a decent-looking guy, a still-boyish 46. His suit is off-the-rack – maybe a half-size too big. His hair looks to be a Supercuts special. He works without notes; a Circle K coffee cup sits in front of him. 

The two run through their agenda. First, the aftermath of a murderous rampage at a family home in far northwest Phoenix the previous week. Behind the tragedy lie lessons to be learned as police and firefighters from both Phoenix and Glendale convened to deal with the crisis. “We’re going to find out what we did right, what we could have been doing better,” the chief says.  

The mayor asks about the 911 operators. The calls had been particularly horrific that day. “I need to reach out to them,” Stanton said, looking at his staff.

He moves on. “How’s the hiring going?” The city is adding an unprecedented 300 new officers. Crime in the city is way down – murders, for example, are a third what they were 20 years ago – but after what has essentially been a hiring freeze, Phoenix has hundreds of fewer officers than its peak in the 1990s. A new phalanx just came out of the city’s academy, but the chief is frank: “We can’t find enough qualified people.”

Body cameras. Union negotiations. The pair go through the complex logistical matters touching each of these. Social issues come up as well. One of Stanton’s legacies will be an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Whatever its moral value, it has a pragmatic purpose for Stanton: helping to restore the state’s image with national business leaders after the SB 1070 PR debacle. He takes the time to nudge the chief to get a contingent of officers in the upcoming pride parade. “It might be a boost for hiring.” The chief nods in agreement.

As the meeting winds down, the mayor asks, with genuine interest, what Yahner will be doing with himself after his long-scheduled retirement this fall. The chief doesn’t have an answer. 

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PHM0516GS Mayor 02CONSIDERING THE LOW-KEY nature both of the office and the man who holds it, some people might be surprised to know that Mayor Stanton has a regular security detail – two police officers who essentially leapfrog each other while on duty; one drives him and accompanies him during public appearances, while the other moves ahead to the next event.

They’re waiting for the mayor in the garage as he finishes up his 9 a.m. meeting with Chris Mackie, head of planning. Like his pow-wow with the chief, the intake here is quick and voluminous. The mayor listens to what his briefer has to say, interspersed with his own issues, kept in his head. The view from the window – slightly obscured by the Goode Municipal Building across the street –  is one of those classic mundane desert sprawls so well-known to Downtown office workers. Off in the distance, reflections of cars flicker on the southern stretch of I-17. Planes, sometimes in tandem, float down to Sky Harbor. 

The city’s economic news, particularly on the jobs front, is finally looking up.  “2016 is going to be a good year,” Mackie says, her smile emphasizing the understatement. The job-growth metric that is most important – the so-called “base industry” jobs, outside of retail and construction – is scaling upward, almost tripling to nearly 10,000 new jobs in 2015, with expectations of a bigger jump in 2026. 

They zip through other topics, like a joint trip of the mayor and governor to Dallas to lobby American Airlines to get more international flights out of Sky Harbor; and finally, redevelopment of the Arizona Center complex Downtown, complete with a revamping toward the booming ASU student population nearby and the potential for another big building on the site. 

The mayor says goodbye to Mackie and her crew. A few minutes later he’s met his security detail in the garage and is headed out to a series of events, from animal control to brain-injury awareness. In each he enters, greets attendees, and then sits patiently in the front row observing the proceedings until he is called up to say a few words. He looks off in that uplifted way he has and preaches his message of tolerance and progress. 

This is what a typical day looks like for Stanton – steadily busy and somberly demanding, but rarely exotic, bodyguards notwithstanding. He’s paid $88,000 annually; according to the Arizona Republic, more than 1,000 city employees make more.

Stanton is matter-of-fact about the time demands of his job. His kids, he notes, like to see him at their games, but understand if he has to roar off after. He carries around sports equipment in the car for impromptu games of catch with them when he has free time. Otherwise, he works out at his local YMCA most mornings; he teaches a class on leadership and ethics at Downtown’s Summit Law School. 

“I’m pretty boring,” he says over coffee at the Urban Beans Café on Seventh Street. “All I really care about is playing basketball with my kids and the city.” 

A few days later, the mayor and his father, Fred Stanton, sit in the living room of the small house he grew up in, just off Dunlap on the west side of town, around the corner from Cortez High School, which Stanton attended in the 1980s. The house is plain and unprepossessing, like father and like son. In a dining room next to the kitchen, the elder Stanton has covered the walls, floor to ceiling, with pictures and paraphernalia about his four children and their families. His pride in them all is evident; the mayor doesn’t figure any more prominently than the others. 

Fred Stanton and his wife Mary-Ann decided to move to Phoenix from their home in Long Island in 1973. The mayor’s father remains kindly and quick, with the perceptible remains of a New York accent. He got a job selling shoes at J.C. Penney, at the then-swanky Park Central mall just north of Downtown, and worked there 27 years, raising four kids and making sure they all got through college. Memories of his father riding the bus to work influence Stanton to this day. In 2015, the mayor campaigned hard for a second massive Phoenix bond issue – and saw the city vote resoundingly for a plan that will ultimately see an extraordinary $31 billion in transit improvements over the next 20 years.  

Fred and Mary-Ann’s lives centered around charity work at the local Catholic church. The family living room is a riot of pastels and ‘70s décor, as different as can be from the urban residential highrises being built Downtown. The mayor, though, looks into the past and sees something else: a living room filled with clothes and food his parents had collected for distribution to the needy. “I grew up Catholic,” Stanton says, “but I still know very little about the theology of my church. Because I grew up in this household, all I know is, faith means serve others. Love God with all your heart, and serve others.” (He still attends church, at St. Francis Xavier in Downtown Phoenix.) 

Mayor and father have a seemingly easy relationship; Fred Stanton is quick to tease his son. When asked if it was hard to see his son go off to college, he exclaims, “Heck no! We were glad to see him go.”

A family trip to Washington, D.C., may have been the catalyst of the son’s interest in politics. “We thought he learned nothing!” Fred Stanton says. “We thought, ‘Why did we do this?’ Later on, though, the teacher asked him and he wrote about the whole trip, what he saw, what he heard, the monuments. It was worth it.”  

When it came time to consider college, the future mayor researched scholarships at the public library and got an invitation to interview for a Harry S. Truman scholarship in San Francisco. His wary parents used their church connections to find him a guide for the city – and young Greg was met at the airport by a local nun, who put him up for the trip. He got the scholarship, which funded his time at Marquette. Then came law school at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor. He worked two summers in D.C., but decided he wanted to come back home.

Returning to the Valley, he went to work at a law firm. “Other than my parents and a few high school basketball buddies, I didn’t know anyone,” Stanton recalls. But he met Nicole France, also a lawyer, in 2000; they married in 2005. The pair’s two children are 5 and 9. He began volunteering and doing stints on the city’s planning commission and other boards before making a council run in 2000. Re-elected twice, representing some of the Valley’s toniest areas, including Biltmore and Arcadia, he resigned in 2009 to work under former Mayor Terry Goddard at the attorney general’s office. “He was and is energetic and smart,” Goddard says of Stanton. “He has a zest for government and politics and has a great talent for it. He invests his heart and soul.”

Ducking a statewide AG race to succeed Goddard at the end of 2010, he instead ran for mayor the following year. The election cycle was a mess, with a half-dozen or so candidates elbowing for attention. Surviving the first round, he faced long-term Republican operative Wes Gullet in a runoff and beat him handily.

It was a not-insignificant moment for a child of the northwest side. By this time, sadly, his mother was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease; father Fred cared for her until the end. She passed away a month after Stanton took office.  

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STANTON CAME TO OFFICE amid the downturn and is, as a consequence, obsessive on the subject of economic development. 

He’s been shuttling to Mexico several times a year to rebuild the state’s traditional dominance in Mexican imports and exports, and sees a niche for Phoenix hosting satellite offices for companies based in hip but expensive cities like San Francisco. One afternoon, the mayor sits in the lobby of the Hotel Palomar, schmoozing the CEO of S.F.-based company Double Dutch, which develops mobile apps for conferences. Double Dutch is moving a 40-employee division to Downtown Phoenix, with hopes that it will grow to 200.

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“He’s hitting a lot of singles and doubles,” Goddard says. “That’s what wins ballgames.” 

 But there are tensions on the council, much of it between Stanton and longtime councilman Sal DiCiccio, a perennial mayoral tormentor who frequently butted heads with Rimsza and Gordon. DiCiccio is the proud exception to city hall’s traditional tone of gentility. His regular email diatribes use terms like “ballot rigging” and “union bosses” along with liberal use of capital letters to crusade against the mayor and issues like the transportation bond vote. 

While pretty calm by, say, Italian standards, the discord has been enough to see four previous city mayors – Goddard, Stanton, Rimsza and Paul Johnson – write a letter to the Republic decrying “a growing partisan divide” and “personal attacks.” “Greg’s been dealing with a more difficult political climate,” Gordon says. “Today it’s ‘You’re off a degree, you’re not only against me, you could be an enemy, you could be a traitor.’ Before, there were shades of gray.”

“It’s an unrequited hate,” Stanton says of DiCiccio. “He wastes a lot of his time with conspiracy theories.” 

And sometimes his political allies give him grief. One morning the mayor watched an online video of Councilmember Michael Nowakowski, one of the mayor’s closest political allies and a supporter of the city’s antidiscrimination ordinance. The leaked video showed the councilman delivering a contemptuous anti-gay-marriage diatribe to a gathering of Latino ministers. It was a moment of rank hypocrisy – and from the mayor’s point of view, highly off-message. 

While stopping short of calling for Nowakowski’s resignation, Stanton was plainly furious. “We embrace everyone. It’s massively important. I don’t know why he did it, if it was from the heart or he was just trying to appease those folks, but either way it’s completely unacceptable.”

In Stanton’s eyes, the remarks are a betrayal of civic progress, too. “I want to show that a progressive leadership is good for business,” he maintains. “It’s not touchy-feely stuff. For the hard-core chamber of commerce type, look where the jobs are being created in this state.”

Back at that January inauguration, the mayor and his wife, who is now a managing partner at the Phoenix branch of Quarles & Brady, a prominent national commercial law firm, circulated and chatted at the ornate Orpheum Theatre as preparations went on for the city’s biannual swearing-in ceremony. A few minutes later Stanton and the eight other city council members took their oaths of office, Stanton for the second time as mayor. In his address Stanton was his usual optimistic self. 

Ten days later, the city’s political class was shocked by a morning Facebook post from the couple. “After 10 years of marriage that brought us tremendous joy and two beautiful children, we have decided to separate. This is a difficult but amicable decision,” the post read. “Each of us will maintain a strong presence in our community and will continue to attend public events – sometimes together. Don’t hesitate to invite us both – it will not create awkwardness.”

It’s difficult to get a rise out of the mayor. If you were talking to a friend, what exactly happened? Did you screw up? Did she screw up?

“Oh… you know, I’ll leave that one alone,” he says. Uncharacteristically, the mayor hems and haws a bit. “It’s our personal life.” Pause. “We chose to put out a statement together… in that regard, we did talk about it a lot. We decided it was the best way to do it, to keep private things private.”

And how has the separation proceeded? 

“In terms of the main thing, which is our kids, it’s going great. We’re totally focused on their best interests, and it’s working very well in terms of her seeing them as much as she wants to see them, me seeing them. We still have dinner together as a family; in that regard we’re trying to make it [have] as little impact on the kids as possible.” The mayor now lives a short distance away from the family home in North Central Phoenix.

His father is still sitting nearby, and it’s possible the mayor is embarrassed talking about the sensitive subject in front of him. In olden times, a divorce might have been a hit on a public official’s reputation. But with the twice-divorced Donald Trump running for the GOP presidential nomination, and divorced and remarried John McCain sitting in the Senate, it’s unlikely the breakup will affect Stanton’s political career. The mayor quickly gets back into the mode he’s most comfortable in: the one looking out optimistically.

The bigger long-term liability is his party affiliation. State-level elections in Arizona are notoriously unfriendly to Democrats; in 2014, Republicans went five-for-five in claiming the top state offices, and Governor Doug Ducey, for one, seems like a favorable bet for re-election in 2018. A run for Congress is also problematic: fellow Democrat Ruben Gallego seems destined to hold the heavily Latino District 7 for years to come, and the other Phoenix-area seat – District 9 – is similarly occupied by a strong Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema.

“Nowhere to go is his problem,” Tempe political pundit Mike O’Neil says. “Most people would say he’s doing a competent job, the city is faring well, but I’m not sure he’s inspired any great passions.”

O’Neil adds that the county’s voter precinct scandal in late March might give the public a clearer glimspe of Stanton’s executive timbre. “Frankly, he’s the one who jumped in and asked for a Justice Department investigation. It might be his opportunity to champion something the public feels passionate about and put him in line for a state office.

“But barring that, honestly, where I’d expect him to go is an appointed position in the Clinton White House, if that scenario plays out.” 

Stanton is officially mum, but concedes that he will face some critical career decisions as his term matures. “Three and a half more years and I have to move on to something else. Who knows what it’s going to be? I love public service. I’ll leave it at that.”

Would you rather be in Washington? 

“I’m an Arizona guy.” 

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