Ms. Brain vs. Mr. Brawn

Stephen LemonsFebruary 2019
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Many think Kate Gallego had this month’s Pheonix mayoral showdown in the bag – and she might. But firefighter and fellow Democrat Daniel Valenzuela plans to make her work for it by roping in some republicans.

As shots across the bow go, this one fizzled before hitting its intended target. In a fund-raising letter for his mayoral campaign dated January 15, firefighter and former Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela cast his opponent and fellow Democrat Kate Gallego as a cross between Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky and the Windy City’s lefty mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

Phoenix’s runoff mayoral election will be “a contest between a Chicago-style politician and a homegrown public servant who has dedicated their [sic] life to serving our community,” Valenzuela, 43, warned, with himself in the latter category, fighting for “quality education, economic prosperity, and safe neighborhoods” – and no doubt, truth, justice and the American way.

The idea that the 37-year-old Gallego, a sunny, Harvard-educated single mom with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, will somehow transform the nation’s fifth largest city into a desert-bound People’s Republic was so risible that instead of firing back, the Gallego campaign held a pizza party, asking supporters to donate enough to buy a slice of deep-dish Chicago-style pizza for each of her volunteers and splashing photos of the resulting shindig all over social media.

A similar attack on Gallego in the weeks before the November 6 special election paid for by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce also ricocheted. In a direct-mail piece, the conservative chamber slammed Gallego for being endorsed by Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, while noting that the chamber-endorsed Valenzuela was also backed by various police and firefighter unions.

It was an odd salvo, considering Valenzuela’s own positions. In a blue metropolis growing bluer by the year, endorsements by Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club are generally seen as positives, and, as the Phoenix New Times reported in a piece on the kerfuffle, Valenzuela had unsuccessfully sought Planned Parenthood’s endorsement in the race. While the mailer was hitting Valley homes, Valenzuela tweeted his support for the pro-choice nonprofit, and in the wake of the controversy, Valenzuela issued a statement, re-emphasizing his support of a woman’s right to choose.

But in a contest between two pro-immigration Dems who espouse comparable platitudes on education, growth and safety, these swipes at Gallego for being too liberal and too much of a “politician,” will likely become more common as the campaign races toward a March 12 election day.

They are born of political necessity – and are a symptom, perhaps, of the nonpartisan election format, which in Phoenix often produces cumbersome runoffs in lieu of a clear-cut winner. Gallego dominated a four-candidate field in the nonpartisan November election, leading Valenzuela, 45 percent to 26 percent, while Republican Moses Sanchez and Libertarian Nicholas Sarwark came in third and fourth place, respectively. Her failure to capture more than 50 percent of the vote triggered the March runoff election to replace former Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat who resigned last year to run successfully for the U.S. House seat from the 9th Congressional District.

Hypothetically, if Valenzuela earned a large enough portion of the 29 percent that collectively went to Sanchez and Sarwark, he could best Gallego, who – despite her last name – is Caucasian, to make history and become Phoenix’s first Latino mayor. To that end, Valenzuela recently hired a team of ex-Senator John McCain staffers to run his campaign, which is supported by the city’s powerful business interests and big unions – ironically, a more Chicago-style coalition than Gallego’s.

Meanwhile, Gallego has cobbled together a more traditional Democratic army of progressive politicos, Latino leaders and community organizers, one that reflected Phoenix’s electorate to the tune of a 19-point lead. Both candidates are experienced, relatively young and well-funded, and both must deal with the challenge of a lower turnout in March than the one in November.

Valenzuela boasts a more dynamic, up-from-the-bootstraps story of an ambitious West Side kid made good, while the brainy, super-educated Gallego is practically a walking Wikipedia of wonkery. With her mayoral poise and double-digit November lead, most observers give Gallego the edge. Still, given the lack of huge policy differences, could “Danny from the block” out-hustle Gallego and pull off a historic upset?

The circumstances seem daunting for the career firefighter. Back in 2011, Republican candidate Wes Gullett – a well-connected political operative and rock-ribbed John McCain loyalist – also found himself going head-to-head for an open mayor’s seat after a sound, double-digit beating in the general election. It was more of the same in the runoff, where Stanton pantsed him, 56 to 44 percent, despite his superior establishment connections.

And yet, it’s the prospect of some sort of Cinderella story, however unlikely, that gives the race what little drama it has.

Phoenix Rising?

Only in the last few years has Arizona pushed past a divisive recent history, leaving polarizing figures such as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, ex-Governor Jan Brewer, and onetime state Senate president Russell Pearce, author of the state’s much-reviled anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, in the rearview mirror.

Which is why, on the surface, Valenzuela’s candidacy seems so tantalizing. What better way to send a message to the world that Arizona has fully exorcized the demons of 1070 than by electing a Latino to be mayor of its largest city?

During an interview at his campaign office near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road, Valenzuela seems reluctant to even discuss that aspect of his campaign, though he admits it would be significant if he won. He recalls a conversation with a friend in D.C. “He says, ‘Wow, a Latino mayor in the land of Arpaio,’” Valenzuela remembers. “I said, ‘You know, it’s never been the land of Arpaio, that’s the point.’ But I think it will speak volumes to how the city embraces diversity.”

Valenzuela – divorced and remarried, with a blended family of four children – is more comfortable discussing his rough upbringing. His dad was an alcoholic, he says, and his mom raised him and his five siblings on her own, often moving from place to place in the West Valley, so that he ended up attending several public schools.

He joined the Glendale Fire Department in 2003, inspired, he says, by watching firemen revive his mother after she had collapsed one day with an unknown ailment. (He lost both parents and a brother before he turned 21.) He has remained in Glendale as a firefighter, working 10 24-hour shifts a month, while serving on the Phoenix City Council.

“I pretty much work seven days a week,” he says. “I just believe that when you’re a public servant, your time isn’t your own.”

Indeed, Valenzuela intends to remain a firefighter, even if he’s elected mayor. During a debate in September broadcast on Channel 12, he stumbled when moderator Brahm Resnik challenged him on why he was keeping his firefighter gig and if it was because he wanted to continue contributing to his pension.

Valenzuela rejected Resnik’s suggestion, claiming that in six-and-a-half years on the council representing West Phoenix’s District 5, “no one has ever asked me to stop helping people from a firetruck in order to govern in our city.” He added that no one becomes a firefighter for the pension.

“It’s a calling, my calling is to serve,” he said during the debate, defensively. “And whether it’s on a firetruck or behind a dais, I serve with the same intent.”

But Valenzuela was widely panned for being the only candidate determined to keep his day job, and has since backtracked, saying he would put his firefighter career “on hold” while nominally at the helm of a city of more than
1.6 million residents.

Granted, Phoenix has a council-manager form of government, a “weak mayor” system that essentially reduces the mayor to an at-large vote on the council, with ceremonial duties and the ability to set the agenda. And then there’s the promise of a recurring Norman Rockwell-like tableau, featuring hizzoner riding in on a red truck to save a home from flames or a cat from a tree.

Still, the idea of a part-time mayor has earned near-universal raspberries. Nor has Valenzuela drawn rave reviews as a communicator.

In person, as in the Channel 12 debate and others, Valenzuela speaks in generalities, for the most part, when asked to differentiate himself from Gallego.

Both support hiring more police officers and expanding the use of body cams for Phoenix cops. Both supported the recent council decision to raise water rates in order to revive the city’s water infrastructure. Both support light rail expansion and oppose efforts to undermine the city’s current pension system. And both want to bring more jobs to the Valley, though Valenzuela seems to emphasize the tech industry, and Gallego talks more of the biomedical field.

Pressed on what exactly was different between himself and Gallego, Valenzuela told PHOENIX that it came down to their experiences. “I come from the front lines of reality,” he says. “I know what it’s like to race to put myself between total strangers and danger, literally.”

One of the few issues on which he and Gallego part ways is the council’s recent vote to spend $150 million to renovate Talking Stick Resort Arena, part of a controversial deal to keep the Phoenix Suns in town. Valenzuela ultimately backed the final deal, pointing to the economic impact the Suns have on Downtown, while Gallego opposed it, arguing that multimillion-dollar sports franchises shouldn’t receive public financing.

Asked if he had been influenced by the donations he’s received from persons connected to the Suns organization, Valenzuela denies this influenced his stance. (Both he and Gallego resigned to run last year and were not in a position to vote on the package.)

Confronted with the conventional wisdom that Gallego was better prepared to be mayor and was likely to best him in the runoff, he concedes that the odds might be against him.

“I’m comfortable being the underdog,” he says. “In fact, you might be surprised at how many Phoenicians feel like they are the underdog. That’s a story of our city. We’re named Phoenix, for crying out loud.”

Enter the MBA

To say Gallego came from a different side of the tracks than Valenzuela is putting it mildly. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the daughter of two lawyers. She met her future husband, Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona’s 7th District, while both were undergrads at Harvard. She earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

The Gallegos announced their divorce in 2016 after six years of marriage, but they remain close allies. The congressman’s district director, Luis Heredia, took a leave of absence to run Kate Gallego’s mayoral campaign, and Kate has featured the couple’s 2-year old son, Michael, in her campaign ads.

A policy wonk who can tell you more than you want to know about water rights, city pensions and Section 8 vouchers, Gallego worked as a staffer for former Governor Janet Napolitano, a planner for Salt River Project and was first elected to the City Council in 2013 from District 8, which covers South Phoenix and part of Downtown. Her strong suit is her studiousness, a quality she says sets her apart.

“People want a mayor who thinks critically about decisions and will be responsible and actively involved,” she says in a January morning interview over coffee. “They want a mayor who shows up prepared, who understands the issues.”

She notes that Valenzuela sometimes seemed befuddled during their Channel 12 debate.

“You can’t lead if you’re doing more research. We have both been on the council, in my case five years and his case seven years. We should be ready to tell the voters where we stand.”

Gallego says she was surprised by Valenzuela’s decision to hire Republican consultants for round two of the mayoral race and noted that Valenzuela’s campaign has been “more aggressive” than before in attacking her and is going for “a more conservative turn.”

Where Gallego is endorsed by former Democratic attorney general Terry Goddard, civil rights icon Dolores Huerta and former state Senate majority leader Alfredo Gutierrez, Valenzuela has racked up backing from three former mayors – Phil Gordon, Skip Rimsza and Paul Johnson – as well as Phoenix business leader Jerry Colangelo and city councilpersons Debra Stark and Laura Pastor.

She knows the city’s power structure has made a decision for her opponent. Signs touting Valenzuela’s support from cops and firemen are already blanketing the city, and she will not be able to rely on the massive turnout that Democrats received in the midterm elections to carry her through.

However, her win in November was a broad one. She did well in both conservative and progressive districts, and she even won some precincts in Valenzuela’s old district. Though the contest is nonpartisan, Valenzuela will have to motivate Republicans and independents to show up to vote in a contest between two Democrats.

Republican political consultant Nathan Sproul of Arizona’s Lincoln Strategy Group figures that’s why Gallego will win, because he sees too little light between the two candidates. So why should tuskers bother? “There are not many substantive issues that, at least from a Republican perspective, I think change because it’s Valenzuela or Gallego,” Sproul says, adding, “It’s like you’re running for high school class president.”

The fact Valenzuela and Gallego are the finalists just “proves how Democrat the city of Phoenix is,” Sproul says.

Republicans would love a crack at undoing the current slightly-left-of-center consensus in Phoenix politics, but in order to do so, voters would need to amend the city’s charter and switch to partisan municipal elections.

Chances are, that isn’t going to happen.

Nonpartisan elections are a legacy of America’s progressive era, and were once seen as a panacea for corruption, a harbinger of good government. Phoenix’s original 1913 charter enshrined the concept. Save for Tucson, which retains its own quirky partisan format, all of Arizona’s cities and towns hold nonpartisan elections.

And it’s not just in Arizona. Nonpartisan municipal elections are the rule rather than the exception across the United States. According to the National League of Cities, of the 30 most populous cities in the U.S., only a handful have partisan contests for city officers. The idea is ingrained into the American psyche: Potholes don’t have party preferences.

There is real bipartisan resistance to fully unleashing partisan forces on city government. The fear is that the kind of partisan gridlock we see on the national level would replicate itself on the city level, and deal a deathblow to consensus building. Which is why Valenzuela is as close as Republicans will get in March to having a standard-bearer.

Local rainmakers supportive of Valenzuela believe money will make the difference. They argue that this is a whole new election and that Gallego is too “political” (read: “liberal”) for Phoenix.

But Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo says Valenzuela’s right turn risks alienating the Democrats who support him. “It’s a Hail Mary pass,” Gallardo, a Gallego supporter, says.

“What are his other options?” wondered Gallardo, a Democrat whose district encompasses the tough Maryvale neighborhood that Valenzuela represented and hailed from. “When a good chunk of voters in your own council district vote for your opponent, that speaks volumes.”

If Valenzuela can’t crack Gallego’s double-digit advantage this year, he’ll get another crack at her in 2020, when Stanton’s original term – lengthened by voters in 2017, to bring the mayoral election in line with the general – expires. But it might be a moot point by then. In Phoenix, voters are generally happy with their incumbents, and whoever takes the mayor’s office this month is likely to stay there for a stretch.

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