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UpClose with Jim Pederson

Businessman and prominent Democrat Jim Pederson is interviewed at his office in Phoenix Jan. 19. (For the Capitol Times/ Laura Segall)

Businessman and prominent Democrat Jim Pederson is interviewed at his office in Phoenix Jan. 19. (For the Capitol Times/ Laura Segall)

It’s just not an election season without Jim Pederson.

Whether he’s running for office, supporting ballot measures, donating to candidates or steering the Arizona Democratic Party, Pederson is omnipresent in the state every two years.

But despite expectations that he would run for governor in 2010, Pederson will stay out of the race and focus on his development company. Despite the millions of dollars he’s put into ballot measures, candidates and his own race for U.S. Senate, Pederson says he won’t be spending as much money on politics from now on.

Nonetheless, Pederson still has plenty of ideas about the state’s future. The pillar of Arizona’s business community and Democratic establishment took time to discuss the 2010 election, his campaign against U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, his mayoral ambitions and why he doesn’t think it’s a good thing for any one person to play as dominant a role in politics as he has for the past decade.

You surprised a lot of people last year when you announced that you wouldn’t run for governor. Why are you staying out of the race?
A couple of reasons. Number one, we certainly can’t predict what the economy does. I mean, our business is going to be fine. We’ve been in business for 27 years here in the Valley. But the economic turmoil that we’ve experienced over the past couple of years has presented some challenges, both positive and negative. The big growth spurt in our company came in the early ’90s when we went through the last recession and we identified opportunities, and that’s what really propelled our company into the size that it is today.

Plus, I took a lot of time out over the past number of years, both as state party chair and as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2006, and I needed to get back and really tend to business, at least for the next year or two.

I wasn’t looking forward to a heavily contested primary with Terry Goddard. I’ve known Terry for, gosh, 30 years, and it would’ve been a slugfest, and I just didn’t have the real desire to do that. So those were the primary reasons.

How much of your decision to stay out of the governor’s race was due to the amount of money you would have had to spend on your campaign?
If I got into it, I would’ve spent whatever was necessary to win it. A lot of people kind of focused on what I spent personally, but I think very few people realize that I raised more money in 2006 than any other Democrat in the state’s history. But, particularly in the Democratic Party, we don’t have a large fundraising base. So it’s almost necessary that if you are running for statewide office that you have money of your own, particularly if you’re unknown.

Former Gov. Janet Napolitano was known to be a big backer of yours and was expected to support you in a gubernatorial race. Was your decision to stay out of the race influenced by her absence?
It really didn’t play into my decision. I doubt that Janet would’ve really thrown herself into this race. She has challenges of her own back in Washington. And I don’t think it would’ve been very good of her to take a strong position in the primary against two very well-known Democrats.

Would your decision have been different if she were still governor now?
Hard to say. Again, it’s always dicey when you get heavily involved in your party’s primary. I get requests all the time for endorsements in primaries, and I very seldom do that. Certainly I’ll get behind a candidate once they’re nominated, and that’s difficult in Arizona because of the extremely short time period that we have between our primary election and our general.

It’s a sensitive issue for me, and I’d really think twice before I would endorse any primary candidate. I think Janet’s pretty much of the same mind.

You said you would’ve spent whatever it took to win if you had run for governor. Given the outcome of the race against Kyl, how do you feel about the millions of your own dollars that you put into that campaign?
I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign. I didn’t enjoy the final result. But that was just a mind-blowing experience for me.

When we get involved in our jobs and our family and our rather close circles of friends, we don’t have the opportunity to really get out and meet people that aren’t necessarily members of our close circles. And that’s the opportunity that I had to meet so many people throughout the state of varying backgrounds, people that I wouldn’t ordinarily meet.

I think it’s a good investment, particularly for the state, to have a real aggressive conversation and debate about the issues that face us. If we don’t have two qualified candidates with roughly the same resources slugging it out, then I don’t think that gives the people of the state a real good choice in terms of who they vote for. So I think we gave the people a choice.

You recently expressed some interest in running for mayor of Phoenix, but only in 2011. If Mayor Phil Gordon resigns to run for Congress and triggers a special election in 2010, why won’t you run? How much difference does that year make?
It could make all the difference in the world. But I pretty much set my schedule for the next year, and I’m not going to alter that.

The mayor’s position would be attractive, but only if it’s on my schedule. I have to have it that way. 2011 seemed like a pretty good time schedule. But if there’s a special election in the meantime that throws those plans off, then so be it. We’ll take a look at it and see what happens.

You said your schedule is set for the next year. What does that schedule entail?
It essentially means paying attention to business. I’m still going to support the candidates that I like. I’ll still be involved. But again, as I said before, over the next year, year-and-a-half, the priority has to be business. I want to make sure that the Pederson Group survives for the next 25 years. Many of the development companies that I grew up with are no longer here because they didn’t have a succession strategy, and I don’t want that to happen to this company.

I don’t want to be working quite as hard at this for the next 10 years. So, yes, that’s got to be number one, in addition to really coming out of this downturn in a good way, planning that succession strategy to make sure, again, that the company goes on for the next 30, 40, hopefully 50 years.

Are you planning anything in the near future that would require a succession plan at your company, besides a possible run for mayor?
Not really. But things change. Politics is like business. Things change almost on a daily basis. Look at the resignation of John Shadegg, that domino effect that happened.

In politics, what you have to expect is change, and to put yourself in a box or to really say, ‘I’m going to do this in the next six months and this over the next 12 months or this possibly over the next two years,’ that’s impossible to determine because events dictate that more than anything else.

Who do you think Goddard will face in November?
I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Jan Brewer. We’ll see. I guess Mr. (Dean) Martin has recently made his announcement, so it should be an interesting primary battle on the Republican side. But I think when all is said and done, Mrs. Brewer is going to be the nominee.

You said you’re not running so you can focus on your business. How has the Pederson Group fared in this economic climate?
Any person that’s involved in commercial real estate development … is facing some very significant challenges right now. I don’t care how big you are or how small you are. For instance, in my business we do shopping centers, and when the retailers aren’t making deals, when the lenders aren’t lending money, when retail sales and job opportunities have really diminished over the last couple of years, there’s going to be issues.

We’re doing fine. Most of our projects were infill projects. We didn’t go on to the periphery, like Buckeye and Queen Creek, where most of the vacancy issue is right now. So most of our projects are in pretty good shape. But there’s no way to value most of these projects today. Most of the issues that developers face are these loan maturities, and these loan maturities come along and the bankers, either through appraisal or through their debt services coverage or loan-to-value ratio, say you’re project is out of balance and so, therefore, you’re going to have to put a lot more money in it.

In 2000 you were a big supporter of Proposition 106, which created a redistricting commission for Arizona, and you haven’t been completely happy with the results. What kinds of changes would you like to see in that process?
I guess my biggest disappointment is that when the Independent Redistricting Commission came together they placed competitive districts at a lesser priority, even though that was not the intent of the people that drew up that initiative in the first place. But it happened to be listed number six in the various criteria that were spelled out in the initiative.

There was certainly no intent to make it less of a priority because it was listed last, but they took it as such. And so, as a result, they produced a map that was not competitive. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that point across when they convene again next year to draw up the new districts.

You’ve been big on government reform issues in general. Outside of the redistricting process, what changes would you like to see?
I used to be a supporter of Clean Elections. I’m not sure that I am today, in terms of the quality of individuals who find their way into the legislative process. So I really have my doubts about Clean Elections.

Term limits – I think (people shouldn’t be termed out) who as long as we have competitive elections, where you get two individuals with approximately the same resources battling it out.

There’s only a 3 percent differential right now between Democrats and Republicans, with independents growing. But through the shenanigans that we’ve done through our redistricting process, Democrats haven’t held a majority in the House of Representatives since the mid-’60s.

And you ask yourself why. Maybe there’s some structural political reform that needs to be involved to make certain that we hear both sides of the argument.

You said the Arizona Democratic Party doesn’t have a large fundraising base. How much pressure does that put on a big donor like you?
We’re just going to have to expand that base, because I’m not going to be there forever. And I think we are doing that. There are certain things that parties do that no other entity can do. Their primary responsibility is to get out the vote, to get people registered, to get people to participate. To do that, you need funding.

I’m certainly not going to be as big a contributor as I have been in the past. Nowhere near. But at least on the Democratic side, I think other people are stepping up.

Why won’t you be as big a contributor as you have been in the past?
Because I don’t think it’s healthy for one person to have a dominant role in anything political, whether it’s fundraising, whether it’s being state party chair in perpetuity or anything like that. I don’t think the party is going to grow in a way that you attract new people, that you attract new leadership, that you attract new donors.

So, primarily for that reason, I’m not going to have that dominant role that I used to have.

What would it take to get you to change your mind about running for governor?
An amazing turnaround in this economy that would solve the issues concerning my company. And then, I don’t know, Terry Goddard deciding he didn’t want to do it. I don’t anticipate either one of those things happening, so I’m going to stay put for the next year.

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