Not long after announcing that he would seek a new food tax to help the city cope with its budget crisis, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon stood on the balcony near his downtown office and gazed at the cranes at a construction site across the street.
Economic woes and higher taxes have been at the forefront of the city’s business these days, but it’s the cranes and the development that comes with them that represent the Phoenix that Gordon likes to talk about. From the City Council chambers to the Beltway and to exotic locales across the world, the mayor is constantly working to promote and build the city he views as the economic engine of Arizona.
Gordon’s name has swirled around in conversations about this year’s congressional and gubernatorial races, but the two-term mayor is steering clear of both. There’s much work left to be done at the city, he said, and he’s happy where he is.
In a series of interviews, Gordon spoke with the ~Arizona Capitol Times~ about the resurgence of downtown Phoenix, the challenges facing the city and the hostility he sees from some members of the Legislature. Gordon discussed his vision for Phoenix’s future, but there are some issues he would rather leave in the past.
You presided over some tough times for the city in the past few years. What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do to deal with the fiscal crisis?
Reducing after-school programs a number of years ago that I led to provide for schools – private, public and faith – so that children that had both parents working or didn’t have a safe place to go after school could then go in the neighborhood area, be safe, learn. But because of budgets and priorities and where we find ourselves, those were significantly reduced last year and were proposed to be cut out.
In every department I think you can find that. Last year, the hardest thing was the fact that, at least for over a decade the city, while it’s reduced its budget and workforce, was able by having hiring freezes … to absorb those individuals that were qualified, that were scheduled for layoff, by not filling positions and waiting until the budget cycle (was over). Last year, we just couldn’t do it, so a number, 100 or more, breadwinners who had worked at the city were laid off. That was the first hardest thing.
The second hardest thing, which now has become the hardest thing, is now we’re talking about (laying off) maybe 1,100 or more Phoenix employees, from police officers to librarians.
During the crisis, you’ve been a big advocate of the federal stimulus act. What benefits has that brought to Phoenix?
Every penny that has been allocated to Phoenix that I have fought for, almost $350 million, with some minor exceptions, goes to the private sector to create jobs or maintain jobs, whether it’s weatherization, whether it’s building roads, whether it’s building the runway. (It’s brought) infrastructure that will last for decades … and jobs that are good-paying jobs that we paid for as a community.
It’s also been a benefit to the state government. While the rhetoric has been to oppose it, I’ve worked to bring dollars to the state successfully. I’m one of the few people who have gone back there. And those dollars have been used to fill the deficit or reduce the deficit in the state budget. While publicly, elected officials at the state have opposed or said we shouldn’t be doing that … but privately have accepted and used to fill their budget.
Some critics say you’ve spent too much time in Washington, D.C., dealing with stimulus money issues. Do you think the trips have been worth it?
Definitely. I’ve heard very few people complain in terms of the results, bringing $350 million allocated just to the city of Phoenix that goes to the private sector.
I make no apologies for creating or maintaining jobs for our state and building infrastructure that will benefit everybody in the future.
One of your biggest priorities as mayor has been downtown revitalization. How much has downtown changed during your tenure as mayor?
One hundred percent, if not more. Instead of closing up Friday at 5 o’clock, or any day, we now have vibrancy seven days a week. We have activity. More is about ready to open, including experienced retail like bowling and new bars and restaurants and health clubs. In fact, downtown is up 10 percent in revenue to the state and the city this year over last. It’s probably the only place in the entire state that has had positive growth in the past year.
What more would you like to see happen downtown?
I think we should have more residences. We should have more businesses that are appropriate for the 21st century – more research, more medical, more science, which is coming. I think also certainly more activity and more grocery stores and pharmacies and all those amenities that are in any neighborhood.
And I would also like to see is really the concept of us living, working, playing and relaxing that is all contained, so we don’t have to go driving somewhere if we need that experience.
How much has the light rail helped to breathe more life into downtown Phoenix?
Immensely. It’s helped not only Phoenix but the Valley and the state. Every ticket that’s sold is sales tax to the state, jobs that are there. And the ridership has far exceeded what was projected and what the critics said would never occur. In fact, the highest day in ridership was over 52,000 last year, and again the projected minimum after two years was 26,000 a day. And we far exceeded that.
The City Council just approved a controversial 2 percent food tax. What other options did you guys explore before doing that?
The options that were explored, even for the last several years, were to plead with the state Legislature, their leaders and their body, not to continue to impose unfunded mandates. While many were beneficial, they were still unfunded mandates that they oppose at the federal level. But it’s OK to pass down to the towns and cities, which is a hidden tax, because they know we have to deliver public safety. We have to deliver safe water. And yet they continue to impose or take away money from other sections.
The other thing we explored was expanding the base in our existing sales tax so as not to raise the rate. The problem with that was that any expansion of the base is either … a lot of items are prohibited under state law, where they preempted us and said ‘you can’t.’ Those items that we could add on that aren’t prohibited by the state effectively are because under state law, we have to go to the model tax code commission, which is appointed by the leadership at the House and the Senate. And given the current membership, they would never vote to approve.
So we explored many options, and we feel that this is both the quickest and the least burdensome, even though it does affect those living on the poverty line and below, and today probably affects everyone. But the amount of food that isn’t taxed in Phoenix is only those items that are not prepared for home consumption or non-food basics. As an example, take-out foods are already taxed 2 percent. By the way, food stamps are exempt.
Will things like Phoenix’s food tax help dissuade the state from taking more from the cities by showing the impact it has?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of legislators out there who don’t care, even about the city that they’re living in. They … introduce legislation that is punitive just because the city, which was allowed to do something that is legal under the law and is needed, but because of a philosophical or self-serving principle will then try to block the city or blame the city.
Which lawmakers are doing things out of punitive intentions?
You’ve reported one or two that specifically said because Phoenix passed this food tax last week that we need to look at taking away their money.
You were considering running for governor at one point. Why did you decide to stay out of the race?
I made a conscious decision that it was not in the city’s best interest at that time to run. I’m supporting the attorney general now. I am without hesitation supporting Terry Goddard. If he runs and then wins, he will be someone that cities can work with. He understands cities and understands that we all live in cities.
And you recently announced that you won’t seek Rep. John Shadegg’s seat either. Why aren’t you running for Congress?
After giving it a lot of thorough thought and talking with family and friends and colleagues here and business entities, CEOs, I came to a conclusion, which turned out to be an easy one: I can do more good here still as mayor for the next two years than in trying to go back to Washington, D.C., and be one of hundreds that are part of a broken system that is deadlocked and can’t face the critical issues that the nation faces, similar to the state Legislature.
If you’d gotten into the race, you probably would have faced some problems due to your past endorsements of Sen. McCain and Sheriff Arpaio. How much animosity have those endorsements generated among Democrats?
I’d have to let everybody answer it themselves, but … A) Sen. McCain is an individual of very, very high respect. B) Democrats and Republicans know that I was the first and continue to be the most vocal elected official to speak out against the anti-immigrant and racial profiling actions of the sheriff. And three, I’m not for party registration, but getting things done – jobs, transportation, education. That’s what people are looking for.
But obviously the primary voter is a much different animal than the general election voter. Would those endorsements have hurt you in the Democratic primary?
Nope. I have the highest name ID of any announced candidate, including the Democratic primary or the general, by far. That district is 80 percent the city of Phoenix. Most of that district is … independent voters – not independent by party, but moderate moms and dads and business leaders, whether it’s north-central or Paradise Valley or north Phoenix – that I’ve represented longer than most of the other candidates have ever lived in the district. I’ve lived in the district since I was a kid.
Again, the general would’ve been a much tougher election. The primary was not an issue.
Since you endorsed Arpaio a few years ago, you’ve exchanged some harsh words and essentially become enemies. Considering everything that’s happened since, do you regret that endorsement?
I’ve made mistakes, and that was certainly one. … I’ll continue to both acknowledge that and stand up. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t stand up earlier.
Another issue that likely would’ve come up in a congressional campaign was …
If you want to talk about us going forward, I’m happy to spend the rest of the minutes. But you know what? That’s a past action. Unlike the Legislature or a lot of people, I’m focused on balancing a budget. I’m focused on creating jobs. Write or do whatever anybody wants on the past. I’m going forward. Okay?
No comment on the question. If you want to talk about the future, what I’m doing here, or what car I’m driving, I’m happy to do that.
Nonetheless, you recently had an investigation commissioned to look at the relationship between yourself and Elissa Mullany, your girlfriend, who does a lot of work for the city.
Jeremy, I’m sorry that I’m not able to communicate with you because I’ve obviously now said it two times. Everything that’s been written has been written. One more time, either talk about issues that are currently facing the city or write what you want, and I’m going to go back to work.
One last question – there’s a lot of debate over the Loop 202 extension around South Mountain and the benefits that Councilman DiCiccio’s stands to gain from it. Do you believe the councilman has done anything inappropriate?
I definitely believe that he has a conflict and has had a conflict of interest. By announcing that he’s not going to vote on it does (reach) the hem of the law, which is that you cannot participate, influence or be involved in a matter that you have a conflict on. And he’s acknowledged publicly that he will benefit with the freeway location economically. And yes, I think that he has not complied with the statute, as he has reported.
What do you believe he should do in this situation?
He’ll need to speak to his attorney – and not the city attorney – as to what he should do or not do. I’m not going to give him legal advice.
You said you plan to finish out your term as mayor, but do you have any ambitions for higher office after that?
At this time, I’m not looking ahead that far. I’m looking ahead day to day. In the end, hopefully within a month or so of my leaving, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do. Maybe take a little time off and teach and decompress and figure out what I’m going to do. My intent is to go in the private sector, like I was before, and help contribute to the community in other ways.