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Joblessness, weak economy puts spotlight on Phoenix mayoral race

Seven candidates seek the top job in the nation's sixthâ??largest city at a time of high unemployment and an economy that has yet to recover from the Great Recession. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Joanne Ingram)

Three years into the Great Recession, those running to become mayor of the nation’s sixth-largest city are talking about jobs.

In candidate forums, on their websites and in news articles, they’re offering plans to create jobs within the city.

They suggest ways to make Phoenix a more desirable place for businesses to move.

They propose more support to small businesses, diversifying the economy and providing leadership that fuels job growth.

Seven people, including one current and two former members of the City Council, are running to replace Phil Gordon, a Democrat who has occupied the nonpartisan office since 2004.

The Aug. 30 primary will narrow the field to two for a Nov. 8 runoff – or yield a winner in the unlikely event that one candidate draws better than 50 percent of the vote.

David Berman, senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said policy think tanks don’t usually spend a lot of time looking at city elections, but this one is different.

“It’s very competitive … which is very unusual,” he said in a phone interview.

City Councilman Claude Mattox, whose district includes western portions of Phoenix, had raised $578,000 through Aug. 10, the most of any candidate. Greg Stanton, a former city councilman and deputy state attorney general, was second with $381,000 but led all fundraising from June to August with $115,000.

Former Phoenix City Councilwoman Peggy Neely has raised just over $305,000, while businessman Wes Gullett raised $254,000.

The other candidates are: Jennifer Wright, an attorney who had raised $54,000; businesswoman Anna Brennan; and Thane Eichenauer, a freelance chess tutor and write-in candidate. Neither Brennan nor Eichenauer had raised the $500 necessary to require a pre-election report.

The winner will inherit a long list of challenges, starting with continuing budget deficits, the lingering recession, high unemployment and foreclosures.

Falling tax revenues have resulted in consistent cutbacks in city services, along with layoffs. The city’s general fund, which covers most services, has dropped from $1.2 billion in fiscal 2008-2009 to $1.06 billion this fiscal year as officials have grappled with large budget deficits.

Part of the solution was a temporary 2 percent food tax that’s set to expire in 2015. Mattox is the only leading candidate who isn’t proposing to eliminate the tax early.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the Phoenix metropolitan area was 9 percent in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than double what it was when the recession began.

Each candidate has offered a plan to boost the economy and create jobs.

Mattox wants to create a Regional Business Council to bring together business leaders, private groups and the Phoenix Economic Development Office to focus on job creation.

Stanton said he would focus on small-business growth by giving tax incentives to companies that want to expand and create high-wage local jobs.

Neely pledged to work with each region of the city

to create diverse business-development plans and to work closely with business owners.

Gullett’s Seven Point Jobs Plan includes cutting permit fees for small businesses and creating a Small Business Development Advocate position in the mayor’s office.

Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said the mayor of Phoenix can do things to help the city’s economy.

“This is a huge job,” he said. “This new mayor is going to have to show some incredible leadership.”

Jim Mapstead, owner of Accurate Signs & Engraving, said he’s happy that candidates are talking about supporting small businesses such as his. But he’s looking for broader goals for boosting the economy.

“How is Phoenix going to compete globally?” he said. “Nobody’s talking about this grander vision.”

But the Morrison Institute’s Berman said many of the bigger issues facing Phoenix, such as job creation and education, are beyond the mayor’s control. More than anything, he said, the mayor sets a tone for the city’s priorities.

“You have to sort of look at economic development as [something] that transcends city policy,” Berman said. “There are only so many things you can do.”

Paul Lewis, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said the office of Phoenix mayor lacks the power to significantly influence major issues such as the economy.

“Compared to a lot of big cities in the U.S., it’s not a strong mayor position,” Lewis said in a phone interview. “They’re sitting as the captain of the city council.”

About the candidates

Anna Brennan?: Former restaurateur who now manages her husband’s medical practice. Represents Italian winery Terre de Trinci.

Thane Eichenaur: Freelance chess tutor. Worked in tech support for ASAP Staffing.

Wes Gullett: Businessman and founding partner of FirstStrategic, Communications and Public Affairs. Spent five years on the Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission.

Claude Mattox?: Currently serving his third term as city councilman for Phoenix District 5.?Chair of Public Safety and Veterans cubcommittees.

Peggy Neely: Served on Phoenix City Council from 2001 to 2011. Real estate broker and former owner of Arizona Home Team.

Greg Stanton?: Served on Phoenix City Council from 2001 to 2009. Deputy attorney general since 2009.

Jennifer Wright: Attorney for Bain & Lauritano, PLC. Formerly worked as a law clerk and legal assistant for the Rose Law Group.

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