I'll admit to being an optimist who worries. Surely Wes Gullett, tool of the right wing extremists, couldn't win the Phoenix mayor's race... Yet, Phoenix and Arizona have fallen into too many tragic improbabilities for me to count and things had been taking a severe downbound course lately. In the end, a record turnout put Greg Stanton emphatically in office. Thank God. This is unalloyed "positive news," for those of you who think I have no bright side. Stanton could be a transformative mayor at a time when the city most needs one.
Now, to the serious stuff. Most of the issues that dominated the campaign and the media's attention are small ball. Phoenix is a well-run big city, with a few exceptions such as the Jack Harris-type backscratching. All of these can be addressed with a functioning City Council. The one that requires reflection is water rates. The older parts of Phoenix need no further push to let shade trees die and throw down gravel. Indeed, they need an incentive to keep the oases that are critical protection against the heat island. In addition, city staff should roll back their demand for gravel and palo verdes on nearly every city property. This is only adding to the unlivability of Phoenix. A discussion on the investment of water for shade oases is critical.
Stanton's biggest challenge, as he well knows from his days on City Council, will be building majorities for the critical policies he wants enacted. Phoenix's mayor is more powerful than any of his peers in the state, but the city remains (foolishly, to my mind) a council-manager form of government. The mayor is "just one vote," as an intelligent, ambitious councilman told me years ago. Stanton is well-suited to the task: Amiable, emotionally intelligent, willing to listen, politically street smart and wearing hig policy wonkishness lightly. But without a majority, he'll get nowhere. It may shift from issue to issue, but it is the mayor's majority that Skip Rimsza wielded with such effectiveness. It will be interesting to see if Mayor Stanton has a "Councilman Stanton," an effective do-the-right-thing ally on big stuff. This was a role that Stanton played on the biosciences campus and ASU downtown to Mayor Phil Gordon, even though their overall relationship was always a wary one.
The city's challenges are well-known to readers of this blog. They are facts supported by every real study that comes along and any drive around town. All the propaganda from local hacks and "think tanks" will not change this reality. To mention but a few: Phoenix is not attracting the quality investment, high-paid jobs, young, college-educated talent or innovation of a city its size, or even the top American cities that are smaller. This is not a game of lists or rankings. If you're in the bigs, you either excel in the world economy or keep falling into Detroit territory. The old growth machine is not coming back; what's plan B? Even if it did come back, it would hurt, not help, the city of Phoenix. The city holds most of the region's poorest and low-skilled population in linear slums with no way up. The suburbs are looting the city's assets and employment base. Land banking in the center city is a huge impediment to everything. And, despite all the wishing away and denial, Phoenix simply has no real future if it doesn't come up with a better climate-change strategy than "cool concrete" and such crap.
It's a huge, overwhelming reality. But every problem Phoenix faces can be addresses, with many capable of being fixed outright. This is what drives me crazy when people say, "You're so negative." What's negative is the continuing denial and drift.
Now, majorities must be built, neighborhoods placated, constituencies rewarded and allies made. Dealing with the anti-urban, anti-reality state Legislature will be a constant problem. But the city is not without means — this is why the Kooks so wanted to get control of it — and now it has an able, promising mayor-elect.
What might an agenda look like? It should include an emphasis on the Meds and Eds strategy, especially building out the downtown biosciences campus and expanding ASU and UofA there. Beyond that, a broad emphasis on economic development to bring in good jobs and raid Southern California. Phoenix badly needs a few big successes that show how a turnaround can happen. But the efforts can't be spread across 500 square miles; there aren't enough resources. If anything, Phoenix needs to be prepared to be a smaller place. An agenda needs quality density in central, transit-served areas rather than more office "parks" out on the 101; the former, not the latter, will attract young talent. Again, just one or two real dense urban centers (including downtown) will do. But they are essential, because all of Phoenix's competitors have obsolete car-dependent sprawl, but also cool, walkable urban neighborhoods and downtowns. Shade, shade, shade. More transit.
The city, metro and state are in a deep hole. Coming out won't be easy. But Greg Stanton has the best chance to lead the revival. One might be tempted to say something about "out of the ashes..."