Amid the wreckage and inertia that now define the nation's fifth (soon to be sixth?) most populous city, it's difficult to recall the near euphoria that greeted the inauguration of Phil Gordon as mayor. It was 2004, the metro area was booming, at least in real estate, and here in Phoenix, finally, was somebody who "got it." He got city, as opposed to suburbia. He got economic development, especially for the central core. He got the urgent need to diversify the economy. For "ADHD Phil," even his early speeches soared with a grand vision for Phoenix. A great city. A great mayor.
Alas, it was not to be.
If any historian cares to write about Phoenix's collapse, about how it became "the Hispanic Detroit" as the north Scottsdalers say, the mayoralty of Phil Gordon will be an essential chapter.
Yet almost all were flawed, and here Gordon's terms will also be judged. The biosciences campus was never pushed to its potential, a la the Texas Medical Center in Houston. It has moved at five-miles-per-hour as competing cities have raced ahead. Light rail failed to attract much private-sector investment, especially housing. In the economic sphere, Gordon touted condo towers and hotels that were never built. But he failed to look far beyond the real-estate speculation model that drives the metro area. Central Phoenix was losing jobs even before the great crash and city hall did nothing to address this. No bold move such as withdrawing from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council — for the suburbs are competition dependent on destroying the city — and, say, going after Southern California businesses. Biomedical manufacturing was only one sector that could have been plucked. "The Opportunity Corridor" was thrown out in a speech — to revive the east Van Buren to downtown area — but no follow-up came. Gordon never pushed new measures to make the core the cheapest and easiest place to set up business, much less did he go after the land bankers with taxes.
Instead, in the Asian Century and 300 miles from LA, he went to...Dubai. This outreach to a real-estate-crash-awaiting was touted as a major economic-development push. Gordon presided over City North, sprawl on steroids that resulted in lawsuits and may never be executed. He ran his onetime staff rival, Sheryl Sculley, out of city hall — she landed fine in San Antonio, but Phoenix suffered a serious loss of brains and talent. When the reliable? malleable? knew-where-too-many-bodies-were-buried? Frank Fairbanks retired, Gordon allowed the weakest of the finalist candidates to become city manager. Once the bubble burst, the mayor seemed to recede and shrink, his turbulent personal life intruding on his duties, including dating his fundraiser. He might have once last victory if CityScape succeeds — a big "if," I am sad to say. But what a change from 2004.
In Gordon's defense, he faced a Legislature implacably hostile to the city of Phoenix — even nominally Phoenix lawmakers were opposed to urban solutions and aid. He was one vote and had to preserve a fragile coalition on council. Gordon also inherited decades of bad choices and civic malpractice. There's the Great Recession, but I'm not sure how much the mania of the mid-2000s was benefiting the city vs. the suburbs anyway. It took years to get just Willowalk/Tapestry finished — and that was when things were "good." In any event, the city was slammed by the meteoric loss of tax revenue (although it received $429 million from the federal stimulus). His personality was not one to teach Phoenicians how quality density, new information industries, openness to the world, sustainability and 21st century infrastructure would improve their lives. Much less was he equipped to go after the Phoenix haters, from the spec leasing boyz to the rich vandals holding blighted land, including on the city's premier avenue, and demanding prices that make it undevelopable. He's a nice man and I'm sorry for his personal problems.
That said, our future scholar, if he or she would even looks here, would have to ask if Mayor Gordon realized that the city he inherited was at the tipping point. It was not creating high-paying jobs or drawing diverse private capital. It is drawing the metro's poor and underclass. As a big city, it has high carrying costs and urban problems needing urban solutions. Yet it lacks the economy of any city its size (Houston, Philadelphia). Now the suburbs seem poised to enjoy whatever "recovery" comes, and they continue to draw the affluent and businesses. The suburban areas within the Phoenix city limits prosper at the expense of the old city, and often hold opposing interests to it. City council has radically changed and seems politicized, especially with right-wing stalking horse Sal DiCiccio, in a way unprecedented since the reform movement of the 1940s. How much of this is Gordon's fault is rightly debatable. But leadership matters. Perhaps because of his early incubation in the city staff, Gordon didn't like to rock the boat. Unfortunately, Phoenix desperately needed its boat rocked.
It was never healthy that in the mid-2000s the three most important people in the state were Gordon, Gov. Janet Napolitano and ASU President Michael Crow. All on the public payroll. In Seattle, government leaders would be a ways down a list dominated by private-sector bigs that can write checks and knock heads. Still, all three showed vision and promise. St. Janet saw the future and is now watching us all from D.C. Dr. Crow appears to have taken a lower profile, smart given the state's trajectory of madness. And Phil? "Phil is Phil," as people always said.
Who would the big three be today? Joe Arpaio and Russell Pearce, definitely. I'll leave it to readers to nominate a third. In any event, these horsemen promise nothing but hate and more of the same. And the city of Phoenix may be in much deeper trouble than anyone realizes.