Whomever wins the Phoenix mayoral election will get a paycheck, face time on the media, a police detail to drive him or her around and not much else. Facts are stubborn things: Phoenix is the most economically wounded among America's largest cities. The "business model" that built Phoenix for decades is irrevocably broken. When even the developer-economist Elliott Pollack, favorite of the booster rubber chicken circuit, is saying the metro-wide housing market won't come back until at least 2015, things are bad.
Reprising a little history won't hurt. The political leadership of modern Phoenix was created by the Charter Government Movement, which claimed, and largely delivered, a non-partisan, clean, business-backed, professionally run City Hall. With a relatively diverse economy, the age of inexpensive energy, a majority middle class city and major business titans setting the table, little was asked of elected leaders except to continue this status quo. It somewhat fell apart with districting and Terry Goddard's velvet revolution in the 1980s, but the spirit of Charter lived on well into the 21st century.
This is not to say mayors were irrelevant as just one vote on council in a council-manager form of government. Milt Graham, John Driggs, Margaret Hance, Goddard and Skip Rimsza were all leaders of consequence. Sometimes this was for ill: the popular Graham's antipathy to transit set Phoenix back by decades; Hance did many things to hurt the central core. Goddard, by contrast, was an inspiring and transformational mayor. But through all this two things were constant: The economy levitated on "growth" and the old consensus prevailed.
Little of this, including questions I posed before, has been discussed in this mayor's race. Much time has been spent among candidates discussing how they would rearrange the chairs at City Hall, or deal with those horrid public servants, ooops, overpaid unionized public employees. There's been the usual neighborhoods, public safety, blah, blah, blah. What's desperately needed is leadership and a willingness to speak truth to the public, even have an intellgent dialogue.
As I've written before, Phoenix elections are settled by shamefully low turnout. And with no anointed mayor as in years past, anything could happen. My handicapping remains the same: Greg Stanton has the closest thing to a clear sense of Phoenix's challenges, the fierce urgency of now and a vision. Claude Mattox is another good candidate, but he unfortunately voted for the ill-considered CityNorth and has shown less vision. Peggy Neely is the candidate of the sprawl developers and would be a catastrophic choice, but not as bad as lobbyist Wes Gullet or the others. They would not merely preside over the city's further decline, but help it along: Buying Phoenix a ticket to hell and wishing it a good journey. (Here is my interview with KJZZ's Steve Goldstein last week on the contest).
When "it's all over but the shoutin,' " Phoenix will still confront all these problems, and all the "positive thinking," sunshine and process bullshit in the world will not change it. Phoenix faces an emergency. It will just be one day worse after the ballots are counted. Still, this will be an important election, maybe the most important one in the city's history. I'm just not sure all the candidates — or voters — understand this.