Eight months after assuming office, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton is still enjoying a honeymoon. That means he's making the honeymoon last. So much for critics who thought he was just a pretty face. The contrast with Phil Gordon, his poignantly snakebit predecessor, is striking. Stanton can routinely speak in complete sentences and articulate coherent thoughts. Becoming the 52nd mayor of Phoenix hasn't caused Stanton to shelve his appealing nature. People who talk to me about the mayor use words such as "smart," "easy going," "open" and "welcomes new ideas." He remembers people's names and what they've been working on. His human touch and emotional intelligence are genuine, not the surface happy talk of a politician.
I was concerned about the "biosciences" bone tossed to Desert Ridge when so much needs to be done for the real biosciences campus downtown, the one site that could be a real game-changer for Phoenix. But my sources involved in downtown, light rail and sustainability aren't worried, so good on Stanton. Another concern was Stanton taking the lead among mayors on backing military spending, when Phoenix needs a spokesman on so many more compelling and productive issues. But this seems to be part of his effort to make regional cooperation a priority (good luck with that).
Stepping back, probably the best way to see Stanton so far is that he's doing a good job of getting his feet under him in a race that's already moving fast and carrying huge stakes.
His response to the first crisis to hit Phoenix since his swearing in shows promise. I'm speaking of Doug Parker's longstanding lust to merge USAirways and move the headquarters, a deal that could even significantly downsize the hub at Sky Harbor. Parker has his cap set on American Airlines. Tempe is toast: The headquarters and those good jobs — in a place with too few of them — will go to Dallas-Fort Worth. But Stanton appears to have made an effective case to Parker to retain the hub, which is a big jobs engine for Phoenix (again thinking regionally, he worked with Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell).
Another good sign is that Stanton intends to visit the top 100 employers in the city this year. Economic development is a huge weak spot for Phoenix, which lags far behind its peer cities. The suburbs continue to spend money luring away Phoenix assets (regionalism only works one way), and to read the Republic one would think all the promising startups are in the 'burbs. Ominously, Intel is planning to spend $300 million on an R&D operation in Chandler. Tempe snagged another, much smaller, research facility. In a healthier, more economically dynamic metro, it might be one-for-all and all-for-one, but that's not true in Phoenix. If the city can't keep up, particularly in growing a quality economy, it will see its share of the pie keep shrinking as its costs — with most of the region's poor, aging infrastructure, 500 square miles, etc. — continue to rise. To his credit, Stanton has gone on prospecting missions to Silicon Valley and Mexico instead of Dubai.
A big question is whether Stanton can persuade City Council and work himself to continue downtown's improvement and address the massive lost opportunity that is the Central Corridor. The ASU downtown campus, the second largest in the, er, don't call it a system...anyway, this shows how central location, light rail and even semi-quality place making can pay off. Downtown and the Central Corridor are Phoenix's biggest areas of promise, the assets that the bloated suburbs can't offer. But only if issues such as land-banking, blight, lack of private investment, lack of shade trees and falling jobs numbers are aggressively addressed. Without a great central core, no city councilman's district will ultimately succeed.
So give Stanton a solid A. I will resist the urge to make it A-minus for the military shilling.
Unfortunately, he faces problems largely out of his control. This young, appealing big-city mayor isn't the face of Arizona. That distinction belongs to the fright masks of Jan Brewer and the Badged Ego.
The nation and the world read of the state's racism and craziness, not an open-minded leader of a tolerant and diverse city. Draconian/absurd restrictions on women's reproductive freedom, fighting domestic partner benefits, denying DREAM young people to spite President Obama — these are what make the big headlines out of state. Contrary to the boosters, the Jim Crow SB 1070 has badly snuffed the convention business — and who gets hurt worst? Phoenix. The ultra-extremism of the suburban right and Kookocracy at the capitol make any quality business think more than twice about investing here (Intel has huge sunk costs from a less extreme era and Craig Barrett's affection for the place). Who gets slammed hardest? Phoenix. International business and even tourists shy away from a state known for hate, however different the capital city itself is. Meanwhile, the Kooks' obsession with underfunding the public schools and the ascendency of the charter school racket helps whack the rungs out of the ladder of opportunity desperately needed in a city with a large underclass.
In addition, the Legislature is hostile to cities, especially Phoenix. Kook legislators rejoice in Phoenix declining into "the Mexican Detroit" and would love to see airlines move out to Gateway. In such a climate, how could any mayor get state support for, say, desperately needed commuter rail? It would be heavy lifting to prevent the worthy solons from doing everything they can to impede it, as they did with light rail (WBIYB). All of this puts Phoenix at a critical disadvantage in attracting young, educated people, the creative class in general, and the investment to punch at its weight class in the world economy.
Stanton was not spouting hyperbole when he campaigned on Phoenix being at a turning point. So let's all hope the honeymoon lasts and extends into an era of big accomplishment. The alternative is ugly.