[UPDATE: As of 9:30 p.m. MST Tuesday, Pastor held a 498 vote lead over Johnson and counting may continue until Friday]
The race for Phoenix City Council District 4 might seem like small ball for this blog, but it tells us much about where Phoenix stands and where it is going.
One candidate is Laura Pastor, daughter of Rep. Ed Pastor, without whose efforts we would not have a popular light-rail system (WBIYB*). The other is Justin Johnson, son of former Mayor Paul Johnson. (Another race pits Kate Widland Gallego against the Rev. Warren Stewart, but for simplicity's sake, I will focus on District 4).
The contest has been distinguished by mudslinging, with Pastor, for example, being compared with Paris Hilton — and a remarkable lack of substance.
Pastor wants to improve education, even though City Council has no power over the public schools. Johnson's Web site says, "Our community wants a diverse balanced economy that will deliver a number of high paying jobs yet housing remain our dominant economic identity." (!)
Both have the usual blah-blah-blah about "neighborhoods" and "public safety."
Time was the City Council attracted the most important leaders in the city. Barry Goldwater launched his political career as a city councilman. Harry and Newton Rosenzweig, mid-century business titans, served. So did John F. Long and John Driggs. For better and worse, leaders such as this built the city.
Even Phil Gordon and, especially, Skip Rimsza were responsible for transformative projects that improved Phoenix and undid some of the civic malpractice of the past: The ASU downtown campus, Phoenix Convention Center, downtown Sheraton and light rail. They began as councilmen and then as mayors built council coalitions that accomplished great things.
Lately, council races have attracted lesser figures and in recent years council has been stymied by at least two Krackpots who ought to be in Gilbert or the Arizona Legislature. And once a person is elected, he or she is nearly guaranteed to serve until term limits force them out, so apathetic are city politics.
Pastor is considered the "liberal" candidate. Yet I wonder if there's any there there. To be fair, she promises to support the downtown Biosciences Campus and ASU, no small thing given the drift on Council in recent years.
Justin Johnson is the son of a man who is not one of Phoenix's most beloved or influential mayors. Tellingly, Paul Johnson, a pleasant man, is a developer. How Phoenix. Justin's dad is not a chief executive of a major corporate headquarters, a man who built a software empire or even a hedge-fund kingpin. He's a developer.
Justin is not the head of a company that expedites freight around the world or developed a game-changing e-commerce model, not a genomics scientist or an urban scholar. He is a general contractor.
What I don't get from having these developers and real-estate types on Council is how little development results. Tom Simplot was demonized for his development ties — my reaction was that this expertise would be great for the city. Instead, all those years on Council have resulted in virtually no development in his blighted Midtown district.
So to the extent that real-estate interests support any candidate, they want a free pass for building schlock subdivisions, shopping strips and soon-to-be-abandoned big boxes out in Desert Ridge and other far-flung places. And blocking anything that would allow Phoenix's to compete against the suburbs that are the sweet spot of crappy Arizona development.
Interestingly, Johnson offers the most thoughtful plan on the economy, at least on his site. But his backing by "conservative" interests makes me pause. Is Johnson a closet tea partier? He donated to Sal DiCiccio, R-Kranks, even though Sal is now keeping a tactical distance. Never forget that the Kookocracy has been trying to get control of Council for years. Pastor, at least, would be a reliable progressive.
A story on the election by the local newspaper said this:
If Johnson wins, some insiders think he could shift a council that’s been skewed liberal for years into more conservative territory — while Pastor would cement the council’s left-leaning majority.
As usual, the media are largely unhelpful. Answers are lacking as to what big money (the Koch brothers, who are using Arizona as a dark-money outpost?) is supporting each candidate.
I would like to know, a la "Soleri," what was the most important book about cities each had read — Jacobs? Kunstler? — and how it would inform their policy positions. Would they protect the oasis of central Phoenix? Etc.
What would they do, specifically, to address the horrific land banking, blight and lack of high-paid jobs and high-quality commercial activity in their central Phoenix district?
City Council is one krackpot shy of total paralysis, or worse. Members have been acting as pretend accountants against the abomination of "pension spiking." Or they want to play act as sanitation or police supervisors instead of setting policy.
They inveigh about the "food tax," but I have yet to see a plan for maximizing revenues and making the kind of investments and providing incentives to create a competitive city. Just cutting isn't a strategy except for circling the drain.
"Where there is no vision, the people perish," Proverbs says. Cities, too.
Phoenix is facing massive challenges, from its lack of competitiveness against peer cities and growing linear slums, to inability to attract young talent that wants a real city and preparing for climate change. The suburbs have been doing a beat-down on the city. Mesa just won an Apple operation and 700 or more jobs. Was Phoenix even paying attention? Changes to the economy are making it even harder for laggard cities to get in the game.
We don't need nine accountants or garbage bosses. Never before has Phoenix Council been so lacking in foresight and ambition. Not a single new major initiative is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, other major cities are strongly moving ahead. We aren't even having these conversations in Phoenix.
So vote if you're informed. Please stay home if you're not.
[*To newcomers, "WBIYB" in connection with light rail is Roguespeak for "We built it, you bastards," a cheery Christian riposte to all the thugs that tried to prevent this great achievement.]