NORTH-CENTRAL PHOENIX is an area of stately trees and solid homes which is often imagined as the heart of the city. Its residents cultivate this identity to a degree unparalleled in newer parts of town: Historic districts quilt the area's southern fringe, and North Central Avenue blooms with embellishments financed by homeowner associations.

Central-city people pride themselves on being involved--and, indeed, nobody has a greater stake in what happens at City Hall. These neighborhoods are the city's buffer against urban decay, as well as the birthplace for ideas--such as the urban-village concept--to combat deterioration.

If anyone understands the importance of local government, it is the voters in Phoenix City Council District Four. On the surface, the November 26 run-off between Craig Tribken and Walter Switzer seems genteel enough. Craig Tribken, the quintessential baby boomer, is a high-energy civic activist with a solid record of community service. Walter Switzer is an elderly Phoenix Brahmin with Reaganesque charm, whose history in city affairs suggests he wouldn't be nearly so amiable.

But the October 1 Phoenix City Council election, at least in most districts, was a depressing exercise in which the winning strategies combined feel-good slogans with the manipulation of people's fears. Any candidate who presented an intellectual challenge was treated like a Boy Scout lost in a whorehouse or, worse, was discredited with bizarre personal attacks.

Given how effective such tactics are in Phoenix politics, many expect the District Four run-off to turn partisan, personal and ugly. The race is worth watching, if only for what it tells us about ourselves.

CRAIG TRIBKEN is what voters always say they want in a leader, but frequently neglect to vote into office. He is idealistic, pragmatic and well-informed. He is a local boy--his father was once mayor of Paradise Valley--and a graduate of Arizona State University, where he was student body president in 1975-76.

Tribken, now 36, looks the part of class president. He has a big vanilla smile and a bouncy, outgoing personality. His style is reminiscent of fellow Democrat Terry Goddard's, although City Hall insiders say Tribken, a commercial real estate broker, is more savvy and pragmatic than Goddard. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who loved Goddard also support Tribken, and his campaign coffers have benefited from it. Tribken has raised more than $50,000, much of it from prominent Democrats.

He is the quasi-incumbent in the race by virtue of having been appointed earlier this year to the seat vacated by longtime city councilmember Howard Adams, who resigned to run for justice of the peace. Tribken wasn't a completely unexpected choice--he'd toyed previously with the idea of running against Adams, but backed off because potential backers felt the powerful incumbent was unbeatable.

Tribken won the appointment because he had solid credentials, but also because he was not considered likely to embarrass Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, the council's rising political star. Despite his long involvement with the Encanto Village Planning Committee and the Neighborhood Coalition--both viewed as hotbeds of potential rivalry by councilmembers--Tribken had earned a reputation as a team player.

Tribken sees himself as a new breed of city leader, newer even than the activists--Goddard among them--who created the district system. "I clearly represent the new generation of leadership," Tribken says. "The people running against me represent the old style of leadership, government by board of directors.

"I see myself as a generation removed not only from the old Phoenix 40, but from the neighborhood movement as it has been up to now," Tribken says. "I'm deeply committed to protecting neighborhoods, but as a realtor I also understand the strategic power of demonstration projects, developments that embody the qualities you want to encourage in the city."

Tribken's stock with neighborhood activists is at an all-time high because of his fight to create a park on the Phoenix Indian School property at Central Avenue and Indian School Road. Former mayor Terry Goddard, who sought unsuccessfully to have the site set aside for a park, credits Tribken with turning the tide away from intensive commercial development. "The city never would have gotten to the point it has if Craig hadn't raised the banner for a park," Goddard comments. "His action is what really galvanized a change in attitude on the city council."

Tribken is interested in forging alliances between residents and business interests, particularly developers, within his district, and talks about the city council as a forum for activism. "[Mayor] Paul Johnson said recently that people would have to learn government can't solve all problems, but in some cases, government action causes the problems," Tribken says. "It's not a matter of doing with less, it's a matter of doing better with whatever we've got."

Tribken is as prone to rhetoric as any politician, but possesses a far-less-common ability to shore it up with practical ideas. When he talks about how his district has suffered from being the city's main traffic corridor, he outlines specific tactics to fight the problem as well. "Everyone talks about putting more cops on the street to fight crime, but I'm the only one who's come forward saying how I would get the money for more police," Tribken says, referring to a plan to revise the police budget that he has detailed at campaign appearances.

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