By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The city of Phoenix has created a monster, and his name is Steve Cohn.
In the past three months, Cohn -- the managing director of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Phoenix, best known for his opposition to the taxpayer-funded Marriott high-rise slated to go up near his business -- has launched an initiative drive to kill a city ordinance, taken out petitions to recall two city councilmembers, sued the city and sued the Arizona Republic. Randy Pullen -- a local businessman whom Cohn has worked with and admires greatly -- has decided, coincidentally, to challenge Mayor Skip Rimsza in the upcoming election.
At the center of the brouhaha is the Phoenix City Council's recent 8-1 vote to sidestep Cohn's call for a public vote on the Marriott deal by invoking its emergency clause, thereby immediately enacting the ordinance.
Frankly, I'd rather see Steve Cohn take on Skip Rimsza. Not because he'd win -- defeat would be a foregone conclusion, and Pullen has a much better shot -- but because here's a guy who lets it all hang out. It would be a fun race; I'd love to see Cohn, who has the looks and demeanor of an out-of-work Elvis impersonator, debate milquetoast Rimsza.
No can do. Wouldn't it figure that Cohn is an out-of-towner? Like Eloise -- the little girl who lives at that other Plaza, the one in New York City -- Cohn resides at the Crowne Plaza when he's in Phoenix; his real home is in northern California.
But that won't stop Steve Cohn from continuing to make Phoenix brass squirm. And this week he's back with more. Cohn's company, Phoenix Hotel Associates, is financing yet another initiative drive that, if successful, would significantly alter the city charter. The measure would:
Broaden the category of structures financed with more than $3 million of city funds that have to be put to a vote of the people. Included in the new list would be hotels, parking garages and other structures used to enhance the performance of stadiums, convention facilities and other city centerpieces. The list now includes only the centerpieces themselves.
Prohibit the city council from using its emergency clause to fast-track construction projects. (Exceptions are made for essential city services such as aviation, courts, fire and police protection.)
Hold personally liable a mayor and/or council members who knowingly violate the provisions of the measure. They could be on the hook for the amount of money spent without a public vote.
Cohn has six months to collect signatures, and the city has some discretion as to when the measure would get on the ballot -- most likely, not until next year -- but the provisions are retroactive to the date the initiative is filed.
I have some real doubts about the viability of this measure. It could crumble when held against Arizona's constitution, which supersedes the city charter and likely -- this is up for legal interpretation -- allows for a broader use of the emergency clause.
But I love the drama. Keep an eye out for Cohn's ad campaign, slated to start this week and featuring a head shot of Mayor Skip with a mockup of one of those iconic milk mustaches and the query, "Got Milked?"
On a recent Wednesday morning, Steve Cohn ate breakfast in his hotel's near-deserted restaurant and reflected on events of the past few weeks. He hasn't had a lot of time to tend to the hotel, he says.
Cohn is trying to wrap up our conversation and finish an odd scramble of hamburger and egg covered in jack and Cheddar cheese, hot tea and white toast. A candidate for hotel chef is waiting for him upstairs. Every mouthful is interrupted by the song of the cell phone, and Cohn breezes back and forth between an impromptu conference call with his consultants, and various queries, including at least one from mayoral candidate Randy Pullen.
The topic today is the latest initiative drive, specifically the measure's public sponsorship and some final details on the "Got Milked?" signs. Cohn's like a kid in a candy store. He won't reveal his partners in Phoenix Hotel Associates' limited partnership (his brother Mark is listed as the group's agent) except to say that none is from Arizona and, yeah, one is someone I might have heard of, an entertainer. But no, he won't say whom. Cohn says his own financial interest in the Crowne Plaza is nominal. Clearly, someone trusts him or he's got a big bank account, because putting up signs and gathering signatures and hiring consultants isn't cheap. Cohn says the hotel's investors have already sunk more than $20 million -- beyond the initial capital investment in 1986 -- in getting through tough economic times and renovating the place. As soon as prospects were looking up, bam! Along comes the Marriott deal.
This battle has gone beyond dollars to bravado and, obviously, a measure of vengeance. It should come as no surprise that Chuck Coughlin, who has run campaigns against Skip Rimsza before and has earned his reputation as a meanie-for-hire, is Cohn's paid consultant. (He's also on board with Randy Pullen.)