Skipping to Re-election

Three men and some babies, or how Phoenix is choosing its next mayor

The Kenilworth forum received two tiny advance notices in the Arizona Republic, one of which left out the date. After that event, the mayor headed back to the mountains and was a no-show at a Sunnyslope forum a few days later.

Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University professor, pollster and expert on Arizona politics, says it should come as no shock when an incumbent avoids debating his challengers.

"Whether it's Skip or any other candidate, it's to their advantage not to have debates," he says. And even if he did make an effort to air his differences with Pullen and Dardis, most folks simply wouldn't care, Merrill says. City elections have a typically low turnout (in the teens, percentagewise), he says, for a number of reasons.

Randy Pullen, a late entrant in the race, is serious about the campaign.
Paolo Vescia
Randy Pullen, a late entrant in the race, is serious about the campaign.
Not all members of this group are mesmerized by Mayor Rimsza's message.
Paolo Vescia
Not all members of this group are mesmerized by Mayor Rimsza's message.

One, he says, there is a leftover element of the old city charter system in which high-powered members of the community simply anointed the person for the top job. That means many voters don't bother to get involved. Another factor is the changing population. New city residents are worried about finding a good school, doctor, etc., rather than delving into city political races. Also, the timing of the election -- the day after Labor Day -- means the crux of the campaign will occur when the most likely voters who are better educated and earn higher incomes are vacationing out of town.

Paul Johnson, the former Phoenix mayor who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, deplores the lack of attention to the mayor's race. He claims the Arizona Republic has declared that Rimsza should and will be the next mayor and hasn't put any focus on the issues. "It goes beyond Skip and Randy," he says. "The public should have a choice."

He says it's not just the Republic's fault. The broadcast media also haven't paid enough attention to city races or even statewide ones in recent years, Johnson says.

"I got more coverage when I ran for city council than I got in my race for governor," he says. "I can show you the articles. I've got scrapbooks."

Johnson, a close friend of Rimsza's who served as best man at his second wedding, has endorsed Pullen for mayor.

"It's not an anti-Skip thing . . ." he explains. "I just think that right now, it would be a good time for somebody who is willing to step in and provide the leadership on some issues that I think Randy would provide leadership on."

Johnson, who had to have been hurt when Rimsza backed Jane Hull for governor instead of him, says the Marriott issue was not the factor in his joining Pullen's camp. It was Pullen's promise to focus on crime.

While Rimsza points out that crime rates have decreased during his years as mayor, Pullen notes that the rates have not dropped as quickly as in cities like New York or San Diego. And he claims that based on the latest FBI statistics showing reported crimes per capita, it's safer to walk the streets of New York than it is Phoenix.

Politicians know that numbers can be spun to support various claims. Johnson goes by personal observation.

"The problem isn't getting fixed, it's getting worse," he says. "I see it every single day. I saw it as mayor. I see it with my kids, I see it with other kids in the neighborhood where I grew up."

If there were public debates in the mayor's race, crime would likely be a main topic of discussion. Rimsza claims he has made great strides during his administration, moving toward community-based policing, cracking down on gangs and graffiti, beginning an anti-truancy program and pumping millions of new dollars into after-school programs to try to keep kids out of trouble. (Despite those efforts, authorities say, some 300 known gangs are operating in Phoenix.) He says 500 new police officers have been added under his watch, creating the highest police-per-capita rate in city history, a result of some careful planning and earmarking of federal grants and city revenues.

Rimsza's plans for the future include purchasing (through bonds which will be put before voters next year) new technology to help officers better fight crime while protecting their safety. The equipment, an 800 megahertz radio system, would allow patrol officers to access a database providing the history of incidents at an address they are approaching.

"Today, you can call Pizza Hut, 220-4444, and tell them what you want and they can tell you what you ordered the last time you were there," he explains. "But when we send police officers to a call at a specific address, they have no idea what they're walking into."

Pullen has unveiled a $135 million plan to fight crime -- not coincidentally the low end of the range of incentives the city has extended to two new downtown hotels. The money would be apportioned this way over four years:

• $65 million to pay for 400 new police officers (as well as the 100 already coming courtesy of federal matching funds).

• $30 million to go toward neighborhood programs, including more inspectors to enforce zoning and code violations, police substations and park patrols in certain areas, and giving Block Watch groups more tools to fight crime, like walkie-talkies.

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