The Invisible Man

Phil Gordon will be the next mayor of Phoenix. Why doesn't anybody care?

Thank God I'm having 40-weight coffee with Phil Gordon at Starbucks. Because taken straight, Gordon can make a guy awfully sleepy.

The position to which Gordon aspires apparently has the same effect on Phoenix voters. Of the 1.3 million residents of what soon could be America's fifth-largest city, only 125,000 citizens, less than 10 percent of the population and about 20 percent of the registered voters, are expected to vote September 9 to determine their next mayor.

Perhaps the apathy stems from the fact that there is no race. Phil Gordon, the longtime city councilman and city government insider, has more money, more powerful and respected support, more experience, more ideas, more goodwill, more humanity, more political savvy, more children, more everything -- and the few people who care already know it. You need not stay up the evening of the election. Get your sleep knowing Phil Gordon will defeat that other guy, Randy something, to be the next mayor of Phoenix.

Political insider: Phil Gordon
Jackie Mercandetti
Political insider: Phil Gordon

And this is a good thing. Good like a pair of Dexter shoes, a four-yard gain by your fullback, a share of Berkshire-Hathaway stock or sex with your longtime mate.

Let me make an argument for dull and invisible, for four more years of blah. Phil Gordon is not Willie Brown or Richard Daley or Richard Riordon or Rudy Giuliani. He is not what Americans think of when they think of a big-city mayor: charismatic, forceful, bellicose, omnipresent, driving policy and political discourse with chutzpah and panache and arrogance.

He is, instead, a quiet, fiercely competent, forward-thinking, conciliatory, consensus-building centrist dweeb.

He's exactly what Phoenix needs at this critical juncture in its development.

Gordon's long history of civic involvement began back in 1979, when he was a kid just out of law school representing developers who owned land in downtown Phoenix.

In one of his first cases, Gordon was representing a tenant in a fight against a landlord. Representing the landlord was another developer lawyer, Terry Goddard.

The case was settled amicably. In the process, Goddard began selling Gordon on the idea of the city and property owners working together to preserve historic buildings in the Valley. Goddard had caught the preservation bug from former Phoenix mayor John Driggs, who had caught the bug looking at how other cities were working to save their pasts.

"It was a novel idea and one that the development community here was pretty much dead-set against," Gordon says. "I've got to admit, at first I was brought kicking and screaming into that mindset."

Soon, Goddard was mayor. Soon after, Gordon was being asked to head historic preservation committees. After heading a few restoration projects, and seeing the impact those projects had on reinvigorating blighted neighborhoods, Gordon became the inspired leader of the Valley's historic preservation community.

"Terry Goddard was the father, John Driggs was the grandfather," he says. "As I learned from them and got more and more involved, it became a real passion. It's something I came to believe was critical for building a great city from a foundation of great, unique, vibrant neighborhoods."

To be sure, selling historic preservation in the grow-grow Valley is a game of subtle give-and-take diplomacy. Insiders who have watched Gordon say he grew through the '80s and '90s into one of the city's great consensus builders. While Phoenix city politics became known for its petty infighting and divisiveness, Gordon -- then a city staffer -- was quietly working behind the scenes to bring divergent interests together.

"He really has a special ability to bring people together to get things accomplished," says Sal DiCiccio, a city councilman from 1994 to 2000 who often sparred with Gordon. "Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, he was always civil and you always knew he was trying to do what he believed was the best thing for the city. He's just a good man."

In the late '90s, Gordon brought that flare for consensus-building to the city council when he was elected in District 4.

"I think you've got someone who learned very early on that you can't get much done for your district with your one vote on the council," says Bob Grossfeld, a longtime political strategist in Arizona politics. "You need a little help and public awareness about your issues. Phil built that support for issues like slumlords and random gunfire and preservation. And he helped people far outside his own district in the process."

Gordon's ability to get along bodes well for one aspect of his new position. He is political friends with the majority of the current city council. Next year will be the first time in many years that the mayor will have overwhelming goodwill in the council chambers.

But constant deal-making can brand you a wuss. While Gordon gets things done, he often gets only half or three-fourths of what he and the people he champions were fighting for.

And Gordon has what feels like an almost pathological need to be liked and to get along. In my interview with him at Starbucks, he on several occasions retreated nearly instantaneously from comments he apparently thought might offend me or go contrary to my opinions.

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