The Invisible Man

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

Because of my own pathologies, I generally like a mayor who takes glee in not giving a rat's ass what I think.

I say this only because Gordon's genteel Michael Dukakishness may not play as well in his new role of figurehead -- the face and voice of Phoenix. He is one of those guys who is easily upstaged. As Phoenix fights for the national political clout that is befitting of the nation's fifth-largest city, he may get lost in the wallpaper.

We don't need yet another mayor that nobody inside or outside the city knows or cares about.

Grossfeld and former mayor John Driggs, though, argue that I'm full of crap.

They agree that Phoenix city hall is generally an under-scrutinized, under-appreciated, under-interesting place.

There is a historical reason for this. They argue that people historically aren't interested in city hall because city hall has a history of competence.

Driggs blames it all on Charter Government, the city government reformation project that began in 1949. After restructuring city government under a strong city-manager framework, civic leaders like the Goldwater brothers and others would hand-select their nominee to be the next mayor. That nominee won every election through the 1950s and 1960s.

City hall was secretive, undemocratic and hopelessly pro-development, but scandal and mismanagement were minimal.

Driggs was the Charter Government pick in 1969. His race was interesting, though, because he was pitted against the standing mayor, who wanted to serve past the traditional two-year term of Charter candidates.

That election drew about 20 percent of the population of Phoenix at the time, about twice the percentage expected September 9.

In the 1970s, the Charter nominee system broke down. By the 1980s, there were no longer Charter nominees, but there still were candidates that seemed to be groomed, financed and anointed by the business community.

Like this year, there were many elections that seemed like they were done deals.

Which bores the hell out of voters and the media. Over the years, the number of city hall beat reporters in the Valley has dropped from five to one. Phoenix continues to be considered a well-managed city. With few problems and little coverage, city hall has pretty much purred along without the public caring.

"Sometimes a lack of interest can indicate a good thing," Grossfeld says. "The city hasn't had the kind of major problems or major goofballs that bring that kind of local and national attention. It's a well-run city. That may be boring, but it doesn't mean something is wrong."

But that is changing. Phoenix's political clout is building as its mass grows. Grossfeld and Driggs argue that as clout grows (I apologize for using the Chicago word "clout" here), you will see Phil Gordon and future mayors become more visible on the national stage.

"I think people locally may not realize it, but Phoenix is becoming a player on the national scene and that will just continue to grow," Grossfeld says. "The role of the mayor of Phoenix will expand along with the prestige of the city."

Is Gordon ready to play the role of big-city mayor?

"I think my ability to bring people together will be just as important or more important when I'm mayor of this city," he tells me. "No, I'm not flashy or whatever it is some mayors have. My strength is working together with people to reach our goals. And I'll continue to do that with the energy and passion I've already displayed in my other positions."

Specifically, this means Gordon will get involved personally with recruitment of high-paying, technology-based industries, he says. He plans to meet with company CEOs personally.

Which connects with Gordon's longtime passion -- improving the quality of life in Phoenix neighborhoods.

"You improve schools, restore important structures and fight crime to make this a good place to live for your citizens," he says. "But what you're also doing is creating a quality of life that's appealing to those businesses you'd like to see in your community. I want Phoenix to be attractive to the best and smartest in the country. I want this to be a place everybody wants to be."

Gordon will push light rail and the new downtown convention center, both projects that stand on questionable long-term economic projections.

He is also hot on the life-sciences industries and plans to aggressively recruit high-tech businesses to cluster with the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the International Genomics Consortium buildings going up in downtown Phoenix. He wants Phoenix to create its own research and development vortex à la San Francisco, San Diego or Raleigh. And he dreams of expanding that technology cluster to include nano-technology companies.

I have yet to meet a mayor who didn't want the next Research Triangle Park in his city. It will be up to Gordon to lead Phoenix in a tech recruiting and infrastructure funding environment where so many other cities have failed. (Check out Akron, Ohio's woes.)

Basically, he has big, progressive dreams for Phoenix. And that's refreshing to see from a mayor of a big city known for its lack of progressive thought.

The big question: Can this easily invisible man in this presently invisible position take the city and his position to a new level of visibility?

We'll just wait and see.

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