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On a warm October afternoon, Wes Gullett climbs the steps of Phillips Memorial CME Church, a weathered red-brick building tucked away in a South Phoenix neighborhood. He walks through a small foyer and into a larger gathering room where about two dozen people sit- in folding chairs. A couple of pizza boxes and bottles of water are stacked on a table in the rear.
A slight white man with a head of thinning red hair, Gullett has deep political roots in Arizona and old friends here — like Fred Taylor, a fellow Republican who's at the front of the room, leading the weekly meeting of the African American Community Forum, a group created six months ago to rally support for Gullett's bid to be Phoenix's next mayor.
So far, so good. In August, Gullett beat four other mayoral candidates, including two long-established incumbents on the City Council. Now, the Phoenix lobbyist and political consultant faces Greg Stanton, a former Arizona deputy attorney general and Phoenix city councilman, in a runoff election on November 8.
Black voters aren't going to decide this mayoral race — the city's black population is just about 6 percent — but throughout this campaign, Gullett has tried to build a wide base of support.
That's meant courting blacks who believe their community's been neglected by City Hall, Tea Partiers who believe government is too bloated and its subjects are overtaxed, and the corporate executives and business leaders Gullett's hung around for decades in his role as a political operative and public relations executive. He pledges to cut the cost of doing business in Phoenix and "get government out of the way."
As usual, Gullett tailors his message to fit the crowd. After more than an hour of political proselytizing, Gullett glances at the clock and tells his friend Taylor and the group that he has another appointment. But before he leaves, he's got one last anecdote to share — a heartwarming story about his father and Barack Obama. Clearly, this is not a story Gullett will be telling at any tea parties. But today, he relishes explaining to this crowd how his father actually voted for the country's first black president.
Before he can get away, someone in the crowd asks with whom Gullett cast his own vote for president in 2008. A couple of men in the group chime in: "Yeah, that's a good question."
Gullett admits that he voted for Arizona Senator John McCain but quickly adds that as a member of the Electoral College during the last presidential election, he had no choice. The Republican garnered 54 percent of the Arizona vote, thus Gullett's duty — his job, even — was to vote on behalf of the state.
Those who don't know Gullett as well as Taylor does might have been left with the impression that but for being a state elector, Wes Gullett might have voted for Obama.
Hardly. What Gullett conveniently omits from the tale is the fact that he's worked off and on — and in the highest echelons — for John McCain for decades. Including as one of the leaders of the Arizona senator's 2008 presidential campaign.
The battle between Greg Stanton and Wes Gullett is as competitive — and contentious — as any Phoenix mayoral race has been in nearly 30 years.
The next mayor of Phoenix, like his predecessors, won't have a leading role in the day-to-day operations of the city. He won't have the power to hire and fire or alone call the shots about what policies or direction the city will adopt. The mayor's vote carries the same weight as the votes of his colleagues on the City Council.
But the mayor's is the face of Phoenix, and as a political figurehead, the mayor sets the agenda for the sixth-largest city in the nation. It's a vital role, especially at a time like now — when the city finds itself struggling in a down economy and having to make tough budget cuts or unpopular tax hikes to balance the city budget.
New Times spoke to many political insiders who are backing both candidates. Most, still entrenched in Phoenix politics or doing business with the city, asked not to be identified.
With Greg Stanton, Phoenix would get a mayor who says he favors scaling back the size and cost of government, but in a calculated, measured manner.
For example, Stanton supports a repeal of the very unpopular food tax — but only after two years, to give elected officials, city staff, and the community time to figure out what other city services will be slashed to make up for the $50 million a year that Phoenix will lose when the tax is overturned.
Wes Gullett offers Phoenix residents a "cut now, ask questions later" approach to city spending. He calls for an immediate repeal of the food tax and doesn't support water-rate increases, even if they help create infrastructure that supports future growth.
Unless cuts are made first, Gullett says, city officials never will be forced to find ways to save.
Phoenix needs a mayor who won't play politics with his office, a mayor who knows how to communicate effectively and can bridge the political gaps on the City Council and among city staff so work can actually get done and the city can be ready to compete when the economy bounces back.