Politics of Frustration
Are you mad as hell at City Hall? Are you sick of its taxpayer-funded megalomania? Are you pissed about potholes, craven politicians and taxes? Are you ready to revolt?
The two are leading a voter initiative drive that is rapidly making hay of all the undirected angst simmering out there in the City of Ashes. Under their proposal, the city would not be able to expend more than $3 million in public resources, either land or money, on amphitheatres or sports facilities unless a majority of voters give their approval at the next general election.
This won't do a thing to correct lousy schools, tacky commercial development or savings and loan magnates who manage their--our--money badly. But it would prevent the Phoenix City Council from making deals with big shots like Zev Bufman and Jerry Colangelo, would-be developers of an 18,000-seat concert amphitheatre and a new Phoenix Suns' arena, respectively.
Judging by the welcome they're getting from the public, Shaw and Morrow have struck on a popular idea indeed. "Half a dozen people were at our first organizing meeting," Morrow recalls. "Thirty-five showed up at our second meeting, and there were fifty at the meeting following that. And they're all ready to carry petitions."
Politicians, especially Phoenix City Council members, hate the initiative petition. So do many of the citizen activists who helped reform City Hall in 1982, when the district system was established to make the city council more responsive to the public.
"I think the initiative is a bad deal because it seems almost like a vendetta rather than a policy," says Peter Martori, vice president of the Greater Phoenix Neighborhood Coalition.
Morrow says he and fellow initiative sponsors, most of them neighborhood foes of Bufman's amphitheatre, are motivated purely by a sense of civic duty. "We got such a response from people all over the city saying this referendum is needed and begging us to continue with it even after the city folded its hand on the amphitheatre site," Morrow says.
"We honestly didn't want what almost happened to us to happen to other neighborhoods," he explains with a smile.
Critics of the initiative snipe that it is more likely fueled by a sense of civic destiny--Shaw competed against Mayor Terry Goddard in 1987--and say its appeal is based in the politics of resentment.
During the 1987 campaign, Shaw reminded voters that Goddard, too, was once an outsider who used grassroots tactics to goad the smug graybeards down at City Hall. (Goddard threatened an initiative to cap the gas tax, forcing politicians to enact one, and instituted the voter referendum that brought in the district system.) Shaw even referred to himself as "a younger Terry Goddard," perhaps in hopes of capturing idealists disappointed in their leader's current performance.
Shaw forged his campaign for mayor around his sponsorship of a referendum to protect the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, a measure that was both anti- developer and anti-city council. The public stampeded to support Shaw's mountain preserve initiative, but Shaw the candidate was left behind in the dust.
He is coy about his reasons for orchestrating another referendum now, in the months leading up to the November mayoral race, but the timing strikes some as significant. "I really can't speculate about why Gil is doing this. . . . One can, but I shouldn't," drawls Hizzoner the Mayor. "Usually referendums gain energy from an issue that was not resolved to popular satisfaction, and in this case the neighborhood won. So what is the reason for this? I don't know."
North Phoenix councilmember Paul Johnson, one of the first to be elected under the district system, thinks the initiative sponsors are playing to the same crowd that elected Evan Mecham governor once upon a time. "They may be claiming it's a neighborhood- protection issue, but the movement gains its strength from the anti-tax, anti-government mentality that's always out there," he says.
The city's most influential neighborhood advocacy group, the Greater Phoenix Neighborhood Coalition, is not supporting the initiative. In fact, coalition leader Martori likens the proposal to "a case of zits on a teen-ager."
"Who the hell knows why they come and what makes them go away?" shrugs Martori. "The initiative doesn't seem to have any particular concept behind it except being against sports facilities. If the concept is a check-and-balance for city government, it's too narrowly defined to accomplish that."
Maybe so, but its backers know they've got a constituency. "People feel very disenfranchised on things that they feel they ought to have input on," Shaw says. "We've tapped a distrust among people that, when it comes time for the council to deal with something out of the ordinary, the deal will be cut for the developer instead of the city."
If the demolition of Goddard's cherished ValTrans proposal reveals anything, it is the danger of underestimating people's ability to think for themselves. Though Goddard interprets the defeat as a sign the issue was too complex for the average dunderhead, the polls indicate that public support for ValTrans was high to begin with and dropped steadily as citizens became more familiar with it.
The initiative is a way to say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," and there's no doubt people are frustrated with City Hall. But it doesn't necessarily mean they'll buy snake oil as a cure.
WESTERN CIVILIZATION, of course, has a long tradition of heavy government involvement in civic amenities. The ancient Romans expected their taxes to be spent on projects dreamed up by politicians and, presumably, guys with gladiator franchises.
But this isn't Rome, it's Phoenix. And in Phoenix, the city's attempt to site an amphitheatre in northeast Phoenix was considerably less successful than Rome's effort at building the Colosseum. Indeed, it has given birth to a populist revolt every bit as energetic as the 1982 district-system movement responsible for electing most of the current city council.
In any other city, a fellow like Keith Morrow, a successful silver-haired businessman, might seem an unlikely figurehead for a grassroots political movement. Such turf, after all, is commonly claimed by people seeking to end chronic political powerlessness.
Morrow's grassroots legions, however, sound very much like the folks who elected Evan Mecham governor based on a promise to end "tax and spend" government and stand up to the Establishment dealmakers.
"I wouldn't say most of the people who are calling us are upset about a specific issue. There's just a basic unhappiness with the city, a general disagreement with the way things are going," Morrow says in describing his movement's adherents.
Virtually every major move out of the reformed City Hall has provoked rage from the public--the proposals for a Suns arena and a multipurpose stadium downtown, the Grand Prix, the $8.4 billion ValTrans system. Most of the neighborhood activists who voted Goddard into power, however, still share his dream to build a sophisticated urban landscape. These troopers may be disgusted by the bungled beautification of Central Avenue, for instance, or the council concessions to developers like Bob Gosnell and Fife Symington, but these failures do not undermine their belief that a major city needs mega-scale amenities.
But how many voters make such distinctions? Among huge numbers who are too new, or too insular, to be interested in urban greatness, the preoccupation is with purse strings.
"One of the common things people mention is taxes, increases in taxes," Morrow says with a sage nod. "It's not that our taxes here in Arizona are so high, but they have certainly jumped in the last three or four years. Our concern is if they are being committed to nonessential things."
Morrow became a leader of the people by virtue of his fight against the amphitheatre, a cultural amenity City Hall thought would be welcomed in north Phoenix. His prior involvement in local politics--he moved to Phoenix four years ago from the Midwest--was limited to one neighborhood petition drive to derail a shopping center proposed near his home off East Bell Road and Tatum Drive. (He was successful.)
But the amphitheatre fight created extraordinary times, he recalls, times that called for immense personal sacrifice. "It was like [residents] were fighting off the hordes," Morrow says. The little neighborhoods--if streets full of homes in the $100,000-and-up range can be considered little--near the proposed amphitheatre site were fighting not only City Hall but its citizen advisers in the area, most of whom supported the city's plans. The amphitheatre opponents waged an intense war, but in reality had few weapons, Morrow says.
(Intimidation was one of their weapons, says a member of the Paradise Valley Community Council, who recalls confronting hostility so intense "the hair on the back of my neck raised up, the way it does just before lightning strikes." The councilmember refused to comment on the record, saying, "It was ugly, there were a lot of personal threats made.")
"When Gil suggested the referendum and initiative, it was a godsend," Morrow explains. "We had thought we might have to go before the planning commission and the council three or four times. We would have had to mobilize our people anew each time and get them down to City Hall, which is a good 25 miles from here.
"That's one way they use to discourage people on the outskirts from pursuing a fight," he confides. "They make you come back downtown again and again for meetings and hearings. It's very hard to keep your group energized over such a long period."
"We were at our wits' end," Morrow says. "Gil saved us."
"Gil," in contrast to Morrow, is no stranger to local politics. Sustained by his Central Avenue law practice, Shaw has a long history of involvement with neighborhood groups.
"He's one of the few lawyers who will take the neighborhood's side in a dispute with developers," says Pat Coltrap, a leader in the affluent East Camelback Road neighborhood that fought commercial developer Ron Warner to a standstill in the early 1980s.
In 1986, Shaw drafted the successful voter referendum to protect the mountain preserve after the Phoenix City Council swapped some prime acreage on South Mountain to developer Bob Gosnell, who wanted a golf course to enhance his Pointe at South Mountain resort. Shaw challenged Terry Goddard for the mayor's seat in 1987, saying the mayor should not go unchallenged for his role in the infamous Gosnell land swap, and lost.
"I've been reminded of losing that race so often my name is hyphenated: `Gil-Shaw-the-unsuccessful-candidate-for-mayor,'|" he jokes.
SHAW'S INVOLVEMENT with the amphitheatre opponents has convinced some people he is more accurately named Gil-Shaw-who-still-wants-to- be-mayor. "What I look at is Gil Shaw using this to resurrect his campaign for mayor," says Pat Cantelme, one of the leaders of the district-system campaign.
Cantelme now chairs the most powerful advisory group in the city, the Phoenix Planning Commission, and his attitude toward the initiative is common among members of the 1982 reform movement who now are part of City Hall.
Far from being an expression of legitimate complaint with the district system, Cantelme contends, the initiative is a cynical political tool that exploits the downside of the system--parochialism. "Not only are residents being heard at City Hall as they never were in the past, in many cases their concerns are outweighing what's best for the community," Cantelme says, referring to neighborhood defeats of facilities to house brain-injury patients and emotionally disturbed children, even a community center. "I've seen half a dozen projects that were needed for the community go down to defeat because of neighborhood opposition.
"All this negativity about development is fine if it's coupled with positive input on what's best for the city," he continues. "But I'm not seeing the second half of the equation."
Leaders of the Voters Initiative Coalition say their initiative drive is intended simply to give the public the final say on big projects. Shaw points to the series of wildly expensive ideas, such as the proposed Suns' arena, that even city councilmembers admit are drawing heavy fire.
"When I hear the mayor and Paul Johnson blasting this initiative as a slap at representative government, I think about the old-timer I bumped into at a recent District Six public meeting," Shaw says. "After listening to everyone talk for a while, he said, `I'm glad I've got my own councilmember to make sure my trash gets picked up, but when I look at the citywide problems that aren't getting solved, it sometimes makes me wish we had [the at-large council system] back.'|"
Shaw's original initiative for the amphitheatre foes would have required voter approval of all expenditures in excess of $1 million on "any amphitheatre, sports complex or arena, stadium, convention facility or arena." Following the defeat of the amphitheatre, he retooled the initiative slightly, increasing the spending limit to $3 million, to silence criticism that it would prevent the city from building neighborhood park facilities.
"Maybe the council is so frustrated trying to deal with the more complex problems that it becomes easier to turn the public's attention to something entertaining, like the Grand Prix," Shaw says. "Perhaps the system itself is the cause of the drive for glitz, I don't know. All we're trying to do is to give the public a final veto power because so many people seem to distrust that the city will do the right thing if we let 'em alone."
Sounding more like a candidate with every breath, Shaw nevertheless maintains he's just "on the fringes" of the initiative drive helping a few folks out with the legal technicalities. But Morrow confirms that much of the movement's early boost in organization is coming from Shaw supporters.
"ALL WE'RE SAYING is that the people are very intelligent when it comes to managing a city," Morrow asserts. "There are very few decisions the council needs to make if they will just rely on the voters, as with the ValTrans vote."
"When Gil came on the scene, he explained there's not much use in fighting City Hall directly because it has such wide latitude on decisions, there's no room to fight it [in court]," Morrow says. But armed by a spending-cap initiative, voters can outflank City Hall with sheer numbers, he adds.
Shaw might also have pointed out to the fledgling activists that voter initiatives don't always solve the problem at hand--the city council never budged in its decision to trade pieces of South Mountain to Gosnell, despite Shaw's initiative drive, looming city elections and much wider public interest than the amphitheatre fight ever enjoyed. (The successful mountain- preserve measure, of course, only prevented the council from making future trades without voter approval.)
If amphitheatre foes think the threat of another initiative alone was responsible for their victory, they're ignoring the intramural politics underway at City Hall, skeptics say. "At least three people on the council are interested in running for mayor, which means they don't want to do anything that will lose them votes," says Martori, the Neighborhood Coalition leader.
And if initiative backers think the current system is failing them, they are missing the point, says Martori.
"Are there systemic things that need to be changed or are there situational things--city councilmembers who have no vision or who cave in to developers--that need changing?" Martori asks. "People are currently mad at some of the `situations' [on the city council] and so they get mad at the system."
Tampering with the most responsive form of city government in Phoenix's history, he maintains, will not cure what ails City Hall.
The initiative is a way to say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."
"I've seen half a dozen projects that were needed for the community go down to defeat because of neighborhood opposition."
"All we're saying is that the people are very intelligent when it comes to managing a city."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.