Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and the Reverend Oscar Tillman, who heads the local NAACP, have long enjoyed a good relationship — if not literally close, at least as positive as any relationship based in politics can be.
But Tillman told me last week that Gordon has lost his support.
And that's putting it mildly.
"I supported the mayor two times, but I know one thing," Tillman says. "The mayor couldn't get a vote from me for dogcatcher. I believe he's really shown he's no longer qualified to be a leader."
Tillman's anger is just one piece of fallout from the city's selection process for a new city manager. The quest to fill the most powerful position in Phoenix has led to hurt feelings, angry meetings, and, worst of all, some troubling allegations of influence peddling.
Now, it's true that the criticism comes predominantly from black leaders, and the new city manager is Latino. But the allegations are truly troubling regardless of whether you're black, white, or brown. One councilman told me on the record that he believes a well-connected developer, Wayne Howard, lobbied the council hard — and that Howard's push may have ultimately proved one of the biggest factors in the council's choice.
Surely, no one expected it would be easy to settle on a successor for the beloved Frank Fairbanks. Fairbanks didn't just lead Phoenix for 37 years; he managed to make it look easy.
But I doubt anyone expected it to get this ugly.
During a mammoth, eight-hour executive session last month, the city council chose 49-year-old David Cavazos as the new city manager. But my sources tell me that the tension now roiling City Hall predated that meeting, as insiders began to see the writing on the wall weeks in advance and suspect Cavazos would be the council's pick.
Suffice it to say, some people were not happy about that.
Cavazos may have been an inside candidate who spent 22 years with the city, but that didn't make him uncontroversial. A Chicago native, Cavazos drew a five-day suspension in 2006 after the Arizona Republic reported that he'd flown first class on the city's dime — and, according to a report from the city's auditors, "set the tone that allowed subordinate staff to also inappropriately use city funds."
I'm told that Fairbanks' number two, Assistant City Manager Alton Washington, announced his retirement last month not because he was eager to move on, as has been reported. I'm told it was because he refused to serve under Cavazos. (Reached at home Monday, Washington declined comment.)
Indeed, at a tense private meeting in the mayor's conference room a few weeks before the vote, the Reverend Tillman and other African-American leaders expressed concern with how Washington, who is black, had been treated. Yes, Washington was never actually a candidate, but as the city's second-in-command, shouldn't his concerns about Cavazos carry some weight?
Tillman also told Gordon that he felt the search was set up to exclude other worthy black candidates — including Glendale City Manager Ed Beasley — in favor of a less-qualified Hispanic, Cavazos.
The bad will surrounding Cavazos' appointment has gotten so bad that some city officials were pointedly not invited to Assistant City Manager Washington's going-away lunch. Meanwhile, Tillman refused to attend City Manager Fairbanks' official farewell party.
"I would not publicly come to [Fairbanks'] retirement . . .," Tillman says. "I didn't want to stand there like we were all happy in our community."
To outsiders, Cavazos' selection may have seemed unexpected.
He wasn't supported by the powerful firefighters union. He was also arguably the least experienced of the four finalists, all insiders. He was a deputy city manager for just three years, and he's never actually run a city department, other than a stint as "acting" aviation director. Unfortunately for Cavazos, that two-year stint is today mainly evocative of the infamous travel-abuse scandal.
And while it's true that one other finalist for the job, deputy city manager David Krietor, was also disciplined for his role in that scandal, it's worth noting that Krietor didn't actually do anything wrong other than sign off on reports by Cavazos. Somehow, Cavazos still beat him out for the job.
I don't think it's wise to underestimate the Wayne Howard factor.
Howard is not one of those developers who hire publicists to get their names in the paper. Most people in Phoenix, I suspect, have never heard of him.
But Howard, who lives in Paradise Valley, is well known by the people who matter at City Hall — check just about any elected official's campaign finance report and you'll see not only that Howard has donated the max, but you'll also notice the names of plenty of his friends. Every politician knows about Howard's "breakfast club": a group of developers and zoning attorneys who meet monthly for breakfast. They don't just eat together; they also donate together.
That gives Howard major clout at City Hall.
No need to take my word on that. "Wayne Howard had a huge influence on this selection process," says Councilman Michael Johnson. (Howard did not respond to a request for comment.)
Johnson, a seven-year council veteran and the only black council member, was also the only member to vote "no" on Cavazos' nomination as city manager. He tells me that Howard's involvement troubled him.
Johnson suggests it was a factor in Alton Washington's disgust with Cavazos' selection as well. "There was a huge integrity issue," Johnson tells me. "He didn't feel that he could support Cavazos . . . Alton wasn't susceptible to the influence of a developer."
Indeed, Johnson tells me that when people were lining up to fill the council seat of Maria Baier, who resigned this summer to take a job with the state, the city manager's replacement was already an issue.
Howard, he says, was asking applicants whether or not they'd support Cavazos for city manager.
Johnson's assertions are enormously troubling to me. Howard, after all, frequently does business at City Hall. Just a few weeks ago, the council voted against a plan Howard was pitching, with developer Reid Butler, to put higher-density housing at Camelback and Central.
The pair had hoped to bring new development not only to a parcel they controlled, but also to a neighboring parcel owned by the city, which contains some historic homes. The council blocked the Butler/Howard plan by starting a process to sell the historic homes to families committed to living there, rather than those who would tear them down.
But as is often the case at City Hall, the devil may be in the details. The request for proposals that the city will issue to find buyers for the homes is still being written by city staff.
Those staff members now answer to David Cavazos.
I have to wonder if the Camelback and Central project was one reason that Wayne Howard was so interested in the city manager's selection process. After all, if we believe Councilman Johnson — and I have no reason not to — Howard was setting the table all the way back in August.
That allegation certainly jibes with what I'm hearing from Oscar Tillman. The NAACP president arranged a meeting October 13 with Gordon, Councilman Johnson, and other leaders in the black community. That was only days after the deadline to apply for the job, but Tillman says he knew at that point that Cavazos was set to get the council's nod.
After talking to numerous City Hall sources, I'm not convinced that things were quite so cut and dried. The executive session in which Cavazos was chosen, after all, lasted eight hours — hardly a sign of a united body.
But there was clearly a sense among insiders that Cavazos would get the job. (See: Alton Washington's retirement.)
And Tillman's prediction ultimately proved correct. That, in and of itself, proves his point, he says. "Any time Oscar Tillman knows who's going to be the next city manager, well, where's the transparency in that?"
Ultimately, Tillman believes that Gordon did what he could to squelch outside interest in the position, just to line things up for Cavazos. In August, he says, insiders began discussing Ed Beasley, the Glendale city manager, as a possible contender.
Almost immediately thereafter, Tillman says, Gordon gave an interview to the Arizona Republic saying that candidates should have experience in a city at least the size of the Phoenix.
That rules out just about anybody who hasn't already worked here. (Trust me, I don't think we're likely to lure anyone with top management experience in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.)
"That was not a coincidence," Tillman says.
The October 13 meeting ended on a fractious note, as both men confirm. Gordon's chief of staff had come to fetch him for another appointment, and the mayor said his goodbyes. On the way out the door, Gordon awkwardly tossed off a line about how all the assembled ministers in the room should pray for him — other than Tillman.
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Gordon was joking, as he stressed on the phone with me last week. But you know what they say about jokes: They're only funny if they have the ring of truth.
For the record, Gordon strenuously denies Tillman's accusations. He says he didn't try to block Beasley and he wasn't definitely on board the Cavazos wagon at the time of the October meeting with Tillman. He tried to downplay a rift with the minister: "I consider him a friend, even if there are some difficulties there now. We've always had a very good relationship."
I hope Gordon is right and the two can patch things up. But I have to admit, after everything I've heard about the city manager selection process, it's not the relationship between Gordon and Tillman that worries me most.
I'm worried about the relationship between David Cavazos and Wayne Howard.