The race to lead the nation's eighth-largest city has been so quiet that Skip Rimsza was able to undergo and recover from triple-bypass surgery this summer without missing a beat on the campaign trail.
Rimsza, who represented north-central Phoenix on the city council until March, when he resigned to run for mayor, squares off against former east Phoenix councilmember Linda Nadolski in the October 25 special election.
With voter turnout expected to be as low as 6 percent, anyone could win--including one of the two lesser-known contenders, neighborhood activist G.G. George and Eagle Scout Greg Campbell.
But Rimsza's and Nadolski's council experience puts them at the head of the pack, and some wags say the front-runners' contrasting leadership styles and allegiances have turned the race into a de facto contest between two former Phoenix mayors: realtor Rimsza, in the tradition of Paul Johnson, or neighborhood activist Nadolski as the new Terry Goddard. However, unlike their mentors, neither Rimsza nor Nadolski has mastered the art of inspiring the masses.
As the status quo candidate, Rimsza sees the lack of interest in the current race as a healthy sign.
"I buy the premise when the city's doing a good job, and things are going pretty well and, frankly, there's water coming out of your spigot, a policeman comes to your door in four minutes, you might be a little less concerned about it [city politics]," he says.
Compared with Maricopa County and the State of Arizona, the city does seem bereft of many headline-inducing crises; however, voter interest in city hall has probably been sapped by this season's boisterous gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests.
The winner in October's mayoral race will serve for only a year, but both Rimsza and Nadolski see incumbency as a leg up in next fall's city election, and the leadership mantle for the remainder of this century. Incumbency usually does provide a significant edge, but this time, conventional wisdom may prove false, given the plethora of out-of-work pols who are likely to be loitering. That list might include Chuck Blanchard, Dick Mahoney, Sam Coppersmith, even Fife Symington.
Interim Mayor Thelda Williams--appointed last spring after Paul Johnson resigned to run for governor, she will serve until the special election--and councilmembers John Nelson and Craig Tribken are reportedly considering running for mayor next year. Tribken seriously considered a bid this year, but decided to wait after a heated reelection battle in 1993. "I think we've got a little too much ambition around here," he says.
Rumors also are swirling about Maricopa County Supervisor Betsey Bayless, former state legislator and U.S. Senate candidate Cathy Eden, real estate developer Drew Brown and development attorney Grady Gammage Jr.
But all that is simply tantalizing speculation. This time around, it's Skip or Linda.
Anton "Skip" Rimsza cast his lot with Paul Johnson in 1990 when, in his first weeks on the city council, he provided the vote that put then-councilmember Johnson in the mayor's seat. (Phoenix needed a council-appointed mayor because Goddard had resigned midterm to run for governor.)
On the council together, Rimsza and Johnson agreed on the curfew and juvenile gun ordinances and that government by consensus is best.
Rimsza is a member of the National Rifle Association, but he doesn't always adhere to the group's platform. Similarly, as a Republican, he hasn't always gone the way of the GOP--which makes him palatable to Democrats like Johnson.
Nadolski, who's often referred to as the godmother of neighborhood activism, was elected to the council in 1987, during the Goddard era at city hall, but was defeated by Johnson protge Kathy Dubs in 1991. Although he says he's been distanced from the current mayoral race, Goddard recognizes the similarities between himself and Nadolski.
Goddard says, "She's an activist, she wants to see the city as a tool to improve life for families here, quality of neighborhoods, sort of the long-term vision." While he hasn't been asked to endorse Nadolski, "I'm supportive and I'll do whatever is most helpful to her."
Like Goddard, Nadolski had a reputation at city hall for being difficult to work with. One of her former council colleagues calls her a "strategic eunuch" whose all-or-nothing idealism often hurt her own causes.
Unlike Goddard--who nurtured the neighborhood-planning process, created the city's arts and historic preservation commissions and can take some credit for the vision that is just now resulting in improvements, such as a new library and museums--Nadolski doesn't have clearly articulated goals.
Her crystal ball is fuzzy, her campaign literature stuffed with sweeping, Miss America statements like, "I will work to help us learn to live together and to eliminate hate and discrimination" and "I will work to cut government red tape."
Fuzzy or not, it may not be the time for a visionary. Goddard says his leadership style was anomalous, that Phoenicians have traditionally chosen "a mayor that essentially keeps the lid on for the business community. They [Phoenix mayors] don't rock the boat, they don't cause a tremendous amount of waves and they don't really do much, if anything."
Goddard capitalized on good economic times and bad blood between hungry developers and neighborhood preservationists. "Calling for opening the doors, getting people more involved, doing some long-range planning, was really well-received back in 1983," he recalls.
At the turn of the decade, the real estate market plummeted and with it went the city's breakneck development. Leadership at city hall changed.
"The whole world had shifted on a pinhead, and it literally happened almost overnight," recalls Johnson, who was elected to the council in 1985 and became mayor in early 1990. "And I thought it was my job to step in there and try to make certain that we put to bed some of the division between the two groups and start working to rebuild an economy that was in big trouble."
With many developers struggling to remain solvent, and the city's public works program at a standstill, planning concerns were supplanted in neighborhoods by crime concerns. The temperament of neighborhood activism changed.
Richard Fox is president of the Phoenix Block Watch Advisory Board and a Rimsza supporter. (His board cannot endorse candidates.)
"We have a lot of issues in my neighborhood that people don't necessarily agree on, but the one thing we can agree on . . . is crime prevention," Fox says.
He's never understood why neighborhood leaders and developers couldn't get along. "It seems to me that the business people and the neighborhood people need one another," Fox says. "We want to see everyone getting along."
Nadolski and her supporters say that's a dangerous attitude, that adversarial relationships are healthy.
"Skip is a top-down kind of person who develops alliances between players who then format where they want to go, and I really believe that this kind of direction has to come from the people themselves, on the bottom," Nadolski says.
Paul Barnes, a member of the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Phoenix (a group Nadolski helped to form in the Eighties; it cannot endorse candidates, either), says Johnson and Rimsza have worked to make city hall less accessible to neighborhood activists.
"There's a feeling that the city, during the last three years, has not been as open as far as neighborhood participation as it had been in the past," Barnes says, pointing to an increase in the use of the city council's committees as the place to resolve issues.
"A lot of issues are resolved in these committees that obviously are pretty poorly attended by the public because they are held without a lot of notice, one, and, two, they're held at times of the day that make it impossible for people who aren't lobbyists to attend," Barnes says.
The process must be opened up again, agrees Holly O'Brien, the coalition's president, who says, "The more argument you have, the more give-and-take you have among people, the better off--even if you lose, you're educated to some degree."
The first campaign-contribution filings of the election cycle aren't due until October 13, so it's hard to measure successes and allegiances. But a calendar at Rimsza headquarters denotes the dates of fund raisers hosted by heavyweights such as Drew Brown, Don Isaacson and Phil Dion--developer, lobbyist and head of Del Webb Corporation, respectively.
And Rimsza's campaign staffers rattle off endorsements: Southwest Gas PAC, Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, Moonlight Cove Homeowners Association and the Professional Firefighters of Arizona/AFL-CIO Fire PAC.
Barbara Wyllie, Nadolski's campaign manager, doesn't return a call seeking information about endorsements. One known endorsement is from the Arizona Human Rights Fund, an organization founded by people who fought for the city's gay-rights ordinance in 1991 and '92.
You wouldn't expect to find a straight mother of five hanging out in a gay bar, but that's just where Nadolski was on a recent Monday afternoon.
She sat in a booth at Wink's, a dim gay bar on Seventh Street just north of Camelback, sipping something nonalcoholic and chatting with the owner, Albert Weiss. Nowadays, Weiss says, it's "in" for straight candidates to campaign in the gay community.
Particularly for candidates like Nadolski, who have championed human rights. After she lost her reelection bid in '91, but before she'd left the council, Nadolski pushed for a citywide gay-rights ordinance. Victory didn't come for a year--but it won her the admiration of a large segment of the gay/lesbian community in Phoenix.
Almost every weekend--and some weeknights--Nadolski and her supporters make the rounds at the city's gay bars, encouraging patrons to vote for her and sign up for absentee ballots. "Bar hop" is listed on a big sign of volunteer activities posted at Nadolski headquarters, along with vacuuming and posting yard signs.
"There's no doubt about it. They [the gay/lesbian community] are a constituency that gathers in a public place, which makes it easier to campaign," Nadolski says.
The Arizona Human Rights Fund endorsement comes with a $250 contribution. Far more valuable is the grassroots support that comes along, too. AHRF chairman Bill McDonald estimates that as many as 15,000 gay/lesbian voters could turn out to vote for Nadolski--a formidable sum in an election that might see only 30,000 or 40,000 voters participate.
McDonald estimates a candidate may be able to reach as many as 5,000 gay voters in a weekend by making the rounds at Phoenix gay bars.
AHRF also endorses local and statewide candidates, and has raised about $15,000 for the 1994 election cycle, but "Linda's mayoral campaign is the focus. It has the highest priority," McDonald says.
"We love Linda. She's been there for us," he adds. "We've made no overtures to Skip, which may be unfair."
Rimsza, who did not originally support the gay-rights initiative, voted for it in the end--as part of a Johnson-orchestrated consensus. "Skip is not a terrible, terrible person," McDonald says. ". . . There's a lot worse people than Skip Rimsza."
Skip Rimsza likes to be prepared. He's got this speech he wrote in March, which he carries around "like a security blanket"--just in case he forgets what he wants to say. So far, that hasn't happened.
While Nadolski has rented an old house for her headquarters, and relies mainly on volunteers, Rimsza has a covey of Generation Xers and an office upstairs from his "general consultant," Mike Crusa. (Best known for his bit part in AzScam, Crusa is a longtime Johnson confidant.)
Contrary to his campaign brochure, which boasts that Rimsza personally returns constituent calls and holds neighborhood meetings, access to the candidate is problematic. Campaign manager David Schwartz agrees to a paltry 30-minute interview--with the media consultant present--and it's all but impossible to schedule a photography session.
Schwartz faxes a letter from one constituent brimming with praise for Rimsza, whose office got an unsightly cable-TV control unit removed from outside the gentleman's home. But Vickie Limparis, one of a streetful of homeowners on Bethany Home Road that has spent years trying to get someone to listen to concerns about the Squaw Peak Parkway, says Rimsza "never showed his face on this street. He never talked to us, he didn't return phone calls, he, I guess, decided to ignore the situation, hoping it would go away."
Limparis doesn't have kind words for Nadolski, either.
Rimsza looks like a Skip, and it's not just the khakis, navy blazer and floral tie. He's buoyant, boyish--with a wide grin, a full head of hair and a pink glow.
"I'll catch ya," he says, an eye squeezing into an automatic wink, as he's off to glad-hand the next electoral victim.
Rimsza's in fine form at a recent candidates' forum sponsored by his fellow agents, via the Paradise Valley Realtor Marketing Service. It's his turf. G.G. George and Nadolski mill around awkwardly before the forum, while Rimsza holds court in a corner. "Look what I got," an older man says, showing Rimsza a G.G. George brochure. The men chuckle.
A Rimsza staffer moves through the crowd, handing out campaign stickers. Rimsza expresses remorse over Johnson's loss in the recent gubernatorial race, accepts a compliment about his recent weight loss and refers to his open-heart surgery as a "little deal this summer."
When it's time to speak, Rimsza gets the coveted last word. The three (Greg Campbell didn't show) have lots to say about crime, but there's no discernible difference in message.
The Rimsza stump speech covers three topics: neighborhoods, the economy and families.
Neighborhoods: "You don't outrun this urban cancer. You've got to stay put" in inner-city neighborhoods, and fight for revitalization.
The economy: He's helped boost Phoenix through his leadership as chairman of the city council's Committee on the Economy, including "a little contest called Super Bowl XXX."
Families: "A kid has no business on the streets at 2 a.m." or carrying a gun to school. We must stop the forces that "wreak urban terrorism in this city."
Twenty minutes later, the candidate's smearing jam on a toasted bagel at the Eggery at Central and Camelback. Griffin Merkel, his media consultant, sits nearby.
Up close, a few gray hairs glint at Rimsza's temples. He tones down the back-slapping-realtor bit for a one-on-one. But he's terse, almost defensive, as he offers canned responses to questions about his background and philosophies.
The Rimsza family relocated to Phoenix from Illinois 39 years ago, when Skip was just a few months old. His father, who ran a grocery store in Chicago, was held up by two "thugs" who were ready to shoot him until some fast thinking prompted the senior Rimsza to dig up some hidden cash.
"There really are, for people, defining moments in history where they step up or cower back, and my dad stepped up," Skip says. His father "got creamed" in business early on in Phoenix, then opened a real estate company, which was ultimately successful.
Rimsza joined the family business. He didn't consider politics until 1989, when a group of friends cajoled him into running for city council against six-year incumbent Bill Parks. Disgusted with politics in the Mecham era, Rimsza ran and won. He won again in '91, and served on the council until last March, when he quit to run for mayor.
He's divorced and remarried, with two children, Jenny, 12, and Brian, 13, from the first marriage.
In late May, he thought he'd hurt his arm while out campaigning. It was much more serious than that. A month later, doctors performed open-heart surgery to bypass clogged arteries. Rimsza says his recovery is complete; he mountain-bikes 11 miles to work every Monday.
Rimsza welcomes comparisons with Paul Johnson, noting that both come from large, Catholic families. Johnson stood up for Rimsza at Rimsza's second wedding.
Like Johnson, Rimsza has had little difficulty filling his campaign coffers. Rimsza's 1991 campaign-contribution report consists almost exclusively of developers and attorneys who regularly do business with the city, and his fellow realtors. He spent $80,000 in the 1991 race, against challenger Janet Hemmerle, who spent $3,000, and Elise Roginiel, who reported no expenditures.
And like Johnson, Rimsza has been criticized for possible conflicts of interest. Just weeks after Rimsza's 1989 election, the new councilmember took credit in the daily press for a rezoning case sought by Howard Covey, a car dealer who owned property on Bell Road that had not been zoned for his business. Covey and his employees had made a $400 donation to Rimsza's campaign and, after the case was resolved, dropped another $720 into a fund to retire Rimsza's campaign debt.
Schwartz later responds: "You know what? They've been friends long, long, long before he [Rimsza] even ran or thought about running for city council."
Then did the friendship have anything to do with Rimsza's actions on behalf of Covey? "That's totally unrelated," Schwartz says.
Covey didn't return a call from New Times.
When the hot-button topic of public art is pushed, Rimsza tries to distance himself from Johnson--even though he looked on in amusement when Johnson took a hammer to a pot in symbolic disapproval of the controversial Squaw Peak pots. "I think you'd find that myself and maybe my family are much more interested in the arts than maybe Paul was," Rimsza says, but he then goes on to share a favorite Johnson sentiment--that public dollars are better spent on the performing arts than fine art.
Rimsza would rather incorporate physical art into permanent structures than erect individual pieces. "Even in my own house, individual pieces of art, I get bored with," Rimsza says.
When questioned about his favorite artists, though, Rimsza gets defensive. "I'm not so much into specific artists. I'm not quite that affluent to be able to afford that, but I like watercolors."
With the half-hour ticking to a close, there's just one question left on the list. It's a throwaway, a time waster--and, given the candidate's stiffness, sure to be a dud: Who's your hero?
The Eggery is crowded and noisy, so at first it seems as though Rimsza has missed the question. He's staring straight ahead. Then, softly, from between pursed lips, he says, "I know who it is." Seconds pass, then a minute, and he's still sitting there, motionless. Finally, he pushes away the uneaten bagel and tries to speak, his eyes brimming.
"It's my son."
Slowly, through tears, he explains that 13-year-old Brian has had 13 or 14 operations throughout his life to correct facial birth defects. The candidate sobs, wiping his face with a paper napkin.
"I'm sorry. I got emotional. . . . I just see from him how hard it is to be different. And people are trying to be nice. I can remember taking him to a Suns game. He didn't have any eyelid muscles, so he always looked through slits, and people would lean over and say, 'Why don't you take him home, he looks so tired.' It just made me realize how tough life can be."
Rimsza's mother died when he was 16, and he played parent to younger siblings, but it was "nothing--nothing even close" to what Brian's endured. "I must admit I'm hard on him. I push him," Rimsza says, proud of his son's scholastic achievements and that he recently bagged an elk with a bow and arrow.
There's an awkward pause, but Rimsza's softer, more open now. Unfortunately, it's time to go. As he rises from the table, pausing to wink and wave at a tableful of well-wishers, he turns to Merkel and asks, wryly, "Are more people going to ask me who my hero is? You're supposed to warn me."
In 1987, Linda Nadolski was Linda Sue Nadolski, a former PTA president from the Arcadia neighborhood. New Times called her maiden city council race against conservative, prodevelopment lawyer Mark Dioguardi "so crucial to the entire city that things are going to boil."
Neighborhood activism triumphed over big, bad development, and Nadolski's win was big news. In the two terms she served, Nadolski left her mark. Fans say she refused to play along with special interests, often finding herself the lone dissenter in an 8-1 council vote.
Rich Goldsmith, who served on the Phoenix Arts Commission during Nadolski's time on the council, says, "She refused to play all of their little games. I mean, they [fellow councilmembers and lobbyists] had this image of her that she wasn't particularly bright or that she was stubborn. I don't think either of those are necessarily correct, but she would question some of the things that they were doing, and she wasn't motivated by the same electoral and other concerns that all of them were."
Nadolski infuriated neighborhood supporters by voting in favor of expansion of the Camelback Esplanade in 1988 and antagonized then-police chief Ruben Ortega by publicly stating that he should be held accountable for his actions.
Although she outspent her challenger by more than four to one, in 1991, Nadolski lost her seat to another former PTA president, Kathy Dubs. Pundits attributed Nadolski's loss to redistricting and to her comments about Ortega. Her district was reconfigured that year to include portions of South Mountain and other communities she hadn't dealt with.
Nadolski's reputation as a naysayer drove even her natural allies away, Dubs says. "When I was on the council, I met with so many neighborhood associations that just loathed her," says Dubs, who lost her own council seat after just one term.
No surprise--Dubs is supporting Rimsza. "Skip is so friendly, and he's so personable that he does well with just about anyone. . . . We'll probably have a Skip Rimsza sign in our front yard," Dubs says.
And as for Nadolski? "She's just not a consensus builder. There's no way she could even try to portray herself that way. She loves controversy and she thrives on pitting people against each other."
For someone reputed to inspire such wrath, Linda Nadolski has a remarkably sweet, soothing voice. She dresses in plums and teals and kicks off sensibly low black patent leather pumps in the middle of a long day, pausing for a few moments to dump her overstuffed organizer and mobile phone on a desk and wriggle around.
Her face is all uneven angles, with bright olive eyes, but it's her wise smile that gives the signal that Nadolski knows. She knows she has an uphill battle against Rimsza. She knows what people like Dubs say about her. But she thinks she can win with grassroots support. After all, she never thought she'd win her first race.
Nadolski, 49, has lived in Phoenix almost all her life, and moved to Arcadia as a young bride after she and her husband won $12,500 playing keno in Las Vegas. Like Rimsza, Nadolski's known hardship; she was pregnant nine times and gave birth to five children. When her youngest was in kindergarten, she finished her degree in communications from Arizona State University.
In 1985, a neighbor read in the newspaper that a freeway was planned nearby, so Nadolski began her activist career as so many do--fighting freeways. From there it was on to a village planning committee, and by that time, there was a small group of activists in her neighborhood.
"After a couple years, it slowly dawned on us that a seat on the council would make a difference," she says. Nadolski says she was the only one with the time, so she did it. "We didn't really believe that I would win," she says, but she wanted to send a message: "You can't do these things to people. People don't feel that they have any control over their own future and the decisions that affect them."
That's why she has proposed, during this campaign, that two at-large members be added to the city council--something Rimsza adamantly opposes.
"I don't think people want to buy more government. Matter of fact, if I had my way, I'll tell you right now, I'd cut the state legislature in half in numbers. . . . It's just more effective," he says.
But more often than not, the two front-runners sound alike. Like Rimsza, Nadolski stresses crime and neighborhoods in her public presentations. Both support community policing. Nadolski does have her own set of specific ideas, including turning schools into community centers, creating a youth job corps and developing the Papago Heritage Trail as a regional attraction. She also supports experimenting with "total quality management" at city hall.
Both Nadolski and Rimsza take credit for the infill concept--the notion that inner-city housing and services should be improved and/or built as a way to counter urban sprawl.
Rimsza boasts that he got a policy to promote infill adopted by the city council earlier this year. Nadolski insists she is the one who brought the need for inner-city redevelopment to the fore in the late Eighties.
Nadolski says, "This thing [Rimsza's infill proposal] was brought up for pure political purposes to give him a plank in his campaign. . . . [He is trying] to be the pro-neighborhood person."
Rimsza just smiles and nods when he's told that he and Nadolski sound a lot alike. "I appreciate her supporting my positions," he says.
But some agree that Rimsza is a recent convert to the neighborhood-preservation bandwagon.
Elise Roginiel, a coordinator for a north Phoenix neighborhood group called the Cactus Coalition and longtime Rimsza detractor--she challenged him unsuccessfully in 1991--says Rimsza is no friend of old neighborhoods.
At a public meeting more than a year ago, Roginiel says, "Mr. Rimsza stated that homes that are 25 or 30 years old are dilapidated. Well, I strongly find that statement offensive. My [30-year-old] home is hardly dilapidated, it's beautiful."
Her explanation for Rimsza's behavior? "He's a real estate man. You destabilize a neighborhood . . . and immediately people put their houses up for sale."
Rimsza "never said that," Schwartz counters. "He has said that some areas . . . need some jazzing up, but he would never say they were just dilapidated and tear them down."
Whenever he has the chance, Rimsza reminds voters and reporters of Nadolski's reputation as a contrarian. Often, the message is subtle--like in his campaign literature, which touts Rimsza as the candidate with "the common sense and demeanor to get results."
The difference between Nadolski and himself, Rimsza tells New Times, is that he has "the ability to get it done. To really make it happen. To really pull the community together in a real sense."
Keenly aware of this, Nadolski is obviously trying to tone it down. She refuses, for example, to badmouth her opponent--much. As a result, she loses her no-nonsense edge, which many say has always been her best feature. The kinder, gentler Nadolski sounds like a candidate for the mayor of New Age Sedona:
"I'm so convinced that part of what's wrong today is violence, and I'm also pretty convinced that a lot of the violence comes out of our own mouths. And that's what we're handing our children," she says.
"I would really like to talk about, more than anything else, that in order for us to move forward, it has to be a complete and total willingness to begin to recognize that we have to begin to work together for the good of us all. And it sounds so pappy. And I know that. And it's what I've really struggled with. But it's really the way I feel."
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This new attitude has not gone unnoticed. Ferd Haverly--a civic naysayer and former editor of the fringe publication The Current, who himself considered running for mayor--complains Nadolski isn't aggressive enough.
The tough-talking Haverly is prone to comments like, "Skip Rimsza's part of the problem. He's the problem, he's tied right into the movers and shakers that want to run this town without regard for the public interest," and, "The futures forum got trashed under Johnson, all levels of real citizen participation got trashed under Johnson, and Skip was right there when he did it."
As for Nadolski? "She wants to win," Haverly gripes. "She doesn't want to piss everybody off.