Enough Is Enough
"We don't want any niggers and Mexicans out here." Duane Pell didn't think he shocked easily. But then, he didn't think that being a politician meant he had to listen to crap like that. He remembers thinking, so that's why I'm getting so much grief from this neighborhood. I'm just trying to get a community facility built in a park and they're acting like I'm cutting their throats. They've got all kinds of rumors going that we're trying to do them in. And then, I stand here and listen to this guy say that?
He had enough composure left to suggest, "Why don't you come down and say that at the council meeting? I think Mrs. Wilcox and Calvin Goode would love to hear you say that." But he knew they would never dare say those words out loud in front of the city's Hispanic and black councilmembers. Hell, he thought, the whole council could be white and they wouldn't own up to their real reasons. These were the words of backyard rumors and behind-the-hand whispers. And they made Duane Pell sick.
If anybody's puzzled about his surprising decision not to run for re-election on October 3, listen to the strange stories that helped convince him this job was worth shoving.
A lot of people won't like what Duane Pell has to say on the way out the door. Some will be shocked at how things look from the other end of the council chambers. His words are particularly stinging because they come from a man who entered office six years ago as "one of us." Here was a firefighter, union leader and civic activist who spoke the language of all those who'd felt shut out of City Hall. Here was a guy who'd never even been invited to lunch with the downtown power brokers. Here was a guy whose word meant something.
Now, he's made a private vow that he'll never again have to stand there and listen to a racist dress him down.
IT SOUNDED EXACTLY like the kind of neighborhood amenity you'd expect a good district councilmember to bring home. It was called a multigenerational center--a place with a gymnasium, meeting rooms, a kitchen for senior citizens and young people. It was going to sit in Cactus Park at 35th Avenue and Cactus in the heart of Pell's northwest District 2.
As a wanna-be politician six years ago, Pell assured one senior citizen group after another that if they sent him to City Hall, he'd fight for the center. They did, he did, and the next year, voters approved about $4 million in bonds to build the facility. But City Hall dragged its feet until Pell went to the folks at the Parks and Recreation Department in 1987, pushing them to get a move on. "I'm getting a lot of heat out there [from the district]," he told them. "This is a high-priority item to them."
It also had become a high-priority item for other councilmembers who saw the park department's inaction as a signal that the facility was up for grabs. So Mary Rose Wilcox from central Phoenix said she wanted it; so did John Nelson from the Maryvale area; so did Bill Parks from the Paradise Valley section. "So rather than get into a big public deal over who's got the most votes to get this [facility] we all sat down, which is, I think, the way you resolve a lot of these things," Pell says. "So the bottom line, we ended up going to the council and got more money appropriated and we come up with three of these facilities, one in west Phoenix, one in northwest Phoenix and one in northeast. And everybody signed off, we got the architects. I'm pushing for groundbreaking.
"So then I started getting calls from some neighbors out there by the park. There were two women and they were just incredible. They started a campaign to stop this facility."
For months, he was getting fifty calls a day from people in his district saying the center would destroy Cactus Park. "Save Our Park" banners were everywhere in that neighborhood. "It's a big park, like fifty or sixty acres, and this facility was going to be in one little corner; it wouldn't have had any impact on the park. But I'm getting calls saying the soccer field would go. It absolutely would have no impact on the soccer field whatsoever. But it got out of hand. So we called a meeting."
The meeting in a neighborhood school is remembered as being "nasty." "There's standing room only, probably three or four hundred people. It went on for three hours or so. There were people there that were in favor of it, but they were so intimidated and afraid to speak that they didn't."
In the memorabilia he'll keep, Pell has a typewritten list of 26 different things the opponents claimed were really intended for Cactus Park. He once confronted the women leading the opposition with that list--"the nastiest women I've ever met." "Of course, they denied [circulating the list]," he says, "but that's bullshit."
On that list were such outrageous charges as the city intended to build a homeless shelter in the park. "Then it was going to be a soup kitchen," Pell recounts. "It was also going to be a minimum-security prison. It was going to be an abortion clinic. Then [they attacked] the senior citizens, saying they didn't want these dirty old men lurking around the park molesting their daughters. I'm out there saying `Wait a minute, wait a minute. This is not true, it's absolutely not true,' and they're saying back to me `We know you're lying, you're lying.'"
In the next two months, "Save Our Park" folks showed up at every council meeting, waiting until the end of the session when citizens can address any issue. "There would be six- and seven-year-olds up there reading this prepared speech to the council--`Please help Councilman Pell save our park'--just a sad scene." That battle cry became a campaign issue in the 1987 city election, as Pell faced off against challenger Elaine Lefevre. "She was right in the middle of it," he remembers. (Lefevre is again seeking the seat in the October election.)
Then his assistant, Mary Kay Graham, found she wasn't even safe in her own district. "Mary Kay got assaulted out there. She was passing out [leaflets] and a couple guys shoved her. They scared the shit out of her."
No matter what he said, Pell couldn't dissuade the neighborhoods from their paranoia that City Hall was secretly plotting to do them in. He gave up trying when he was confronted with "We don't want any niggers and Mexicans out here."
"It was just a couple or three people who were going door to door and [kept] the people so stirred up: `Don't believe what the city's telling you; that Councilman Pell is a no-good guy.' So I finally say, `Hey, if it's going to create this kind of problem, I'll guarantee you it's not going to go up in Cactus Park.' I don't need this crap."
Then a most remarkable thing happened. People from another neighborhood in Pell's district came to him saying they'd love to have the facility in Deer Valley Park at 19th Avenue and Utopia. So Pell called a neighborhood meeting to lay out the facts; the neighborhood still liked it, the center opened this summer. "Those people think it's great. It's a beautiful facility. Just incredible. They're happier than hell in that neighborhood. They say, `Jeez, we can't understand why these people at Cactus Park are so upset--we think this is great.' I thought so, too."
"I CAN'T UNDERSTAND why anybody would enjoy this [job]. It's such a pain in the neck. You always get people yelling and screaming and threatening. People are generally abusive. I used to just sit there and take it, but finally I said, `I don't have to take that kind of crap.'" For a guy who likes to sit down and reason, local politics was more painful than Duane Pell ever imagined.
He and his fellow firefighters led the charge in 1982 to open up City Hall with district elections. It was to be such a fresh change. The irony is that it so quickly turned sour. Democracy, as practiced in Phoenix today, is downright ugly and hostile, Pell has discovered. "There's absolutely no respect for the office," he says. "It didn't used to be that way. We used to fight City Hall, but we still maintained respect for the office."
It amuses him now that he once hankered for the council seat the way he pined for his first two-wheeler. And he has to be reminded there was such joy in his upset election in 1983.
"Lately, I've gone outside [the council chambers] and had some pretty harsh words with a few people: `You mean you expect me to sit there and take the kinds of abuse you're spitting out? It's just not fair.' Some respond [by being] pretty apologetic; others, it kind of fuels the fire a little bit and they just react more nasty. You've got some real baiters out there who'd love nothing better than to have a city councilman come out and pop them in the nose."
But there were times, Alice, that he wanted to send them to the moon.
For a man of fifty who couldn't qualify for a mortgage on a $72,000 town house, Pell is particularly incensed at the public's snide attitude that councilmembers are on the take.
"The perception of the people is that politicians just get rich and make all this money; you get in office and every zoning attorney and every developer--they're all bringing paper sacks full of money. It's so offensive to me. It just rankles me to no end to sit here and people stand up and say, `We know that money talks and we know that you get paid off.' I just can't accept that mentality. I know it's out there; there's no question about it."
Pell will leave office a much poorer man than when he entered. "The day I went into office, it cost me $39,000 [a year in lost income]," he notes, since he gave up his job as president of the firefighters' union. He notes that he had the option of keeping that salary but rejected the idea because it would have meant he couldn't vote on any council business involving firefighters or other city employees.
When he entered office, he also was serving on the state's industrial commission, which hears appeals on workers' compensation cases. Although not a salaried job, it does pay $50 a day when commissioners meet. Three years after joining the city council, some raised the point that an elected city official shouldn't also be on a state commission, so Pell resigned.
All that, he says, for a council job that pays $18,000 a year. (He also has his firefighter's pension.)
"I'm not pleading poverty, but all that made a pretty big impact on my income," he says. "I had to sell the expensive boat that I'd had for years. I couldn't afford to keep it. I had an airplane. Sold that. The only thing I salvaged was a car, and I got enough heat out of driving a Corvette, but I said, I refuse to sell it, I'm going to keep it until I can't pay another nickel. There's a reason you don't get a lot of people to run for public office, because there are some financial setbacks." But attempts to raise the council's salary have gotten nowhere. Voters have rejected salary hikes. They'll have another go at the idea in the October election, when they'll be asked to pay each councilmember the same as the members of the county board of supervisors--about $38,000. The mayor would earn almost $48,000. Pell was the one who convinced councilmembers to pursue the pay raise, acknowledging he was able to make the suggestion since he is the only sitting councilmember not up for re-election.
Pell acknowledges the miserly pay led to his decision to quit. It hit him hardest when he decided it was time to buy a town house.
"I had been divorced about eight years and living in an apartment and paying rent. My accountant says, `You've got to get a mortgage because you're just getting killed--you don't have any deductions.' So I started looking around and the cost of housing was so much I just kind of gave up and then every time I'd go do my taxes, I'd just take a beating again."
He finally decided he liked the condo complex where he lived and should buy an available unit there. He filled out the mortgage papers and put down earnest money. But the manager kept stalling. "Finally I said, `What the hell is your problem?' He said, `Well, we can't get the loan approved because your income is not at a level that would justify that kind of loan.' So I thought, well, what kind of a mortgage can I get? So the end result was I had to scrounge every nickel I had to get more of a down payment to get the mortgage down to where they would approve it. Then I had to get somebody to sign a letter to the mortgage company saying that in the event I was defeated in an election that I would have a job. To me, it was very embarrassing, demeaning. I've worked hard all my life, been very stable, always paid my bills and I get fifty years old and I can't buy shit because I don't make enough money."
DUANE PELL WAS only in office six months before he knew the honeymoon was over. He'd never really calculated a decent interval when a brand-new elected official would be given a grace period to get his bearings. But looking back on it, he's certain six months was pretty skimpy. The issue was the one that had long torn Phoenix apart: freeways. The Squaw Peak Parkway had been approved as one of the last acts of outgoing Mayor Margaret Hance and her old, at-large council. Parkway opponents--and they were many--looked to Mayor Terry Goddard and his new district council to stop the roadway. It tore through central-city neighborhoods, displacing thousands of people. Supporters were horrified at the thought this new administration might undo years of work on a road they saw as crucial to handling congestion.
"We had some pretty lengthy, stormy council meetings," Pell recalls. "But by then, the city had gotten into it pretty deeply--they had purchased 700 pieces of property and [spent] millions of dollars. All of us, including me, just felt the decision had been made, whether it was good or bad, but they were too far into it to just say no. Well, a couple of people that I had always considered friends wrote this letter, called me a traitor, all kinds of nasty names. And I thought, Gee, how could they do that? I didn't do anything; I didn't tell any lies. I didn't say I was going to do something, and I get this letter. I saved it. It was a real awakening to the real world."
For all his activist background, Pell was remarkably unschooled in real-world politics. He understood the politics of union brothers who collectively decided a goal and then stuck together as only brothers can. For years, he'd watched the politics of the Democratic party, but he could be forgiven for learning nothing there. What he knew about City Hall was the low regard it felt for its employees. Even though he was considered an effective union leader, he wasn't a combative guy. "I have always operated under the assumption, personally, that I'm a pretty decent guy and I like to get along with people and I don't like fights and I don't like people to get mad."
And even when he gets mad, he's still a guy who can accept a sincere apology and call the fight over.
A telling story from his days as a union president gave a look at the kind of councilmember Pell would be. It was June 20, 1973, and for the first time in Phoenix history, a fire was so big it warranted six alarms. The site was the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, one of the city's most endearing landmarks. Virtually every truck and warm body the department could muster fought the inferno in the blaze of summer. Pell remembers guys passing out from heat, from overexertion, from smoke inhalation. In the midst of all this, a TV reporter walked up to Pell to ask him what he thought about the city manager's latest quip on salary negotiations: Then-manager John Wentz had said firefighters were like any other commodity the city bought, "like floor tiles and pencils, and you get them at the cheapest possible price." Pell said he hadn't heard that, but wasn't that a helluva thing to say on this particular day about these guys. "It was the most outrageous thing. Guys were out there risking their life and limb and here's a guy saying things like that. It was very insensitive. We made all kinds of public statements and demanded an apology."
Wentz had never been a friend to labor negotiators--but then, neither was most of the media--so the tiles-and-pencil line was a PR bonanza. It showed a lot of people in Phoenix how crass its city government could be. The firefighters could have played it for a long time. Pell wouldn't. "I was at the fire station a couple days later and this police car pulls up in front of the station, a cop gets out and hand-delivers this letter from the city manager with a very nice apology--`really very insensitive on my part; wasn't thinking; didn't mean it like it came out.' I really respected Wentz for doing it. We still had guys going around demanding that he resign or be fired and all that, but I said, `You know, we asked the guy to apologize and he did. That should end the fight.'"
But that was then and this is now and Pell still shakes his head in amazement at how City Hall changed. "We've had six years of the best labor/management relations we've ever had in the city. We had two-year agreements with all the unions at considerably less than anybody ever expected." He's most proud, he says, that labor relations are totally different today than when he entered office. "There was no marching around, there was no beating the drum or threatening to strike or blue flus or sit-ins that in the past was just a common kind of thing. And there also was no one from the city making inflammatory remarks either, so it's a two-way deal." Even the business community came around to see Pell differently. "I've had people come up to me and say, `Admittedly when you came in, we had some real serious questions about your stuff, but you've really proved to be pretty up-front and say what you think and you're honorable and your word is good' and that kind of thing. Which to me is a real compliment."
The greatest irony of all is that Duane Pell is hard-pressed to remember the last time he got a real compliment from the "us" side of the equation: the people he came from. PELL COULD SMELL another Cactus Park fight the day he got the first angry letter about the amphitheatre planned for Paradise Valley. "I said that it wasn't going to go early on, so it wasn't a big shock to me in the end. I'd told Dr. Parks and everybody else that this is a no-win deal: The thing is escalating into something that is just out of control."
The amphitheatre became the backbreaking straw for all those who saw some reason--real or imaginary--to distrust City Hall. The city wanted to build an outdoor amphitheatre in Bill Parks' Paradise Valley district on a site a half mile from the nearest neighborhood. Mayor Goddard had personally wooed a Florida concert promoter named Zev Bufman to that particular site and in what the council now pleads was an unintentional cart-before-the-horse move, the city signed a contract with Bufman before it ever sought the rezoning it needed. In fact, the ink on the contract was dry before the city ever informed the neighborhoods what was happening.
The truth of the matter, Pell says, is that approving that contract was a run-of-the-mill bit of business on an ordinary day. "I didn't even remember that we'd done it, because it was done at a formal meeting when [someone says] `I move item 26 through 75 be approved.' It wasn't even a big deal. Then it erupts and it's like, `Jesus, what happened here?'"
Having already gone through his own Twilight Zone adventure with an avenging neighborhood, Pell knew what to expect.
"The amphitheatre people were equally as nasty and vocal as my multigenerational people at Cactus Park," he says. "There just were more of them. They must have sat around and had meetings about who could be the nastiest, who could make the most outrageous charges and personal attacks on council people. Some of the people were legitimately opposed to it. I understand that; no problem. But you just don't need to go on about [councilmembers] being communists and crooks and on the payroll of Zev Bufman and all that kind of crap. I started saving letters; I must have had fifty or sixty letters in that vein: `How dare you, you crooks, bastards?' I kept saying `Hey, don't threaten me. I agree with you guys. I think the city probably screwed up. We're operating on the assumption that this was something wonderful and everybody would like it; you don't like it, I agree. I don't think we should do it.'"
Opposition was so fierce, the councilmembers opened the public meeting on the amphitheatre by announcing they wouldn't locate it in Paradise Valley. The place erupted in cheers and tears and the winners went home to draft an initiative that would prevent the council from building any entertainment or sports facility that cost more than $3 million without a vote of the people--a measure entitled Proposition 200 that will be on the October 3 ballot. Pell thinks the initiative is overkill. "I think it's totally unnecessary," he says. "Those people won. They made their point and they won. To me, they ought to be celebrating their victory instead of trying to make another fight."
In the last few weeks, the amphitheatre fight ended exactly as the Cactus Park fight: Another neighborhood came forward with open arms. The amphitheatre is now planned for Maryvale. But if Proposition 200 passes, the city would have to have a special election to get voter approval to build the amphitheatre, even in a neighborhood delighted to get it.
A LOT OF PEOPLE would say the last six years of district representation have been mighty disappointing. Many of the complaints that led to the new system are still heard loudly throughout the city: City Hall cuts secret deals with its buddies; City Hall doesn't listen to neighborhoods; City Hall--until the recent recession--was letting the city grow too fast and too haphazardly.
Pell acknowledges the most obvious problem with the district system is over the "bulletproof" votes on zoning: Councilmembers are free to vote in favor of controversial zoning cases in someone else's district without any fear of reprisal. Pell says that problem underscores the need for councilmembers to "work" the council and play fair. But beyond that, he contends the district system is working.
"There's no question that a constituent can call with a problem and get much more of a reaction from the council than in the past," he says. "In that respect, the district system has worked well." There's another side to an open City Hall, however, that the public never considers, he adds. "If you represent your constituents well, that means they want more and they demand more and they can't understand why [you can't always deliver]. How come, they say, the city can't build five libraries, more public swimming pools, widen all the streets, add more buses, stop the crime and fix all the schools so they don't have any problems with delinquent kids?" The demand keeps growing, Pell believes, because local government is the most accessible to the public. "If you go to a legislative hearing, they have a strict time limit. When the time to adjourn the meeting comes, they adjourn and don't care if there's a hundred people that are trying to speak. But the city goes on and on. If there's still somebody sitting there that wants to speak, we'll sit there until one or two in the morning, which we've done on many occasions." To be a good councilmember, Pell says, you've got to see your district has the services it needs, because getting another fire station or more police patrols "doesn't just happen."
There are times when to get what you want, you've got to trade. Pell doesn't deny it's a fact of life, he just dislikes it being labeled "logrolling." "It's just part of the process," he says. "Sooner or later, [a councilmember is] going to come to you and say, `Remember when I did yours?' So if you have any honor at all, you go along with that, because that's the way the system works."
If anything, Pell will be remembered as the guy who gave Phoenix the annual Grand Prix race, which some praise as a real plum and others think is plumb crazy. He remembers he sort of fell into this race thing. Four years ago, he was invited to Mayor Goddard's office to meet with people who wanted to promote the idea. (His most vivid recollection of that meeting was his introduction to a "beautiful dark-haired lady" named Penny Pfaelser, who's dated him on and off since.) He agreed to head up a committee and finally got council approval to begin the race this year. It was held in hot June, he says ruefully, because he couldn't get Goddard and the council to move off the dime and sign the contract early enough to land Phoenix a spring race date.
When approval did come, everything happened very quickly. Including the public ridicule of committing $8 million in city funds over five years to finance the race. (Much of that criticism cooled after a recent study said the race generated about $26 million for the Phoenix economy.)
"My frustration was not so much that people were criticizing the race," Pell says, "it was that they were saying that nobody knew that we were even planning to do this. And I said, `Well, you know, we've had a committee, first of all, for four years that was public--every meeting was posted. We had press at every meeting we ever had, which was probably 25 or 30. So it wasn't like it was a secret deal.' If they didn't know anything about, they never watched TV, they never read the paper."
DUANE PELL HAS CHANGED a lot over his short tenure as a politician. "I was on the city council and well into my forties before I'd ever been to a symphony. I was almost fifty years old before I ever wore a black tie. I go to places now that I would never have gone in my life because I get invited to sit down with all the big muckamucks in town. I used to go back to the fire station and tell the boys, `You won't believe who I sat down with.'"
But he got a different perspective on all that recently when an old friend took him aside. "He said, `I don't want you to be upset or be mad about it, but the problem is that you've become one of them.' And I thought about it and that's just exactly right. Now I am perceived to be one of them--the power brokers, the lead politicians sitting down there making decisions--Jesus, I am one of them."
These days, he's looking for a job. He has known for a long time this day was coming. "I didn't even want to run [for re-election] last time, to be honest with you," he says. "I'm just at the point in life where there's got to be something better, or more enjoyable. I made my contribution and I think I've done a good job, or at least I've worked hard and tried to do a good job. And I think my integrity's still intact and that's a big deal with me."
So what's next? "I'm open to anything that pays more than eighteen thousand a year," he says. He wouldn't mind working with the Grand Prix organizers, but there's a city stipulation that says he couldn't for a couple years. Maybe there's something in state government, he muses.
"If I had my real choice of anything, I'd go right back to the fire station and knock on the door and say, `Hey, want to take an old guy back?' Put me on a fire truck and I'd live happily ever after.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter