How Greg Stanton, a Fair-Haired, Blue-Politicked Lawyer, Became Phoenix's Next Mayor
"Greg! Greg! Greg!"
"Greg! Greg! Greg!"
As one observer put it the next day, it was like Bobby Kennedy without — well, you know — as clean-cut Greg Stanton worked an energetic Election Night crowd in a historic downtown warehouse, celebrating a win that puts him in the Mayor's Office for the next four years.
New Times news short
Stanton will be sworn in as Phoenix's next mayor on January 3.
It is a whopping victory for Stanton, who beat five opponents in the August 30 primary election and then slapped down conservative lobbyist Wes Gullett by double digits in the November 8 runoff election.
Stanton will face serious challenges, most of them financial: dealing with a $59 million budget shortfall in the coming year, finding a way to cut costs and eliminate the city's 2 percent food tax without sacrificing city safety or losing too many city services.
Phoenix residents clearly believe he is the right person for the job.
More than 159,424 voters — a record turnout — cast ballots in Phoenix's first competitive mayoral race in decades. Nearly 56 percent of them chose Stanton.
Stanton was gracious about his historic win, telling his throng of supporters and volunteers who gathered on November 8 that it was their hard work — knocking on thousands of doors, hosting fundraisers, and urging their neighbors to vote — that delivered his win. He praised Gullett as a worthy opponent.
He made no digs at Phoenix's news media, which often covered Gullett in positive ink throughout the race. He didn't take shots at political pundits who were critical of him and who painted the race as a tight one (a perception that favored Gullett) even after the primary election, when Stanton bested Gullett in every single City Council district and emerged with an overwhelming 17-point lead, despite competing for votes against five other candidates.
Headlines in the Arizona Republic painted Gullett as a political "outsider," even though he has a long history in Arizona politics: His wife served as chief of staff to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, and he was appointed by Gordon to the Phoenix Planning Commission, an influential committee that weighs in on major development projects.
When Stanton entered the race in December 2010, political pundits on Channel 8's Horizon gave the mayoral win to Gullett during an end-of-the-year prediction show.
On that show, the Republic's Doug MacEachern said, "Wes Gullett has got some political savvy, and I think he is going to win." And Steve Goldstein of KJZZ, the local NPR affiliate, predicted Gullett would come in first with "Stanton a close second."
It was a political sentiment that carried through the election, despite polls and election results from the August 30 primary — both showing a double-digit lead for Stanton over Gullett.
Some pundits remained firmly in Gullett's camp.
On a November 4 "Sunday Square Off" with Channel 12's Brahm Resnik, Stan Barnes, a former conservative Republican state lawmaker turned political consultant, predicted that higher voter turnout would favor Gullett.
"I think Wes surprises everybody," Barnes said. "He was never supposed to have done this well. He's had pure arc momentum since he got in the race."
Greg Stanton will take office early next year as the 52nd mayor of Phoenix. Until then, he and his post-election transition team will assemble his staff for the Mayor's Office and plot out policy priorities. Among the issues he will tackle right away: promoting transparency (by, in part, regularly airing City Council meetings on television) and creating a formal city policy to support local businesses.
Transparency has been lacking in the Mayor's Office under Phil Gordon, who continues to refuse to disclose, among other things, who paid for junkets he took around the world on private jets.
Stanton's pledge for open government dealings is refreshing. Of course, it remains to be seen whether he'll keep the promise. His plans sound solid in concept, anyway.
He says he plans to spend time with front-line employees in parks, libraries, and other city departments to boost morale, which was worn down during the campaign, as unions and employees' benefits and wages were politicized and under constant attack.
Stanton's message to employees: "We've got a lot of hard work ahead of us, but we're going to get through this together."
Greg Stanton's is a political success story more than a decade in the making, one that started in early 2000 when Phoenix councilman Sal DiCiccio developed congressional aspirations, stepped down, and opened the door for Stanton, a relatively unknown Phoenix attorney, to win an appointment to the vacant seat in District 6.
(When Stanton left the council in 2009 to take a job in the Arizona Attorney General's Office, DiCiccio wanted back into politics and was appointed to fill Stanton's vacant seat. He'll prove a thorn in Stanton's side, to say the least.)
Stanton, a well-known Democrat, served on the Phoenix City Council for nine years, representing an affluent district of mostly Republicans, with many engaged, if not demanding, neighborhood activists who doggedly fight to protect their communities, including Arcadia, Ahwatukee, and Biltmore, against developers salivating to build in those tony parts of town.
Indeed, Stanton had to choose whether he would side with community leaders or bow to influential and deep-pocketed developers who wanted punch a freeway through a mountain preserve and, in the case of Donald Trump, erect high-rise towers along Camelback Road.
In the end, Stanton clashed with his colleagues for supporting Biltmore-area residents' wishes to limit building heights and preserve views of the red sandstone cliffs of Camelback Mountain. As for the South Mountain Freeway route, still an unresolved issue, he continues to work with the neighboring Gila River Indian Community to find a location for the freeway on reservation land.
Stanton was skeptical in 2001 when his colleagues supported the idea of building a football stadium in downtown Phoenix. Instead, he led the charge for creating more educational opportunities in the heart of the city, like Bioscience High School, an education center in downtown Phoenix that provides a science-based education for high school students who dream of being medical professionals, scientists, and engineers.
In several high-profile cases, Stanton stood by neighbors, even when the rest of his colleagues on the City Council weren't on his side. That didn't win him friends in high places. He was criticized for being too ambitious. Some political insiders complained that Stanton was indecisive.
A cynical political watcher might say that Stanton often picked neighborhood interests over special interests, carefully measured each decision, and weighed its political ramification with an eye to someday making a bid for mayor.
On the other hand, an optimist might argue that Stanton's approach is counterintuitive, given that elections typically are won with big money, rather than residents' small donations. (In the end, Stanton raised about $615,000 to Gullett's more than $310,000.) They would say that Stanton is a homegrown guy who genuinely wants to do the right thing.
As he was quick to point out at every available opportunity on the stump, Greg Stanton grew up in West Phoenix in a working-class family. His father was a shoe salesman who rode the bus to work every day. Stanton went to law school at Marquette University in Wisconsin but came back to Phoenix to raise a family.
Whatever Stanton's motivations are for being a community advocate, the residents are better off because of it. The bottom line is that for nearly a decade, he aptly represented the city, pushed for education and bioscience development projects, managed to avoid major scandals, and ran a fiscally conservative office.
Stanton made sure residents were happy.
He ran a tight ship in the District 6 office, demanding much from his staff, as they hosted neighborhood events and town hall meetings and worked tirelessly to resolve resident concerns.
Stanton worked just as hard.
For example, after serving a 15-month stint on the City Council, Stanton ran for re-election in 2001. Although he was unopposed in the race, Stanton still went into neighborhoods and knocked on doors.
He wanted people in the district to get to know him better, he said at the time. They must have liked what they saw, because after he'd represented the area for less than two years, nearly 13,000 people cast a vote for Stanton — in an unopposed race.
An ambitious politician, indeed. And for someone with mayoral aspirations, it was smart; this was the district to win over.
Sal DiCiccio, a then-former councilman, told the Republic in 2001 that political clout in the district could boost political careers.
At that time, Phoenix officials were in the midst of redrawing the boundaries for City Council districts. Some thought that District 6, a barbell-shape area that includes the far northern and southern reaches of the city connected only by a stretch of 48th Street, would be split during the redistricting process.
"The real battle will be who ends up with Arcadia and the Biltmore area," DiCiccio told the Republic. "Residents there raise a lot of money for candidates, and practically everyone votes."
Not only did District 6 remain intact, Stanton picked up a chunk of North Central Phoenix, also an area filled with active community leaders who show up to the polls.
It was a boon for Stanton, and the move wasn't contested by any of the council members — not even Councilman Claude Mattox, who also had mayoral aspirations.
"It helps to have a district where the voter turnout is very high," Stanton tells New Times. "But that is a double-edged sword. You have to work your tail off to make sure they turn out and support you. I spent nine years working incredibly hard to make sure they respected my work and my work ethic, even if they didn't agree with all the positions that I took. There is a good reason why, after being gone for two years, District 6 voters overwhelmingly supported me. I'm very proud of that."
Stanton's longtime stable of voters didn't disappoint. They turned out en masse on August 30 and again on November 8, and both times they chose Stanton.
It wasn't just District 6 that put Stanton in the Mayor's Office. During the primary, he beat Gullett in each of the eight City Council districts.
To some extent, Stanton's 17-point lead over Gullett in the primary election was the result of a glut of mayoral candidates splitting the vote. And he was the lone Democrat among five Republicans. But it doesn't account for Stanton's trouncing Councilman Claude Mattox in District 5, an area that Mattox has represented for more than a decade. Or for grabbing the most votes in former Councilwoman Peggy Neely's District 2, a heavily Republican district that she represented for more than a decade.
Stanton and his optimistic campaign message simply resonated with voters. He told them Phoenix was a well-run city that, yes, faced challenges and needed some reforms. Gullett, by comparison, was parroting Republican and Tea Party talking points, hitting hard on pension reform, tax cuts, and painting the city as being controlled by shady, overpaid, union-loving employees with too much power.
That approach may have worked in a county- or statewide election, but it wasn't right for Phoenix, a city where registered Democrats and Independents outnumber Republicans about 2 to 1 and residents prefer to keep party politics out of City Hall.
To be sure, party support played a role in this mayoral race, as did the anonymous political contributions funneling money into the Phoenix mayor's race through independent expenditures.
Active Democratic Party volunteers lined up behind Stanton, forming an army of campaign workers, while the Republican Party poured money into ads in support of Gullett.
Also, two political organizations, Phoenix Citizens United and Arizona Citizens United, spent more than $93,000 and $107,000 on political ads to support Stanton and Gullett, respectively.
Neither organization would reveal its financial donors.
While Stanton called for disclosure, Gullett said it was their right to operate in that manner.
Because election laws prohibit coordination between independent expenditures and candidates' political campaigns, political watchers found it curious that a gush of money arrived to boost Gullett in the weeks before the August 30 election, just as his campaign was struggling to raise funds.
During an interview on Channel 12's "Sunday Square Off," Resnik asked Gullett whether any clients of his lobbying firm, FirstStrategic Communication and Public Affairs, had contributed to Arizona Citizens United.
Gullett stammered but said he didn't know.
Resnik pressed: "So you have no idea who's behind that?"
"I have . . . I have . . . I have worked on . . . I don't know, yeah, I don't know exactly," Gullett said.
The money effectively pushed Gullett into one of the top two spots, but it couldn't overcome the city's overall history of voting blue and leaning left. The Republican push gave him a slight edge in District 1 and District 2, the more Republican-leaning sections of Phoenix.
Early results of the runoff election show that in District 1, Gullett won eight of the 15 voting precincts, and in District 2, he won 11 of the 15 precincts. But he didn't win District 6, also a Republican stronghold. There, Stanton got more votes at 20 of the area's 21 voting precincts.
Now, with victory secured, Stanton says he is thinking about getting on with the business of governing. But even as he prepares to take the keys to the Mayor's Office, there are moments of simple joy.
After delivering his victory speech, back in the warehouse, his adoring fans reached out to him and waved yard signs. He leaned over, shaking hands off the side of the stage before stepping into the crowd. He was enveloped in a crowd of hundreds, showered with handshakes, hugs and kisses.
That had to feel good. And now, the hard work ahead.
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