Nicholas Sarwark thinks light rail is a boondoggle. And Phoenix City Council members would go to prison for their tactics to pay off the city’s pension debt if they worked in the private sector, he says. “You would be committing actuarial fraud.”
From Sarwark's point of view, Council members are mostly interested in earning plaudits from their party and getting featured in glossy magazines. And in his ideal Phoenix, government would stay out of the way, eschewing projects that ostensibly improve quality of life and focusing instead on potholes and 911 emergency response.
Enter the Libertarian candidate for mayor of the nation's fifth-largest city.
Sarwark is a political animal — catch him on C-SPAN occasionally, as the national chair of the Libertarian Party. But only recently did he turn his attention to local politics. Watching City Council members jump into the race to succeed outgoing Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Sarwark knew that he wanted to challenge them and the status quo he says they represent.
“I didn't see anything policywise from them that was really bold or visionary,” Sarwark said of his opponents, Democrats Kate Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela. “I didn't see any sense that they were going to deal with any of the fiscal problems.”
A former deputy public defender in Colorado, 38-year-old Sarwark grew up here and moved back in 2014 to join his family’s business, Sarwark's Consolidated Auto Sales. That same year, he was elected to lead the Libertarian National Committee, winning a second term in 2016. Sarwark says that he’ll decide whether to continue as the party’s chairman down the road, should he win the mayor’s race.
There are nearly 21,000 Libertarians registered to vote in Maricopa County — less than 1 percent of the voters registered to the other teams. But don’t ask Sarwark if he's serious about winning. He says Phoenix residents have responded to his message.
“The values here are at their core libertarian, and at some level also nonpartisan,” Sarwark said.
Sarwark says he absorbed libertarian thinking from his father, who took him to Maricopa County Libertarian Party meetings when he was around 11 or 12. Sarwark met people like John Buttrick, a libertarian who ran for governor in 1994. “I've never been anything other than a libertarian, which all kind of started here in Phoenix,” Sarwark said.
From his perspective, libertarian values that prioritize core services and minimal government interference are what have made the city dynamic. “Having a city where the streets are good, the water's good, trash gets picked up on time, but other than that, the city government kind of stays out of your way,” he said.
In this vein, Sarwark’s ideas tend to meld libertarian orthodoxy with the perspective of a Phoenix native. For instance, Sarwark criticizes a project like the light rail, suggesting that it's wrong-headed for the government to decide what the future of citywide transit ought to look like, regardless of whether City Hall wants to build a light rail line or install bike lanes.
“The philosophy I have is a little different,” he said. “It's the idea that if you want to ride a bike, that's cool. But if you want to drive across town because it's hot, that's cool, too. And we should be looking to help people remove those barriers to having them have a good life, not trying to force them to have the decisions that we want them to have.”
Libertarian talk of removing "barriers" elides a ton of issues, however. What if you don’t have a car? Sarwark describes light rail as something that the city has forced on residents, but doesn’t the project give residents more freedom the way only public transit can?
“The light rail doesn't go down to where a lot of things are in this city,” Sarwark argues. “It's a 500-square-mile city. Uber goes everywhere in a 500-square-mile city. Buses go everywhere in a 500-square-mile city.”
He added, “There are transportation options that actually meet the needs of the citizens of Phoenix that don't require them to live on the light rail line and don't require them to wait for politicians to figure out how they're going to pay to put a train down next to their neighborhood.”
Another priority for Sarwark is the city’s pension debt, which he describes as a “rock around the necks of my kids.” He advocates strict belt-tightening at City Hall before council members even think about asking citizens for a tax increase to throw money at the pension hole.
Moreover, initiatives beyond fixing potholes and funding emergency services are nice, but the city only has so much cash, according to Sarwark. And guess what? Voters aren’t interested in that stuff!
“Initiatives that look really good and get somebody, I don't know, featured in Governing magazine? They don't care,” Sarwark said — convenient for someone committed to whittling down government.
Partisan point-scoring on the Council is another pet peeve for Sarwark. He says he’d be committed to tackling problems like the pension debt as mayor because he doesn’t play for either team. “It's the Democrats versus the three Republicans,” he said. “And the Democrats get their way, and they use it to try and turn Phoenix into Austin. And Phoenix isn't Austin.”
So is there a council member Sarwark admires, whom he’d like to emulate as mayor? “Not really,” Sarwark said. A pox on both your houses? It’s not that, either.
“I don't see the direction that the council's been going as being a good direction,” Sarwark said. “That's why I got in the race.”
His distaste for Gallego and Valenzuela is clear, but Sarwark also criticizes fiscal hawks on the council (read: Sal DiCiccio) as grandstanders, unwilling “to actually do the hard work of coming up with real solutions.”
“I don't care who's to blame, and the citizens of Phoenix don't care who's to blame,” Sarwark said. “They care about what are you going to do to fix it. And no one wants to talk about that.”
Speaking of things people don’t want to talk about: Sarwark made some extraordinarily dumb comments last year in an interview with Salon.
Last May, Sarwark told the site, “The Libertarian Party is in the same place where African-Americans were prior to the '60s. We're in the same place where women were prior to getting the right to vote. We have to try harder because we are judged more harshly."
He added that Democratic and Republican candidates are “really given structural advantages by being part of the two old parties that have built up laws, regulations, and systems of power in order to enshrine themselves in the political consciousness.”
We asked Sarwark about this ahistorical and tone-deaf comparison, which framed your typical polo-wearing campus conservative as a victim of institutionalized oppression. Again, Sarwark launched into a description of what he sees as inherent bias against libertarians among the press.
“The initial assumption is that you're not good enough. The initial assumption is that you're not serious,” he said. Media bias is what he meant to address in that Salon interview, he said.
“I didn't want to choose words or analogies to try and be offensive or be divisive, and I didn't want to be misunderstood,” he added. “But I understand that when you don't have any plan for policy, then planting outrage quotes in the minds of reporters is a good strategy to try and distract from what the city of Phoenix cares about.”
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To be sure, there is another politician in the race if Democratic priorities aren’t your thing. Moses Sanchez, a former governing board member of the Tempe Union High School District, is running as a Republican. If you’re a conservative Phoenix resident, why pick Sarwark over Sanchez?
“Because I have an actual plan to fix the problems that Phoenix has,” Sarwark said, not mincing words. “And if he has a plan, I haven't seen it.”
From his red-roofed office on Thomas Road — “I'm sitting in the only campaign office in the race,” Sarwark said, a point of pride — he said he feels good about his chances. But surely Gary Johnson felt good about his presidential chances in 2016, too. Sarwark must know he’s a serious underdog, right?
“Yeah,” he concedes. “But Phoenix is a city where the underdog comes to win.”