Phoenix Mayoral Candidate Wes Gullett's Story Is More Complicated Than It Looks
On a warm October afternoon, Wes Gullett climbs the steps of Phillips Memorial CME Church, a weathered red-brick building tucked away in a South Phoenix neighborhood. He walks through a small foyer and into a larger gathering room where about two dozen people sit- in folding chairs. A couple of pizza boxes and bottles of water are stacked on a table in the rear.
A slight white man with a head of thinning red hair, Gullett has deep political roots in Arizona and old friends here — like Fred Taylor, a fellow Republican who's at the front of the room, leading the weekly meeting of the African American Community Forum, a group created six months ago to rally support for Gullett's bid to be Phoenix's next mayor.
So far, so good. In August, Gullett beat four other mayoral candidates, including two long-established incumbents on the City Council. Now, the Phoenix lobbyist and political consultant faces Greg Stanton, a former Arizona deputy attorney general and Phoenix city councilman, in a runoff election on November 8.
Black voters aren't going to decide this mayoral race — the city's black population is just about 6 percent — but throughout this campaign, Gullett has tried to build a wide base of support.
That's meant courting blacks who believe their community's been neglected by City Hall, Tea Partiers who believe government is too bloated and its subjects are overtaxed, and the corporate executives and business leaders Gullett's hung around for decades in his role as a political operative and public relations executive. He pledges to cut the cost of doing business in Phoenix and "get government out of the way."
As usual, Gullett tailors his message to fit the crowd. After more than an hour of political proselytizing, Gullett glances at the clock and tells his friend Taylor and the group that he has another appointment. But before he leaves, he's got one last anecdote to share — a heartwarming story about his father and Barack Obama. Clearly, this is not a story Gullett will be telling at any tea parties. But today, he relishes explaining to this crowd how his father actually voted for the country's first black president.
Before he can get away, someone in the crowd asks with whom Gullett cast his own vote for president in 2008. A couple of men in the group chime in: "Yeah, that's a good question."
Gullett admits that he voted for Arizona Senator John McCain but quickly adds that as a member of the Electoral College during the last presidential election, he had no choice. The Republican garnered 54 percent of the Arizona vote, thus Gullett's duty — his job, even — was to vote on behalf of the state.
Those who don't know Gullett as well as Taylor does might have been left with the impression that but for being a state elector, Wes Gullett might have voted for Obama.
Hardly. What Gullett conveniently omits from the tale is the fact that he's worked off and on — and in the highest echelons — for John McCain for decades. Including as one of the leaders of the Arizona senator's 2008 presidential campaign.
The battle between Greg Stanton and Wes Gullett is as competitive — and contentious — as any Phoenix mayoral race has been in nearly 30 years.
The next mayor of Phoenix, like his predecessors, won't have a leading role in the day-to-day operations of the city. He won't have the power to hire and fire or alone call the shots about what policies or direction the city will adopt. The mayor's vote carries the same weight as the votes of his colleagues on the City Council.
But the mayor's is the face of Phoenix, and as a political figurehead, the mayor sets the agenda for the sixth-largest city in the nation. It's a vital role, especially at a time like now — when the city finds itself struggling in a down economy and having to make tough budget cuts or unpopular tax hikes to balance the city budget.
New Times spoke to many political insiders who are backing both candidates. Most, still entrenched in Phoenix politics or doing business with the city, asked not to be identified.
With Greg Stanton, Phoenix would get a mayor who says he favors scaling back the size and cost of government, but in a calculated, measured manner.
For example, Stanton supports a repeal of the very unpopular food tax — but only after two years, to give elected officials, city staff, and the community time to figure out what other city services will be slashed to make up for the $50 million a year that Phoenix will lose when the tax is overturned.
Wes Gullett offers Phoenix residents a "cut now, ask questions later" approach to city spending. He calls for an immediate repeal of the food tax and doesn't support water-rate increases, even if they help create infrastructure that supports future growth.
Unless cuts are made first, Gullett says, city officials never will be forced to find ways to save.
Phoenix needs a mayor who won't play politics with his office, a mayor who knows how to communicate effectively and can bridge the political gaps on the City Council and among city staff so work can actually get done and the city can be ready to compete when the economy bounces back.
That will be a difficult charge for either candidate, but particularly for Gullett, who has suggested throughout his campaign that city staff can't be trusted. He accuses them of playing "shell games" with the budget and hiding money in "slush funds."
Gullett doesn't offer proof that city employees are operating "slush funds" or playing "shell games" with tax dollars, but he routinely uses those phrases to fuel government distrust.
In any case, the truth is that, since there isn't inherent power in the Mayor's Office, the power to get things done within City Hall actually comes from outside the halls of the city.
Using the Mayor's Office as a bully pulpit, getting broad community support and buy-in on specific plans, gives the mayor leverage among his colleagues, city administrators, and city staff.
Taking an agenda on the road and generating support for it almost always leads to successful outcomes.
Mayor Phil Gordon demonstrated his keen ability to get community buy-in in 2006, when he was selling to the public the idea of a nearly $1 billion bond and then giving most of that money to Arizona State University to build a downtown campus.
He pulled together a bond committee with dozens of community leaders from all walks of life and personal interests. In the end, the bond was overwhelmingly embraced and approved by Phoenix voters.
By contrast, Gordon failed in 2010 when he and the City Council hastily, and without community support, pushed through a 2 percent tax on food that would pull in about $50 million a year.
Stanton served nearly a decade on the City Council, and he understands how City Hall works and appreciates that slashing programs and dipping into contingency funds have long-term effects on the community and on the city's interest rates and credit rating.
Gullett calls for such changes despite the potential short- and long-term effects, dismissing warnings from city staff as part of their "shell game" with city money.
Stanton's track record shows he has enjoyed broad support from the community, if not always from his colleagues. And during his tenure, his political positions and priorities remained largely unchanged.
When it comes to Gullett, there is more than meets the eye.
Wes Gullett is a masterful pitchman, and many political insiders say that he is as brilliant when it comes to destroying political reputations as he is at repairing them.
He's certainly done a good job on his own. A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine Gullett running for public office, let alone emerging from a crowded mayoral primary. "Nasty" is simply not a descriptor that gets you ahead in elected office, though in Gullett's case it certainly can get your candidate elected and keep him in power.
Gullett paints himself as an outsider on a mission to fight the status quo, but the 50-year-old father of three daughters is hardly a newcomer to Arizona's political scene. In fact, he's spent much of his career representing the status quo; so has his wife, Deb, who spent time as Phil Gordon's chief of staff and served in the state Legislature. The two met while both worked for John McCain — awkward, since Gullett was married to his first wife at the time.
Longtime political observers remember Gullett for a temper that's as fiery as his red hair, but one of his supporters, Rick DeGraw, says that he has seen the softer side of Gullett.
"When I'd go over to his house, he and his girls are picking vegetables and spices out of their garden. They spent four hours preparing and making dinner. That's not the normal idea of a high-powered politician," says DeGraw, who worked for years in Democratic politics and now is an executive with SCF, an Arizona workers' comp insurance provider.
Today, Gullett comes across as a mild-mannered, almost soft-spoken man as he makes appearances throughout Phoenix. But in December 1999, the Arizona Republic described him one of "McCain's leading enforcers" with an "aggressive style."
Gullett is not from Arizona. He attended the University of Iowa but leapt into the political arena on Capitol Hill before he graduated. Gullett tells New Times that he has more than enough credits for a degree, but they're just "not in the right order."
In 1983, he started producing radio and television ads for the U.S. Senate Republican Conference in Washington, and in 1986, he started what would be a long political career working on behalf of McCain, first as an administrative assistant for the senator.
Gullett left McCain's office to work on his Senate campaign in 1992, and the Republicans sent him in 1993 to the office of embattled Arizona governor Fife Symington.
Jay Heiler, a conservative consultant who runs in political circles similar to Gullett's, has known the mayoral candidate since 1993 when they worked together for Symington.
"I don't agree with him on everything in the three years we spent together," he tells New Times. "But I would have to give him high marks for doing the job he was hired to do. And for his politically seasoned judgment."
Some credit Gullett for wrangling control of Symington's office and helping him win re-election in 1994. He was Symington's right-hand man until 1996, leaving just a couple of months before the governor was indicted in connection with extortion, bank fraud, and making fraudulent financial statements as a commercial real estate developer.
The following year, a jury convicted Symington of seven felony counts, and the governor resigned from office. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and before any charges could be re-filed, Symington was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
Over the years, Gullett developed a close friendship with McCain. The men took weekend gambling trips to Las Vegas, and Gullett adopted one of two ailing babies whom McCain's wife, Cindy, rescued from an orphanage run by Mother Teresa in Bangladesh.
He helped run McCain's 2008 presidential campaign against Obama and attended the GOP National Convention with his adopted daughter to offer his personal endorsement of McCain.
Back up a decade and a much different Wes Gullett was hard at work with his then-sidekick, Chuck Coughlin, at their ironically named political consulting firm, HighGround. Hardly. These two have a legacy of down-and-dirty political savagery.
No example is more infamous than an incident that took place in 1998 during the GOP primary race between Tom McGovern and John Kaites for Arizona attorney general.
Gullett and Coughlin, representing Kaites, concocted a scheme to portray McGovern as a convicted criminal in a TV ad, with the candidate dressed in orange prison garb.
Though the ad claimed that McGovern was a criminal arrested for possession of marijuana, that simply wasn't the truth. And Gullett and Coughlin knew it. They knew all about McGovern's almost-immediate exoneration with respect to the 1983 charges, and the fact that McGovern had never hit a pipe was widely reported at that time.
Coughlin, who didn't return New Times' phone calls, reportedly has found Jesus and long ago apologized to McGovern.
Back then, Gullett told the Arizona Republic that he and McCain acted aggressively, but that their tactics stopped short of retaliation.
"If we can't win them over with logic and reason, we'll use muscle," he was quoted as telling a Republic reporter.
The decision to run the McGovern commercial was a devastatingly poor decision that torpedoed — on the very day the ad aired — Kaites' credibility and his political career.
Gullett and Coughlin, however, made it out fairly unscathed and have done well for themselves. No one in today's political circles speaks about it, but the two had an ugly breakup long ago and went their separate ways, each now with interest in his own political consulting and lobbying firm.
Gullett says that he's since matured.
"After spending a lot of time in the early parts of my career in fights and battles, I've figured out that working with people . . . works a lot better and it's more productive."
Coughlin kept HighGround, and Gullett is the founding partner in FirstStrategic Communications and Public Affairs. The firm lobbies on behalf of major players in Arizona politics — many of whom have had interests before Phoenix City Hall, including the Home Builders of Central Arizona, the Arizona Realtors Association, and the Arizona Cardinals.
Deb Gullett works as a lobbyist for Gallagher and Kennedy, a Valley law and lobbying firm.
Surprisingly, Wes Gullett's inside track into Arizona politics — including endorsements from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, and other high-profile Republicans — hasn't done much for his fundraising efforts.
The mayoral candidate hasn't come close to raising the $1 million he said he would in this race. Instead, he has peaked at a little more than $310,000, and he has about $32,000 cash on hand. He has floated more than $26,000 of his own money to his political campaign, as of the latest campaign reports.
Jason Rose, a political adviser known for taking on clients in the midst of public relations nightmares (including Mayor Phil Gordon), gives credit to Gullett for taking the plunge and running for public office.
"It really takes brass balls to do what he's doing," Rose tells New Times. "It's the type of gutsy decision that his peers could use against him if he doesn't win this race. And yet, he's willing to put it all on the line."
Greg Stanton also is putting it all on the line.
The 41-year-old father of two has submitted only one job application since leaving the Arizona Attorney General's Office in 2010 — for Phoenix Mayor.
He has been campaigning full-time and working as Mr. Mom, taking care of his 4-year-old son, Trevor, and his 1-year-old daughter, Violet, when he isn't on the trail.
He's been criticized for getting too excited when he speaks in public, using big gestures and talking too fast. But he is widely regarded as the frontrunner in the mayor's race, with two polls showing him with double-digit leads — 20 points and 19 points. One poll was commissioned by his campaign; the other was done by Washington-based pollsters who work for the Democratic Party.
Gullett's camp dismisses them as biased polls.
Stanton largely has managed to keep his political career drama-free. The mayoral candidate comes from a working-class family, and his parents still live in the same West Phoenix home where he grew up. He mentions the fact that his father was a shoe salesman every chance he gets. He's married to Nicole, a partner at Quarles & Brady, a large Phoenix law firm.
When he served on the City Council, Stanton clashed with his colleagues when he sided with neighbors in opposing major city projects.
Like his opponent, Stanton is working hard, pounding the streets to shake out one more vote, one more financial supporter.
In September, during a changing of the guard ceremony for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association at Bentley Projects, an art gallery in downtown Phoenix, Stanton strolled into a room full of hardcore Republicans, a group that might make a lesser Democrat quiver in his shoes.
Among them were state Senator Russell Pearce, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Mark Spencer, former president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association — three of the most polarizing figures in Arizona politics.
As those men have rallied for tougher measures, laws that would force local cops to act as immigration enforcement agents, Stanton has been a vocal opponent of SB 1070. He favors a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that deals humanely with immigrants living in the United States.
(Gullett stammered when he was asked, at a mayoral debate, whether he supported SB 1070 as it was adopted by Arizona lawmakers. He eventually said that he did support the measure.)
Stanton moves through the crowd comfortably, shakes hands, pats old acquaintances on the back and pauses briefly to bend a few ears.
As the ceremony gets under way, Stanton pours himself another cup of coffee and grabs a sandwich off a buffet table. He stands in the back of the room, munching and rocking on his heels.
Stanton's campaign hasn't been unmarred by controversy; his started early in the race.
Just as Stanton made official his bid to run for Phoenix mayor, New Times broke a story about Mindy Shields, daughter of influential lobbyist Billy Shields (Stanton's longtime friend and campaign treasurer), and her draining all the money from his campaign coffers — nearly $80,000.
Although he is the godfather of one of Mindy Shields' children, Stanton reported the alleged embezzlement to police. After she was exposed, Shields' father lent her the money, and she put it back in Stanton's political account.
As the investigation got under way, Stanton wanted to pull back, saying that Mindy Shields, who lost her job and was facing prison time, had already suffered enough.
Billy Shields, former head of the local firefighters union, never supported Stanton's political run for mayor. He instead had backed Councilman Claude Mattox, who was knocked out of the race in the August primary election.
A court sentenced the younger Shields in September to a year of supervised probation after she changed her plea to guilty.
Stanton's political detractors, including Gullett's camp, used the incident to charge that if he couldn't protect his own money, how could he be a steward of the public's money? And Gullett's people also claimed that Stanton shouldn't have accepted repayment of the money, calling it an illegal campaign contribution that exceeded the state's $430 per person limit on donations.
Reasonable people chalk it up to what it is — restitution for the money Mindy Shields stole, not an infusion of new money into Stanton's campaign on behalf of her or her father.
Stanton has done well on a financial front — raising more than $534,000 for his campaign so far, with more than $114,000 cash on hand. (That includes the money he rolled over from the account raided and restored by Mindy Shields.)
Stanton has been hammered by his opponent for being endorsed by labor unions, but it should be noted that Gullett's own campaign supporters have close ties to local unions.
Rick DeGraw, who has chosen Camp Gullett, is a man with very close ties to the firefighter "union bosses" whom Gullett blames for having a stranglehold on Phoenix and for decimating the city's budget. In fact, the local fire union dubbed DeGraw an honorary firefighter, and he even worked to try to get the union to endorse Gullett.
"I talked to the firefighters about [endorsing Gullett]," he says. "I've worked with them for 35 years, and the thing is that firefighters are loyal and that when [Stanton] was on the Phoenix City Council, he was a solid supporter of things that the firefighters needed. I told Wes beforehand."
Gullett still sought the endorsement, twice — and twice was rebuffed.
DeGraw disagrees with Gullett's assessment of labor unions, but he says they agree on the basics.
"I think Wes has the ability to be a conservative — not a crazy, but a conservative — and balance the whole idea that government has to play a major role in everyone's life. It has to have a role for people who can't make it on their own, but it can also be reasonable."
Gullett's problem is that a slot in the Phoenix mayor's race already is occupied by Stanton, a fiscal conservative and established advocate for the social services in Phoenix. Stanton has been an advocate for the homeless, for the arts, for the GLBT community, and for endlessly pushing the federal government to give Phoenix its fair share of funding for Head Start and energy-assistance programs that help impoverished residents pay their utility bills.
Another advantage that Stanton has over Gullett is that during Stanton's nearly 10 years on the City Council, he represented District 6, which includes Ahwatukee, Arcadia, Biltmore, and other neighborhoods with active community leaders, large numbers of Republicans, and high voter turnout.
Those might be tough constituents for Stanton, a lifelong Democrat, to represent, but he earned their respect by being responsive, making their issues his issues. He also sided with neighborhood leaders on major Phoenix projects: Stanton voted against the infamous high-rise that Donald Trump wanted to erect near 24th Street and Camelback Road; he voted against a nearly $100 million tax rebate for the CityNorth parking garage — a decision the City Council is now trying to undo.
DeGraw says that he trusts Gullett to "make the right decisions for the right reasons."
"I could say the same thing about Greg," he adds. "I like Greg. And Phoenix will not be ill-served by either candidate, but I just believe that Wes is strong in his ability to bring corporate leaders to the table."
Stanton contends that's because Gullett's lobbying and political consulting firm has represented many of those corporate leaders that do business with Phoenix. And Stanton's campaign has created various political ads painting Gullett as a lobbyist who will be riddled with political conflicts if he is elected mayor.
Gullett has taken shots at Stanton, blaming him for the economic mess that Phoenix finds itself in because he's part of the "status quo," claiming that he prefers a bloated government.
The mutual attacks have picked up intensity as the November 8 election draws near, and DeGraw sums it up this way: "None of them are pure."
Gullett dubs his opponent a government-lover who represents the status quo, and Stanton paints Gullett as a lobbyist trying to reinvent himself, someone who tells voters whatever they want to hear in order to pocket their votes.
During mayoral debates and other joint appearances, Gullett tends to interrupt Stanton, desperate to get in a jab — some out-of-turn comment about Stanton's "union buddies" or making vague references about Stanton being admonished by the Phoenix City Attorney for alleged conflicts of interests during his days on the City Council.
Stanton does take public shots at Gullett, but in a more subtle way. He damns Gullett with faint praise, for instance, telling the audience at a debate that Gullett is a "great lobbyist" and deserves credit for helping establish projects like the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), a nonprofit biomedical research institute.
Stanton likes to say that Gullett was well worth the money he was paid to lobby on behalf of certain entities — reinforcing at every turn that he is the public servant while Gullett was in it for the cash.
Mostly Stanton is dismissive, ignoring Gullett's comments and creating uncomfortable silences.
The discomfort is seemingly justified: Gullett's colorful past has included seemingly contradictory views of the world.
Gullett says that unions are too powerful and destroying public budgets. He believes that government should get out of the way and that it overtaxes its citizens. He opposes water-rate increases in favor of keeping money in homeowners' pockets.
But his firm, FirstStrategic Communications and Public Affairs, helped for-profit entities, such as the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, get public-safety expenses subsidized by city taxpayers; helped the Service Employees International Union get established in Pima County and Chandler; helped create laws to establish earmarks for early childhood development through a special tax on tobacco products; and helped a water company increase rates charged to Fountain Hills residents.
And Gullett, who supports SB 1070, made a campaign contribution in 2010 to Congressman Raul Grijalva — a southern Arizona Democrat who called for a boycott of the state after the Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law.
Now that he's jumped into the mayor's race, Gullett's revealed his more conservative view of the world. (As long as he's not being asked about Obama in front of a black crowd.)
He leaned far to the right of center to curry favor with the Tea Party presence in Phoenix, and he even convinced the leader of the Original North Phoenix Tea Party to rescind his support for Jennifer Wright, a true believer in the Tea Party philosophy and former candidate in the Phoenix mayor's race.
It's a strategy and message that is working for Gullett, to some extent. As he keeps delivering an anti-union and anti-tax message and portraying himself as a government reformer and City Hall outsider, he is winning more support from those likeminded camps and politicians who haven't bothered to do their homework.
"There is a very interesting debate going on in this race, and it's going on between Wes Gullett and himself as he tries to figure out where he stands on any given issue," Stanton tells New Times. "With me, I've got a solid track record. I'm not reinventing myself. I'm running an authentic campaign."
Gullett fires back that Stanton, who calls himself the education mayor, is overstating what he can do in office, claiming that he is misleading people by preaching that he will bring light rail through South Phoenix, when there isn't any money to pay for it and its planning is still decades away.
Stanton tells New Times that planning for a South Phoenix route has to start now, as does the fight for federal dollars to fund it.
Gullet's supporter, Fred Taylor, says that "the Mayor's Office getting heavily involved in education, that's another untruth that's out there."
Yet Gullett signed a contract with the African American Community Forum that includes education, and he's told other groups that his goal, as mayor, is to raise third-grade reading levels, increase graduation rates, and consolidate school districts to reroute administrative costs back into the classroom.
When called on apparent contradictions or outright errors, Gullett says he "misspoke." Sometimes clarifications are offered.
Whether Gullett misspeaks or intentionally aims to leave a certain impression upon his audience — only Gullett knows.
But it strains credulity that a seasoned political strategist who is a founding partner in one of the premier lobbying firms in Arizona would be given to such bush-league errors.
And lately, Camp Gullett has been firing off press releases and statements raising questions about the Stanton campaign, implying Stanton is using tax dollars to pay for his political campaign and claiming that he violated conflict of interest laws when he voted on items pertaining to Maricopa County Community College at the same time that he was working for them.
Gullett admits that Stanton himself places the county college on his City Council conflict-of-interest list, maintained by the City Attorney's Office. The city's lawyers notify elected officials when organizations on the list appear on an agenda. Over the course of several years, the City Attorney's Office and Stanton nevertheless neglected to note some items on the agenda that related to the college.
Stanton says that those few "slipped through the cracks."
Stanton, who kept his campaigning civil during the primary election, has also taken the gloves off in the final stretch of this runoff election.
He and his own political operatives have pounded into the public consciousness the notion that Gullett is a lobbyist who will come to the table with a sackful of conflicts of interest.
Gullett says he won't have any conflicts because he will have sold off any interest that he has in his firm. Initially, he resisted, but nine months into his campaign, he finally agreed that if elected, he'll divest himself of all financial interest in the firm he helped found.
His critics point out that Gullett is still being paid, even as he runs for mayor of Phoenix, by these entities with deep pockets and political reach. Were there more separation between the time that Gullett was representing clients who regularly do business before Phoenix and his vying for a seat in the Mayor's Office, it's likely that there wouldn't be so many doubts whether Gullett's political decisions will be made with the city's or his previous clients' interests in mind.
Gullett points out that even as Stanton takes every opportunity to call Gullett a lobbyist and declare that he won't allow lobbyists to influence City Hall under his administration, Stanton voted in favor of appointing 10 lobbyists to Phoenix boards and commissions in his last year of office. And, Gullett observes, Stanton has also accepted campaign contributions from lobbyists.
Phoenix voters can expect to wade through more mud as Election Day draws near and candidates push to make themselves look good — or make their opponents look worse.
Given Gullett's spin-ful past, this is an area where he just may have an edge over Stanton.
"They spin," one longtime political insider tells New Times about Gullett and his allies — then and now. "They look you directly in the eye and they spin. They think that if they do it long enough — with enough veracity, manipulation — that people will believe it. They don't believe the public will do the research and connect the dots. And they are incredibly good at what they do. They always walk the line, nudge it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.