The Operator and the Undertaker
"I call this Poseyland," city council candidate Phil Gordon says, pointing to two pink pushpins on a wall map.
The pins impale neighborhoods in north central Phoenix, wealthy enclaves where Gordon's opponent Posey Moore Nash polled well in a September 9 general election.
Other pins radiate out from Poseyland and pierce neighborhoods in the city's District 4 where Gordon wants to shore up his support, places that he's targeted for even more mailings than the tens of thousands of pieces he's already put out.
The rest of the map, moving outward to the district's borders where neighborhoods tend to be more working-class and less affluent, is pinless. Gordon knows his support there is strong.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
To some, it's surprising that Gordon is facing much of a challenge in the district at all. Although it's his first city council election, Mayor Skip Rimsza's former chief of staff is well-known, he's backed by powerful local interests from nearly the entire political spectrum, and he's raised three times as much money as Nash.
But facing five opponents in the September 9 election for the seat being vacated by Craig Tribken, Gordon fell just short of the required majority of votes to win the seat outright. He got 49.3 percent of the vote; he needed more than 50 percent.
So he and second-place vote-getter Nash (22.4 percent in the general) will face off next week in a run-off election.
Nash has used the opportunity to advertise herself as an equal contender with Gordon rather than just one of several long shots for the seat.
And, as the election draws nearer, that may be helping her chances.
More often than not, campaign observers describe both Gordon and Nash as excellent candidates for the post. Both claim to have the interests of central Phoenix neighborhoods at heart, both are described by supporters and adversaries alike as intelligent, dedicated, genuine. Both grew up in the district, which is bounded roughly by Peoria Avenue, McDowell Road, Seventh Street and I-17.
Voters can't go wrong, says the conventional wisdom. Arizona Republic political columnist Keven Willey wrote recently that she's so impressed with both candidates, she'd split the district down the middle and put both in office if she could.
Nash likes to hear that. But she knows being one of two well-qualified choices isn't good enough if she's to turn all of District 4 into Poseyland and upset Gordon. That's why she's trying in the final weeks of the campaign to differentiate herself from her opponent.
That's not a difficult task.
When Posey Moore Nash describes her hopes for the city of Phoenix, she has a tendency to depart the political arena for the realm of propriety.
She wishes people would behave themselves.
Take Mayor Rimsza, for example, and his reaction when Nash told him that she planned to run for city council in District 4.
"Are you crazy?" Nash says Rimsza answered.
She knew that she faced stiff competition from Rimsza's former chief of staff, but she didn't expect the mayor to exhibit such poor manners.
"He's a petulant child," she says of Rimsza.
She's heard the stories about the Phoenix city council's infantile antics and dysfunctional relationships, which might explain how the council has stumbled its way into a string of embarrassing debacles. From the secretive rezoning which benefited Sumitomo Sitix to the disaster over raising the Esplanade's roof to building parking palaces for Jerry Colangelo, the city's government has developed a serious credibility problem.
The city simply hasn't comported itself well. And Nash thinks she's the right person to help it improve its conduct.
She's just perky enough to make it seem possible.
The 45-year-old Phoenix native sits in her campaign headquarters while a watchful John Simich, a dedicated Nash volunteer, stands at the ready to help. Simich fidgets, seemingly worried that Nash will make a serious misstep, but she mostly ignores him.
If she's being careful about her responses, it doesn't show.
Nash has light blue eyes and short red hair--a mark of other successful Arizona Republican women, she quips, referring in particular to newly sworn-in Governor Jane Hull, who days later would give Nash her endorsement. (Gordon, on the other hand, is a Democrat, but the city council election is supposed to be nonpartisan. The GOP couldn't keep from making it partisan, however, sending out recent mailings in favor of Nash.)
The majority of her support, Nash says, comes from friends and neighbors, particularly those who have been served through the years by her family's undertaking business.
By then, the family had little to do with the historic structure, leasing the building to another company that took care of its day-to-day operations. But Nash continues to be a consultant in the mortuary industry, a job she says she'll quit to devote her full time to city hall should she win Tuesday. (Her husband is John Nash, a demolition contractor who, she says, has no business with the city. They have been married for 10 years.)
Nash says she didn't set out to work in the family business. After graduating from Washington High School in 1970, she spent a year at Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri.
"It was a school for fine young ladies. Gag," she says.
She came home and got a bachelor's degree at Arizona State University in 1975. When she divulges her major--home economics--she's quick to add that there was no interior-design program at the school at the time.
She went into interior design after graduation and says she was "okay at that."
Then she joined her family in the mortuary business. "I liked it. I know that sounds odd, but I liked it. You're helping people when they need it most. They've had the shock, they've had a service, and you've started them on a grief process. You help them through it," she says.
Such work takes tact. It takes decorum. And Nash wishes others had it as well.
As a 10-year member of the North Central Phoenix Homeowner's Association, Nash became known for her campaigns to get neighbors to clean up after themselves.
A frequent walker on Central Avenue's John J. Murphy Bridle Path, Nash and others were appalled at homeowners who would build up unsightly piles of garbage days before the city could come to remove them.
So Nash created signs that she would stick on the piles to shame the dumpers into cleaning them up. The signs featured paintings of large pink pigs.
She served on the homeowners association for 10 years, spending one year as its president. She's proud of two other accomplishments during her tenure with the organization: shutting down a Circle K store she says was operating illegally, and helping residents band together to close the Jockey Club.
Formerly located on Camelback near Central Avenue, the Jockey Club catered to a hip, upscale and primarily African-American nightclub crowd.
Nash remembers neighbors telling her that they had a problem with gunfire and excessive noise generated by the club.
Jockey Club regulars complained that the primarily white neighborhood surrounding the club targeted it for protest because it brought blacks to the area. They pointed out that the club actually had a lower incidence of police calls and arrests than other clubs with primarily white crowds.
But Nash explains that neighbors had found out that Jockey Club patrons were bringing in food to the establishment, violating city health codes.
"It wasn't a race thing. It was an unsafe, improperly operated business. [Shutting it down] has been a very positive thing. I personally don't miss it," she says.
The neighborhoods north of that area--what Gordon refers to as Poseyland--have generated much of Nash's financial support. In her most recent financial disclosure, Nash had raised $38,000. All but $300 came from individuals. Her one PAC contribution is from the American Fence Company, which she describes as "friends."
Nash has relied on volunteers in her campaign, including such fervent believers as Simich, who actually tried to run for the seat himself. After failing to collect enough signatures to put himself on the ballot, Simich agreed to work for Nash's election after she called him.
She's had similar support from the other candidates who failed to make the cut in the September 9 election. All of them--Gary Peter Klahr, Ron Gawlitta, John Charles Frazzini and Peter Schiller--have thrown their support behind Nash.
Klahr says that that's partly by design. Early in the race, recognizing that Gordon had a substantial lead over the rest of the pack, the long-shot candidates made a pact with each other: If Gordon could be forced into a run-off, the others would unite behind his opponent. They even planned to run a joint advertisement before the September 9 election denouncing Gordon, but Klahr says Nash nixed the idea, saying that she didn't want to campaign negatively.
She prefers to keep things polite. Even quaint.
At a recent candidate's forum with Gordon, Nash responded to several questions about problems with urban decay and security on school campuses with a recurring theme: promoting better behavior, leading by example, encouraging more respect for others.
If at times she sounds naive, suggesting that Phoenix would become a much better place if its citizens would simply pick up after themselves, Nash seems to understand that such naivete doesn't hurt her.
Particularly when she faces an opponent fighting against a very different image.
Phil Gordon wishes he'd used a different photograph.
The one that's caused him grief appeared on billboards which his detractors say prove that he's disingenuous. And compounding Gordon's distress was his strategy of saturation: The photograph was everywhere. There was also the misspelling, which newspapers--including New Times--were only too happy to point out.
The billboard featured Gordon with three children sitting on a lawn. Next to the photo read a slogan: "Lifetime Committment to Our District." Subsequent printings of the sign spelled "commitment" correctly. But Gordon still had to explain the photograph.
The photo seemed like standard fare for a political ad, seemingly showing the candidate's happy family--only the three kids weren't Gordon's.
Gordon's explanation, however, sounds like one other parents of high-school-age children can understand. "My kids, they're teenagers. They don't want to be plastered on a frigging billboard," he says.
"There was no intent to mislead," he says several times, explaining that the children in the billboard photo were young supporters, and that the message he wanted to convey was simply that the welfare of children concerns him.
Presently, for example, he has to deal with the concerns of his oldest son, who wants to borrow a few bucks. Gordon excuses himself so he can extract a promise from Jeffrey, who at 18 is studying to become a firefighter, that he'll come back with some change from the bill Gordon turns over.
Gordon is sitting in a restaurant at a corner table. Behind him, a parking lot is being torn up as the shopping center at Central and Camelback (former home of the Jockey Club) goes through a face-lift. Gordon will use the parking lot's renovation to help explain what he did for a living which first involved him in city matters.
As he explains, he frequently reaches out his hand as if he wants to get a grip on his listener and make his points even more persuasively. Slight in stature, Gordon is intense and looks much younger than his 46 years.
Born in Chicago in 1951, Gordon moved to Arizona with his family in 1960. The son of a manufacturer's representative in the electronics industry, Gordon graduated from Central High School in 1969, then attended the University of Arizona, where he graduated in 1972 with a teaching degree in history. He worked and taught in Phoenix for a few years before entering Arizona State University's law school, graduating in 1978.
As an attorney, he began representing property owners who wanted to redevelop land in downtown Phoenix. That pitted him against then-mayor Terry Goddard, who wanted to set aside much of downtown for historical preservation. Gordon says he figured out a way to take advantage of both propositions. After politicking for his clients to make sure that land they owned wouldn't fall inside the preservation boundaries, Gordon himself turned to redeveloping historical structures that the city had protected.
Gordon says his preservation projects weren't particularly profitable, but they sustained him from 1982 to 1989. His work with Goddard, meanwhile, introduced him to politics. He would help with Goddard's and later Paul Johnson's failed gubernatorial campaigns.
After a four-year stint as a lobbyist, Gordon was eventually offered a job on Mayor Rimsza's staff in 1993. He was made deputy chief of staff, and a year later took over the top spot under Rimsza. In 1996, he was elected to the Madison Elementary School District's governing board, a post he intends to retain if he's elected to the city council.
Developer, lobbyist, the mayor's chief of staff, past member of city planning commissions, school board member: Gordon has vast experience in the inner workings of Phoenix government. In fact, it's hard to think of a resume that would prepare a candidate more fully for the challenge of being a city councilman.
And that's part of Phil Gordon's problem.
In today's political climate, which finds voters mistrusting any politician who actually has a background in politics, Gordon's long relationship with city hall has made him a marked man.
Gordon enjoys enormous support from contributors of both conservative and liberal stripe and has raised an amazing $115,000 in a campaign for a seat that pays only $34,000 a year. PACs contributing to Gordon include the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association, a Del Webb employees PAC, several attorneys' groups, firefighters associations, and the Arizona Human Rights Fund. PAC money accounted for $7,460 of the $115,030 that he has raised. (Gordon oversaw renovation of the historic buildings that now house New Times; executive editor Michael Lacey and chairman Jim Larkin both contributed to Gordon's campaign.)
Still, his candidacy has brought out a cadre of detractors that eagerly supplies dossiers about his past.
There's the $400,000 interest-free loan, for example, that Gordon's redevelopment company negotiated with the city in 1987, just three months before he was appointed to the city's planning commission. Gordon explains that the city's money was put into a bank as collateral so it could lend his company money for a preservation project. He says his company paid back its loan, and the bank subsequently returned the collateral to the city.
Gordon says that's precisely the kind of public-private partnership that the city should promote. It can be used to encourage renovation of existing structures, work that otherwise might not get done because it doesn't offer the high profits of new developments in outlying areas.
Gordon had other dealings with government which raise eyebrows among his detractors: Also in 1987, he sold a vacant lot to Maricopa County for $3.8 million as a parking lot for jurors. The county later took a bath on it, selling the property for $450,000.
Two years later, while serving on the planning commission, Gordon's company leased property to the City of Phoenix at $37,500 a year.
Then there's the transaction that occurred in 1992 when Gordon was a lobbyist and Skip Rimsza was a city councilmember. A county document shows that Gordon was on the receiving end of a $46,000 loan from someone named Anton Rimsza.
Gordon explains that with Skip Rimsza acting as broker, Rimsza's father laid out the cash for a house Gordon bought. Gordon claims that he paid off that loan when he sold the house not long after. A year after the transaction, Skip Rimsza did Gordon another favor by giving him a city job.
Gordon's critics also bring up the lucrative contract his wife's firm won earlier this year. While Gordon was still working for Mayor Rimsza, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which receives half of its funding from the city, awarded a hefty consulting contract to Grossfeld/Severns Inc. to orchestrate the transit tax initiative which was defeated in the September 9 election. Gordon's wife, Christa Severns, is the firm's executive vice president.
But Councilman Craig Tribken, whose seat Gordon is attempting to win, says complaints about that contract are misplaced. He says Grossfeld/Severns was clearly the best candidate for the job, and Severns' connection with Gordon had no influence over the decision. "That's just people trying to throw shit. Where's the beef?" Tribken says.
"Phil's extraordinarily experienced. He's used to working on central city issues, not just defending one neighborhood. All Posey's ever done is defend her own neighborhood. Who wouldn't do that?" Tribken asks. Recovering from a heart attack, Tribken says that before announcing he wouldn't run for office again, he asked Gordon to consider running for the seat.
Gordon's also the choice of Mayor Rimsza, of course, as well as nearly all of the other councilmembers, except for Sal DiCiccio and Frances Emma Barwood, who refuse to endorse either candidate. Barwood is not seeking reelection; DiCiccio won another term on September 9.
Gordon's popularity with the people already on the council lends credence to criticisms that the election of Gordon will mean business as usual at city hall. After all, wasn't Gordon, as Rimsza's chief of staff, in on the Sumitomo Sitix silicon-wafer-plant skullduggery? Documents suggest that by the spring of 1995, Mayor Rimsza clearly knew that the city would be going to remarkable lengths to accommodate Sumitomo's accelerated construction schedule months before the public was told who those efforts would benefit--told too late, that is, for the public to mount a protest.
Gordon's answer: Despite his earlier accounting that he became chief of staff in 1994, he claims that the entire Sumitomo affair occurred under the previous chief. He had nothing to do with it, he says.
"Clearly, in hindsight," he allows, "a more open process should have been followed."
If Posey Moore Nash is unwilling to criticize her opponent before a crowd, in private she's more disposed to take a shot or two.
"I think there are some basic differences between us. I'm not a paid lobbyist. I'm not a paid developer. I've never taken a $46,000 loan from a man named Anton Rimsza," she says.
"He likes to say he's going to hit the ground running. But I think his bags are so loaded, how can he run at all?"
Nash knows that she has an uphill battle, however. She has to hope that all of the voters who had chosen candidates knocked out of the general election come to her in the run-off. One circumstance which could work in her favor: The run-off should produce a much lower turnout than the general election, which also featured the transit tax. That could mean that Poseyland--an area with a higher number of older, affluent Republicans whose turnout is usually better--could grow in importance. On the other hand, many of those who voted in the September 9 general election were motivated by a desire to defeat the transit tax. Those voters were more conservative.
Win or lose, however, Nash says she's enjoyed the campaign. But she has a strange way of expressing it.
"I go to a lot of funerals. I've often wondered: Would anyone come to my funeral? I have been so honored in this campaign, they don't have to come to my funeral. I have won no matter what."
Phil Gordon, however, hopes that on Tuesday he'll put her immediate political aspirations six feet under.
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.