Vote For Me Or I'll Shoot This Dog

Jessica Florez with her dog, Jade.
Jackie Mercandetti

She's cute going on beautiful, energetic to the point that just watching her in action is tiring. She's so young and exuberant she seems to be everywhere at once, flipping about her environment like a pinball, her inexperience and enthusiasm equal in intensity. A chaotic bundle of energy whose most difficult assignment is sitting still, she's clearly in it to please. She has trouble concentrating, and even more trouble sharing as she is in every game to win. Awkward and graceful, anxious and ambitious, she's not ashamed of what she is -- a perfect bitch.

No, we're not talking about Jessica Florez -- exactly -- although her political critics will think this an apt depiction of the wanna-be Phoenix City Council member. This particular bundle of energy is Jade, Florez's 2-year-old Weimaraner, who has become a major influence on her owner's bid for city council.

Like the obsessive Parker Posey in Best in Show, Florez clearly has dogs on the brain. When she talks to her gangly pet, she refers to herself as "mommy" and then answers back in a simulated dog voice, holding imaginary conversations that leave Jade looking befuddled. A doting mother, the otherwise childless Florez drops Jade at doggie day care when she has to be away from the house, and dresses her in costumes for holidays. Given her love for the animal that shares her home near Seventh Avenue and Missouri, when it came time to run for office, inserting dogs into her political career was a predictable move.

The floppy-eared yellow dog from her campaign signs (a vision Florez had of morphing Jade and the Petco logo) belies a campaign that seems more gimmick than substance. Although meant to emphasize Florez as a protective "neighborhood watchdog," the infantile drawing is also an unabashed attempt to soften Florez's image as an extremely ambitious political climber.

"Now people see me and say, You're the lady with the dog.' It sends a warm and fuzzy message," she says.

As a partner in an advertising firm, Florez admits the controversy was a calculated move to sell herself to voters. "I'm in marketing. This is what we do," she says. And what she's done has indeed drawn the attention Florez craves, with observers touting the District 4 race as one of the most competitive campaigns in what has so far been a rather lackluster election season.

Critics consider Florez's attention-garnering tactics typical of the competitive New Mexico native, whom they say uses whatever means necessary to attain her goals. They say connections, personal relationships and political favors garnered her an appointment to the District 4 city council seat Phil Gordon vacated last March to run for mayor.

Yet while her friends helped get her to City Hall, it's voters who will decide whether to keep her. Florez is facing a formidable opponent. Tom Simplot has a long history of neighborhood involvement and a strong core of supporters, including many in the gay community who would like to see Simplot, an open homosexual, on the council as much as Latinos would like to see Hispanic representation.

Redistricting has expanded District 4 to the west, adding a large number of Hispanic voters to a mix of central corridor businesses and historic neighborhoods, which are home to a large gay constituency. Concerns run the gamut from basic property crime issues to how light rail will affect neighborhoods and merchants.

Those who see Florez as politically naive worry she'll be more concerned with pleasing her peers than her constituents. Although she has public support from most Latino leaders, there are those who whisper she's a carpetbagger, an ethnic token out of touch with the Hispanic community.

But Florez claims she's well versed on what concerns Hispanics in her district. Topping her list is a problem she says neighborhoods have with Hispanics parking on the grass in front of their homes. The Hispanics don't know they're not allowed to park on the grass, she says, which leads to bad relations between neighbors.

And although she's concerned about day laborers, she would not support another city-funded center like the one on 25th Street and Bell Road that Councilwoman Peggy Neely championed. (Neely, coincidentally, voted against Florez's appointment.) Florez thinks there are other options besides spending public money on a center.

But Florez refuses to be pigeonholed, and says her interests lie not only in Hispanic issues. "I've never used my ethnicity, nothing could be more ludicrous. Being culturally sensitive is a bonus," says Florez, who sees the race as based on competency, not identity politics.

Still, one of the state's most visible Latinos is openly supporting her opponent. Many other Hispanic political leaders either wouldn't return calls seeking comment for this story or were reluctant to talk about Florez.  

Representative Ben Miranda, a leading Democrat, is backing Tom Simplot.

"I'm endorsing Tom because he is sensitive to my community," Miranda says. "I trust him and take him at his word. There's a real need to coalesce in our neighborhoods and in our communities, and that takes a person like [Simplot] and what he represents. Not as a gay man, although he's very open about that, but for his work with neighborhoods and low-income housing."

Florez has less experience and less time in the Valley than Simplot, yet she has managed to accomplish a great deal in the eight years she has lived in Phoenix. Although she's only just turned 30, Florez has an extensive record of public service, and has quickly made friends among the city's more influential political figures. She worked on the campaigns of two of the city council members who appointed her to her position in March. Her former boyfriend, Billy Shields, is a past president of the firefighters' union, which has also endorsed Florez. Her current boyfriend is Michael Lieb, past chairman of the Board of Adjustments.

Whether her accomplishments are a result of her competence or her alliances depends on who you talk to.

Jessica Florez grew up in Carlsbad, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in northeastern New Mexico. A former mining town, Carlsbad is now home to the world's first underground storage site for nuclear waste, a program she says helped bring the small town out of economic entropy.

Florez's father, now retired, worked in a warehouse while her mother toiled at the state capital as an assistant to three New Mexican governors -- Bruce King, Jerry Apodaca and Bill Richardson. Her mother introduced Jessica to the political process at a young age, dragging her small daughter along to weekly campaign functions and rallies.

Florez got her own start in politics at her mother's urging, and recalls a photo of herself waving a campaign sign for Bill Richardson at age 6. But her mother's political aspirations took a toll on the family, says Florez, citing her mother's devotion to politics as one of the factors in her parents' divorce. "My mother was more involved in the community; she was a strong, ambitious woman, and sometimes not very nice."

To this day, she and her mother are not close. "Politics ruined my childhood."

However strained her relationship with her mother was (and is), Florez clearly dotes on the father she says "spoiled me rotten. He gave me a happy balance of self-confidence and humility. I got the best of both my father and mother," she adds.

Splitting her time between her home with her father (Florez is the youngest of five, 15 years younger than her next oldest sibling) and her grandparents' house down the street, "I never knew what I missed."

It was her father she thanked when she was sworn in to the council last March, a man she describes as selfless. It was his involvement with the Kiwanis Club that prompted her to join the Key Club in high school, a junior version of Kiwanis that emphasizes leadership and civic duty. "I'm on eight charity boards right now," says Florez. "My father taught me that charity was a good thing."

Her upbringing was not particularly Hispanic, and she chose to learn French over Spanish until she went to college. Florez is careful to explain that her ancestry differs from that of most Latinos in Arizona. Her heritage is not Mexican, but European, and she feels compelled to explain the distinction despite the fact that it seems to distance her from the majority of her constituents.

Growing up in New Mexico, Florez remembers, "It was not nice to use the word Mexican."

"Most New Mexicans are actually descended from Spanish settlers, you know. You have Malaga, Spain, and Malaga, New Mexico," she says.

"My mother's mother was Spanish; so was my grandmother on my father's side. That's why we spell Florez with a Z. Mexicans spell it with an S. The Z is from Spain."

As an avid soccer player, Florez was awarded academic and athletic scholarships to Westminster University in Missouri, and her college days were spent with her sorority, working, studying and playing soccer. It was an exhausting schedule, and one that left her little time to actually enjoy herself.

"I never even drank in college," she says, "although I enjoy a good glass of wine now."

She married young -- too young, she admits -- at the age of 21. She and her husband moved to Phoenix after graduation in order to be closer to his family, and Florez soon found a job that suited her better than her marriage did.  

Three weeks after moving to town, Florez landed a job as Mayor Paul Johnson's aide. She was hired, she says, for her strong personality, her education, and her ability to articulate.

"I just walked in off the street. I think it's a good example of the community here in Phoenix."

In other cities, she says, climbing the political ladder requires a much more concerted effort, and considerably more time. "To get anywhere, you have to be from the right family," she says, but politically, Phoenix is "a really open community, that's what I loved."

From the moment he met her that August, Johnson says he knew she was something special.

"She was a star," says Johnson, who has remained a close political ally of Florez and is also treasurer of her campaign for city council. "She was outstanding, and I just kind of knew she would go someplace. I didn't know it would be city council, but at the time I could see her working inside an administration at the cabinet level, running a department."

Florez's drive, like her mother's before her, took a toll on her marriage. "I had too much ambition. He wanted me to play golf all day," says Florez, and the two divorced when she was 23.

Florez stayed with the mayor's office for three years until, she says, she got tired of the humble salary and moved on. She enrolled in graduate school at ASU and plunged herself into a position as community relations coordinator for the Phoenix Suns. She calls the year and a half she spent with the team "a blast."

"When I went to work for the Suns, I finally got to be a 23-year-old," says Florez.

She says the hard work in college, sports and a job, plus her early marriage, meant that "I never really got to have fun. I had a great time. It was a fun job."

"In the mayor's office I had been exposed to people older than me. I remember I went on a Valley leadership retreat and I felt like a freak. I always had a lot of exposure to an older group."

With the Suns, not only did she make more money, she helped coordinate player appearances and events, and spoke with media. The players were closer to her own age than her colleagues at the mayor's office, and were nationally recognized athletes. It was a taste of the limelight, and a chance for Florez to work with city officials and charities and strengthen her connections.

After 18 months with the Suns, Florez accepted a potentially more challenging position as manager of public relations at Arvizu Promotions and Event Marketing. Headed by CEO Ray Arvizu, an active member of the Hispanic community and past president of the national Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the agency was one of the first Hispanic-oriented advertising agencies in the country, and represents clients such as America West, Bashas' and MasterCard.

But Florez didn't last long, and her three months with the firm soured her relationship with Arvizu, whose distaste for his former employee is widely talked about. (Arvizu did not return calls for comment on this story.)

She won't go into specifics of what caused the rift, except to say that she and Arvizu "didn't see eye to eye. He has a very unique personality."

Arvizu "wanted to keep me in a box," she adds.

Florez left the firm in October 1999, taking two of Arvizu's top executives with her to start a firm of their own. "It was a natural transition," she says.

Today, Florez's Grupo Ñ Advertising competes directly with Arvizu for a lot of contracts, and she seems to relish the rivalry. "Some he's won, some we've won," she says with satisfaction, including stealing away the Arizona Lottery, an extremely lucrative account. "It was over a million a year, so he took a big hit."

Florez says rumors that Arvizu had considered running against her in District 4 left her unfazed. "I think he decided to just leave it alone and get out of the way," she says. "I called to thank him for that, I left him a voice mail."

Since she was appointed to the council, Florez has been on leave from her advertising firm. She swears her political aspirations begin and end with the District 4 seat.

Yet it's hard to imagine the insatiable Florez being content for long with the decidedly unglamorous responsibilities of a city council member; she's got too much style. Although it's her first bid for public office, Jessica Florez has the panache of a master politician, oozing charm and schmoozing with the poise of a seasoned veteran.  

She's got the trademarks of political life down pat -- the power suits, the smile-and-wink, the firm-gripped handshake. She coats her naturally bronzed face with pale foundation for political appearances, wearing her long hair loose and keeping jewelry simple.

But underneath her polished exterior, she seems to be all nerves, hyperactive and scattered. Florez, like her dog Jade, simply can't keep still. She is most comfortable juggling conversations with trivial distractions, fiddling with a cell phone or folding a straw wrapper into tiny squares and triangles as her eyes dart around the room. Even her sleep is fitful, and she drinks a glass of wine at night to combat the damaging effects of TMJ (temporomandibular joint syndrome), a degenerative condition she says has eroded away the cartilage in her jaw.

But despite her energy, Florez has a hard time getting around. Arthritis in her knees, a result of her soccer career, makes walking the neighborhoods painful. While her opponent has been ringing doorbells in the district three hours a day, seven days a week, since March, Florez limits her door-to-door campaign to a few hours on weekends after which she ices up her knees and phones constituents.

Florez meets with packs of volunteers at Starbucks at Park Central each Saturday morning where she hands walking lists to the friends and firefighters who joke with her and then disperse across the parking lot.

While Florez chooses to base herself at a corporate symbol of convenience, Simplot is a frequent customer at Lux, just up the street. The hip new Central Avenue coffee house at which he greets constituents every Tuesday morning is located just a few blocks from his house. The people are friendly, and the coffee's great, he says. "It's not like anything else in Phoenix," he says, adding, "it's got an eclectic, diverse clientele, exactly the type of business the city needs to support."

Whereas Florez spent much of her childhood chasing balls on the soccer field and campaigning with her mother, Simplot admits he was a bit of a geek. "I was the kid with the train set," he says, "but I also had a whole city built around the train set. Vision, planning, making it all work, to me that's fun."

Simplot has experience, too, lots of it. The geek who built a city around a train set has been building up Phoenix neighborhoods for two decades through his work with neighborhood associations and historic preservation. He's a much more familiar figure around town than Florez, an advantage that Florez has been aggressively trying claim for herself.

Both Florez and Simplot have been campaigning relentlessly for the council seat, but the two have slightly different approaches. Florez's campaign is being handled by political consultants Cantelme Kaasa (which is also running Phil Gordon's campaign). Florez is doling out nearly $3,000 a month in fees to her campaign manager and Cantelme Kaasa, the company founded by Pat Cantelme, the legendary and longtime former head of the Phoenix firefighters' union who also happens to be her current business partner in Grupo Ñ.

Simplot's campaign is for the most part all volunteer, with most expenditures related to campaign materials like signs and brochures.

Campaign finance reports show Florez used campaign donations to hire her own advertising firm for graphic design services. Contributions from supporters paid for multiple meetings at Barmouche, Postino and Richardson's. Between January and June, Friends of Jessica Florez paid for more than $1,200 in cell phone use, and bought her a plane ticket to California, a trip on which she was accompanied by her campaign consultants.

Florez has 11 pages of expenses. Simplot's report doesn't fill two.

Before Tom Simplot leaves his central corridor home each night to walk the neighborhoods, he double-checks the locks on the doors, puts his dogs up, and sets the alarm. Despite the presence of his two golden retrievers, Simplot's home was robbed last year, the criminals undeterred by the presence of pets. When police arrived, they dutifully filled out the report, then "they told me they don't investigate property crime," Simplot says. "Can you believe that?"

Both candidates have their own plans for preventing property crime in the district. Simplot says he's found a way to put more police officers on the streets. Florez wants to buy people dogs.

Florez is proud of her "Dogs and Lights" program as a crime deterrent for her district and a way to help unwanted animals find homes. The program is based on the simple hypothesis that criminals are less likely to lurk in dark alleys or target homes with dogs.

"Criminals don't like light and shy away from dogs," Brian Livingston of the Arizona Police Association (which has endorsed Florez) says in support of the program.  

"One of my main goals is to ensure residents feel safe in their homes," Florez said in an August 13 press release announcing the program. "This program will help do so, while encouraging the adoption of homeless dogs."

Florez is so committed to Dogs and Lights she says she will spend $1,500 of her own money for the adoption, neutering and vaccination fees of the first 20 dogs.

Although well-intentioned, Dogs and Lights is clearly impractical and naive.

Simplot chooses his words carefully, but makes the point. "Her plan is a sad gimmick with no substance."

Simplot would like to address property crime by revisiting 1993's Proposition 301, sending it back to the voters and changing the wording to make it more effective. The proposition, he says, used sales tax revenue to increase the number of police officers and firefighters on the streets and to fund Block Watch grants. Tweaking the wording, he says, would allow for more support staff, and thus even more police officers on the streets.

In addition, a reworked 301 could fund oversight of Block Watch grants, expanding the number of city staffers available to help neighborhood associations apply for and receive funds available to them.

Simplot says whether he's elected or not he'll work on getting voters to reconsider Proposition 301. "It doesn't take a city councilman, just someone who cares enough to devote the time to change city policy."

Simplot's work as a neighborhood activist brought the two candidates together this spring when neighborhood associations in the area surrounding St. Joseph's Hospital voiced concerns over noise pollution and increased traffic caused by the hospital's planned expansion. At a public forum, Simplot said he'd helped the hospital and the neighborhood come to a compromise in which the hospital bowed to the neighborhood's concerns and altered design plans. Florez, who claims the compromise as her own accomplishment, was unable to respond to Simplot during the event, but was clearly fuming the following morning.

She calls Simplot's mention of the St. Joe's controversy "a cheap shot."

"It was a team effort, I can't take credit. The neighborhood deserves the credit," Simplot says. "The city council had not responded until it was clear the issue was resolved."

That Florez has publicly taken credit for St. Joe's cooperation with the neighborhood is "disingenuous," says Simplot.

Larry Parks, president of the neighborhood association affected by the expansion, says Simplot, acting as activist, was more responsive and effective than Florez as a councilwoman.

Early on, Parks says, he discussed the situation with Florez. "I wanted to get Jessica to give me her input on that issue, whether she was for the hospital, a Catholic hospital, or for the neighborhoods. I couldn't get her to commit either way."

Simplot advised the neighborhood association to hire an attorney, and conduct a noise pollution study, which it did, ultimately succeeding in convincing the hospital to commit to $10 million in changes to satisfy the neighborhood, explains Parks.

"Basically we had put everything together and were working with the hospital when she came in and took credit for it," says Parks.

He says this is typical of his experience with her since she's been on the council.

"Florez doesn't get back with you and when she does she's vague, she gives you nebulous answers to very pointed questions," Parks says. "It's very frustrating, especially in comparison with Phil Gordon," whom Parks considers incredibly responsive.

"Phil and Jessica are like night and day."

Indeed, trying to fill the shoes of the well-respected Gordon will be a huge task for either candidate.

Paul Johnson is optimistic about Florez's chances for success. One of her biggest assets as his aide, he says, was her tendency to overachieve. "Sometimes she takes on a little more than she should," says Johnson.

"Jessica's biggest challenge will be to recognize that sometimes as a council member she has to allow her gruffer side to come out," he says. "A lot of people bring projects to you and the best no' is right up front."

Maybe she'll change her cartoon pooch into an attack dog.

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