WOOING THE HEART OF PHOENIXTRIBKEN FACES A RUN-OFF WITH A TOUGH OLD BIRD
NORTH-CENTRAL PHOENIX is an area of stately trees and solid homes which is often imagined as the heart of the city. Its residents cultivate this identity to a degree unparalleled in newer parts of town: Historic districts quilt the area's southern fringe, and North Central Avenue blooms with embellishments financed by homeowner associations.
Central-city people pride themselves on being involved--and, indeed, nobody has a greater stake in what happens at City Hall. These neighborhoods are the city's buffer against urban decay, as well as the birthplace for ideas--such as the urban-village concept--to combat deterioration.
If anyone understands the importance of local government, it is the voters in Phoenix City Council District Four. On the surface, the November 26 run-off between Craig Tribken and Walter Switzer seems genteel enough. Craig Tribken, the quintessential baby boomer, is a high-energy civic activist with a solid record of community service. Walter Switzer is an elderly Phoenix Brahmin with Reaganesque charm, whose history in city affairs suggests he wouldn't be nearly so amiable.
But the October 1 Phoenix City Council election, at least in most districts, was a depressing exercise in which the winning strategies combined feel-good slogans with the manipulation of people's fears. Any candidate who presented an intellectual challenge was treated like a Boy Scout lost in a whorehouse or, worse, was discredited with bizarre personal attacks.
Given how effective such tactics are in Phoenix politics, many expect the District Four run-off to turn partisan, personal and ugly. The race is worth watching, if only for what it tells us about ourselves.
CRAIG TRIBKEN is what voters always say they want in a leader, but frequently neglect to vote into office. He is idealistic, pragmatic and well-informed. He is a local boy--his father was once mayor of Paradise Valley--and a graduate of Arizona State University, where he was student body president in 1975-76.
Tribken, now 36, looks the part of class president. He has a big vanilla smile and a bouncy, outgoing personality. His style is reminiscent of fellow Democrat Terry Goddard's, although City Hall insiders say Tribken, a commercial real estate broker, is more savvy and pragmatic than Goddard. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who loved Goddard also support Tribken, and his campaign coffers have benefited from it. Tribken has raised more than $50,000, much of it from prominent Democrats.
He is the quasi-incumbent in the race by virtue of having been appointed earlier this year to the seat vacated by longtime city councilmember Howard Adams, who resigned to run for justice of the peace. Tribken wasn't a completely unexpected choice--he'd toyed previously with the idea of running against Adams, but backed off because potential backers felt the powerful incumbent was unbeatable.
Tribken won the appointment because he had solid credentials, but also because he was not considered likely to embarrass Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, the council's rising political star. Despite his long involvement with the Encanto Village Planning Committee and the Neighborhood Coalition--both viewed as hotbeds of potential rivalry by councilmembers--Tribken had earned a reputation as a team player.
Tribken sees himself as a new breed of city leader, newer even than the activists--Goddard among them--who created the district system. "I clearly represent the new generation of leadership," Tribken says. "The people running against me represent the old style of leadership, government by board of directors.
"I see myself as a generation removed not only from the old Phoenix 40, but from the neighborhood movement as it has been up to now," Tribken says. "I'm deeply committed to protecting neighborhoods, but as a realtor I also understand the strategic power of demonstration projects, developments that embody the qualities you want to encourage in the city."
Tribken's stock with neighborhood activists is at an all-time high because of his fight to create a park on the Phoenix Indian School property at Central Avenue and Indian School Road. Former mayor Terry Goddard, who sought unsuccessfully to have the site set aside for a park, credits Tribken with turning the tide away from intensive commercial development. "The city never would have gotten to the point it has if Craig hadn't raised the banner for a park," Goddard comments. "His action is what really galvanized a change in attitude on the city council."
Tribken is interested in forging alliances between residents and business interests, particularly developers, within his district, and talks about the city council as a forum for activism. "[Mayor] Paul Johnson said recently that people would have to learn government can't solve all problems, but in some cases, government action causes the problems," Tribken says. "It's not a matter of doing with less, it's a matter of doing better with whatever we've got."
Tribken is as prone to rhetoric as any politician, but possesses a far-less-common ability to shore it up with practical ideas. When he talks about how his district has suffered from being the city's main traffic corridor, he outlines specific tactics to fight the problem as well. "Everyone talks about putting more cops on the street to fight crime, but I'm the only one who's come forward saying how I would get the money for more police," Tribken says, referring to a plan to revise the police budget that he has detailed at campaign appearances.
Tribken comes by his grasp of the concrete from years of toiling behind the scenes as a citizen volunteer. He served throughout the Eighties as an adviser to the council on the Phoenix Planning Commission, the Board of Adjustment, the Futures Forum and several other groups helping to plan the city's growth.
The philosophy he gleaned from this experience, he says, is that the council in a city as big as Phoenix must do more than oversee the maintenance of sewer lines and garbage trucks. "The classic, caretaker form of city government isn't good enough anymore," Tribken says. "In a sense both of us [candidates] have a message that we want to preserve the good old days, but my sense of those good old days is also that they led us to where we are and we need to learn from those mistakes."
With his record of involvement and personal popularity, Tribken supporters hoped he wouldn't even have to face a run-off. And until the last week of the campaign, it looked as if he would easily win the 51 percent needed to clinch the council seat. The Phoenix Chamber of Commerce fielded an opponent, Phoenix advertising executive Sandy Cowen Miller, but she failed to win backing from some key business groups and began losing momentum as the October 1 election approached.
Late entrant Walter Switzer, however, was another matter. Switzer, who initially appeared to have neither big backers nor, indeed, enough energy to generate the Big Mo, launched a last-minute blitz of television and radio advertising, mailings and sign postings. The effort, financed largely out of his own pocket, catapulted him into second place with just over 25 percent of the vote.
When the final vote was in, Tribken had missed a first-round win by fewer than 50 votes. Despite his good showing, Tribken is now low on funds and facing the prospect of a partisan voter turnout that is likely to favor his opponent. The run-off election is a whole new game, and both candidates seem to realize it.
IF CRAIG TRIBKEN represents the new breed, Walter Switzer epitomizes the old guard in a way not seen since Barry Goldwater--Switzer's honorary campaign chairman--stepped out of public life. Switzer's father founded the chain of women's apparel shops bearing his name, and because of it Switzer's name is as ubiquitous in the Valley as Goldwater's once was.
Walter, according to his son Frank, is responsible for expanding the chain throughout the Southwest. "He traveled constantly," Frank Switzer recalls. "I really didn't see him that much because he was gone so much with the business, but one thing he did teach me is the value of money, of saving it and holding onto it. He always emphasized the value of staying power."
During the early Eighties, Switzer gave City Hall a lesson in "staying power" as well, when he successfully fought the city to a standstill in its effort to redevelop the downtown block in which his headquarters is located. However, backers of the unsuccessful proposal, a festival marketplace at Central Avenue and Adams Street that was to be called Square One, contend the only thing learned from the experience was that Walter Switzer is no one's friend but his own.
"Mr. Switzer was the cause of the delays that frustrated the development partners we had lined up to the point they left, and with them went the hope of reviving retail trade downtown," says former developer Julian Blum. "You could never get a straight story from him. He wasn't interested in seeing Square One happen."
Blum claims Switzer didn't support efforts to revive retail trade downtown, despite having one of the oldest retail shops in the area. "The shop you see from the street is nothing more than a training center," Blum asserts. "What he really was interested in preserving was his inexpensive warehouse and office space, above and behind that little retail space fronting on Adams Street."
Eventually, Switzer sold his property to the city for a profit and received a sweetheart deal which said if Square One went ahead he could still retain use of his property. "He caused a series of delays in order to personally gain from the situation; I don't think there's any other way to say it," Blum asserts.
Frustrated in its effort to build Square One, the city eventually got together with the developers of Arizona Center, several blocks east of the intersection of Central and Adams, and created the glittering urban scene once envisioned for the heart of downtown. Today the block designated for Square One is derelict and nearly empty; Switzer's is one of the few remaining open storefronts.
Switzer claims his experience with Square One prompted his decision to run for city council. "The city wanted to kick everyone out and then see what could be done with the block," Switzer says. "We were afraid it didn't make economic sense to do that in the hopes their plans would work out. But as soon as they put the block under the shadow of condemnation, everything started to go downhill. They accomplished almost what they wanted to do in the first place, just by doing that.
"Switzer's eventually came out of it okay, so I learned the system does work as long as you've got staying power," Switzer says. "But it was the most mishandled thing I've ever seen. I concluded the city needed people who could take a businesslike approach to government."
Switzer's critics contend he interjected a bitterness that was gratuitous. "No one expected him to roll over, but after a while it became such an embittered battle on his part," says Terry Goddard. "He wasn't just saying `No!' He was saying, `Hell, no!'"
Aside from his marathon fight with City Hall, it is difficult to assess Switzer's talent for public service because his community involvement has been minimal. The pinnacle of his civic involvement so far came last year, when he was elected president of the Phoenix Rotary Club 100, a bastion of Phoenix bluebloods to which he has belonged for years.
Switzer contends his scant record in public life bespeaks how all-consuming was his career prior to his retirement two years ago. But those who dealt with him in the Square One fiasco claim it reveals a darker element in his character. "My perception of Walter Switzer is that he is a cantankerous old man motivated mainly by self-interest," Blum says. "He is very, very stubborn. He is not a team player."
Switzer compares himself to Ed Korrick, a Phoenix stockbroker who served on the city council in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Korrick gained widespread respect for his intelligence and personal integrity while in office, but chose to step down after a couple of terms.
"I want the chance to get in there and do what Ed Korrick was doing," Switzer says. "He was very helpful on finance; he watched the budget. I feel there's something missing with Ed Korrick gone."
Switzer's son Frank, who took over the family business when his father retired, says, "He's dead serious when he says he's going to go into the city manager's office and find out how they're spending money. I can see him literally sitting down there doing an audit of the payables."
Like Korrick, Switzer is a patrician. A number of his campaign supporters have Phoenix streets named after them or come from the city's founding families. Many live in the elegant old homes surrounding the Phoenix Country Club, as do Switzer and his wife Grace.
Since entering the council race in June, Switzer has presented a deliberate counterpoint to the younger candidates. He draws attention to his age with humor, but underscores it with a persuasive message: "Full-time, no baggage."
Yet on issues, Switzer's views are as slippery in the particular as they are comforting in the general. Like Ronald Reagan, with whom he shares a sweet, avuncular charm, Switzer often seems to contradict himself whenever he's pinned down about specifics.
For instance, Switzer has made contradictory statements on the hottest issue facing the district at present, the disposition of the Phoenix Indian School land. Hundreds of residents have turned out at recent public hearings to lobby for a park, rather than commercial development, at the site.
Switzer initially seemed out of step with that sentiment, saying the city didn't need another big park. Later, he claimed he did support a park. Currently, he plays it safe, saying he is content to wait and see what a citizens' advisory committee decides to recommend.
For the most part, Switzer avoids talking about issues and instead offers nostalgic, appealing images. "I think city government should be the closest thing to pure citizen representation of any form of government," Switzer says. "I see it like a town hall in the old days in New England. I feel citizens should volunteer for the job, serve a term or two and go back to their normal lives.
"I'm sorry to see it used as a steppingstone to a political career," he adds. The remark is characteristic of Switzer's campaign style. In conversation, he often couples wholesome innocence with innuendo toward his opponent. Switzer, for instance, says he would give wholehearted support to police efforts to fight crime, but questions how Tribken can be objective on police issues after receiving the endorsement of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
"I don't have endorsements from any group," Switzer says. "I don't know how to do those things; I'm new to politics."
The latter claim brings a laugh from son Frank. "Are you kidding?" Frank says. "My father has been a downtown businessman for 40 years and a member of the Rotary 100. He's been in politics all his life."
AS THE CANDIDATES head toward a run-off, both understand that success will go to whoever turns out the most loyalists. "It will be an extremely low turnout," notes Sandy Cowen Miller. "What will motivate people will be loyalty to the candidates, nothing else.
"It will be much more partisan," she claims, sounding a distinctly partisan note in support of Switzer. "And it should be partisan because it has been so all along; the City of Phoenix truly is being run by the Democratic party machine. Only the Republicans have failed to realize it."
Switzer's campaign themes of fiscal responsibility and a businesslike approach to government carry the concurrent implication that Tribken the Democrat possesses neither, perhaps to counteract the good marks Tribken generally receives from business people. But Switzer's real design is more likely to attract older Republican voters, about the only group guaranteed to turn out no matter how obscure the election.
Switzer may claim to be a political novice, but he's been playing his cards like a pro. He insists the exquisite timing of his come-from-behind effort in September was pure accident; those who know him say it was anything but a fluke. "Anyone who counts my dad out in a race is taking the first step towards being beaten," says Frank Switzer. "He is the most relentless person I have ever met; he never gives up."
Switzer has the advantages of his name and party affiliation, but few solid credentials beyond the image he has projected. Tribken's record, by comparison, demonstrates both commitment and ability for the job. The question is which qualities the voters will reward.
Tribken missed a first-round win by fewer than 50 votes.
"My father has been in politics all his life."
"He is the most relentless person I have ever met.
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