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David Cavazos, Phoenix's New City Manager, May Owe His Job to a Plugged-In Developer

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and the Reverend Oscar Tillman, who heads the local NAACP, have long enjoyed a good relationship — if not literally close, at least as positive as any relationship based in politics can be.

But Tillman told me last week that Gordon has lost his support.

And that's putting it mildly.

"I supported the mayor two times, but I know one thing," Tillman says. "The mayor couldn't get a vote from me for dogcatcher. I believe he's really shown he's no longer qualified to be a leader."

Tillman's anger is just one piece of fallout from the city's selection process for a new city manager. The quest to fill the most powerful position in Phoenix has led to hurt feelings, angry meetings, and, worst of all, some troubling allegations of influence peddling.

Now, it's true that the criticism comes predominantly from black leaders, and the new city manager is Latino. But the allegations are truly troubling regardless of whether you're black, white, or brown. One councilman told me on the record that he believes a well-connected developer, Wayne Howard, lobbied the council hard — and that Howard's push may have ultimately proved one of the biggest factors in the council's choice.

Surely, no one expected it would be easy to settle on a successor for the beloved Frank Fairbanks. Fairbanks didn't just lead Phoenix for 37 years; he managed to make it look easy.

But I doubt anyone expected it to get this ugly.

During a mammoth, eight-hour executive session last month, the city council chose 49-year-old David Cavazos as the new city manager. But my sources tell me that the tension now roiling City Hall predated that meeting, as insiders began to see the writing on the wall weeks in advance and suspect Cavazos would be the council's pick.

Suffice it to say, some people were not happy about that.

Cavazos may have been an inside candidate who spent 22 years with the city, but that didn't make him uncontroversial. A Chicago native, Cavazos drew a five-day suspension in 2006 after the Arizona Republic reported that he'd flown first class on the city's dime — and, according to a report from the city's auditors, "set the tone that allowed subordinate staff to also inappropriately use city funds."

I'm told that Fairbanks' number two, Assistant City Manager Alton Washington, announced his retirement last month not because he was eager to move on, as has been reported. I'm told it was because he refused to serve under Cavazos. (Reached at home Monday, Washington declined comment.)

Indeed, at a tense private meeting in the mayor's conference room a few weeks before the vote, the Reverend Tillman and other African-American leaders expressed concern with how Washington, who is black, had been treated. Yes, Washington was never actually a candidate, but as the city's second-in-command, shouldn't his concerns about Cavazos carry some weight?

Tillman also told Gordon that he felt the search was set up to exclude other worthy black candidates — including Glendale City Manager Ed Beasley — in favor of a less-qualified Hispanic, Cavazos.

The bad will surrounding Cavazos' appointment has gotten so bad that some city officials were pointedly not invited to Assistant City Manager Washington's going-away lunch. Meanwhile, Tillman refused to attend City Manager Fairbanks' official farewell party.

"I would not publicly come to [Fairbanks'] retirement . . .," Tillman says. "I didn't want to stand there like we were all happy in our community."


To outsiders, Cavazos' selection may have seemed unexpected.

He wasn't supported by the powerful firefighters union. He was also arguably the least experienced of the four finalists, all insiders. He was a deputy city manager for just three years, and he's never actually run a city department, other than a stint as "acting" aviation director. Unfortunately for Cavazos, that two-year stint is today mainly evocative of the infamous travel-abuse scandal.

And while it's true that one other finalist for the job, deputy city manager David Krietor, was also disciplined for his role in that scandal, it's worth noting that Krietor didn't actually do anything wrong other than sign off on reports by Cavazos. Somehow, Cavazos still beat him out for the job.

How?

I don't think it's wise to underestimate the Wayne Howard factor.

Howard is not one of those developers who hire publicists to get their names in the paper. Most people in Phoenix, I suspect, have never heard of him.

But Howard, who lives in Paradise Valley, is well known by the people who matter at City Hall — check just about any elected official's campaign finance report and you'll see not only that Howard has donated the max, but you'll also notice the names of plenty of his friends. Every politician knows about Howard's "breakfast club": a group of developers and zoning attorneys who meet monthly for breakfast. They don't just eat together; they also donate together.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske