Four Bore Years

HELP WANTED: CANDIDATE for mayor of nation's sixth-largest city. Qualified applicants must have some name ID and a vision for the future of this burgeoning megalopolis of 1.2 million residents and a $1.7 billion annual budget. Must gather 1,500 signatures by July 9. Should be able to raise at least $200,000 in campaign contributions. Annual salary: $37,000. For more information, call the Phoenix City Clerk's office at 602-262-6811.

Phoenix has a rich history of poor mayoral races, but this year's promises to be one of the worst yet.

With little more than a week remaining for candidates to turn in petitions, the only notable name on the slate is incumbent Anton "Skip" Rimsza--a man who, in his five years as our mayor, has distinguished himself by fathering triplets, throwing loud parties at his house, making forgettable speeches and sending his constituents birthday cards.

The mayor's inadequacies are so obvious that even the Arizona Republic has taken note.

Skip Rimsza's not a bad mayor, per se. I'd say he's been more of a non-mayor. A snoozer, a caretaker--a wishy-washy, headline-watching wuss with no vision for the future of our city. He is motivated by overriding desires to be in charge and do nothing at the same time.

"It seems that all the council's been able to do is get the water bills in Spanish," grouses City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a longtime Rimsza critic.

He's not far from right.
Worse, the few initiatives Rimsza's championed have blown up in his face. He's distinguished himself as the shoot-first, ask-questions-later mayor, and his style results in turgid policymaking.

Remember the mayor's grand plan to rename Sky Harbor International Airport after the late Barry Goldwater? As soon as negative calls started coming in, Rimsza dug in his heels and vowed to hold his ground. Then he retreated at full gallop. If the mayor were going to take such a Clintonesque approach to policymaking, maybe he should have done his polling before he made his pronouncement.

Similar results ensued for Rimsza's proclamation that he would get the Coyotes to stay in Phoenix by opposing the stadium-tax deal at the Legislature. Whoops. Once again, he had to eat his words. State lawmakers and officials from Scottsdale and Mesa showed more savvy than Skip, and swung the deal.

And how did that crow taste last week, Mr. Mayor, when you had to back off your promise of a $113 million subsidy to a new downtown Marriott hotel?

I appreciate that making a deal to get a hotel in downtown Phoenix is a complicated, delicate maneuver, but why not make sure the deal's done before you grab for the headlines? Instead, the mayor and City Hall end up getting nuked by some guy who manages the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

It's embarrassing.
Skip Rimsza's got a group-hug style of governing: During his last campaign, he handed out pots of flowers, and as mayor he sends out reams of birthday and Christmas cards. He personally returns a few calls a week from constituents who've complained about city services. But for the most part, he keeps his mouth shut regarding the issues of the day.

Rimsza's been lucky. He's been able to keep Phoenix fat and happy--on the surface at least--by taking advantage of the national economic upturn. And when that doesn't work, he makes noise about how Phoenix is the "Best Run City in the World." The truth is that the city won that award in 1993--six years ago. Rimsza wasn't even mayor then. Any credit for running the city should go to the city manager.

Is this really all we're looking for in a mayor?
Now it's election time, and no one's stepped forward to challenge Rimsza for the city's top slot. No one with a real chance, that is.

DiCiccio's name has been thrown out as a possible contender, but he's eyeing Congressional District 1. City Councilman Phil Gordon, who made noises a few months ago about challenging Rimsza, is mum.

Too bad. Gordon has brought some life to City Hall, first as Rimsza's chief of staff and now as a councilman. While in office, Gordon's taken the lead on important civic issues like curbing slumlord activity and fighting to save the downtown warehouse district from its jailhouse fate.

Where is Skip Rimsza on the warehouse district? Has he ever been that far south? (And Ahwatukee doesn't count.) Rimsza's idea of urban renewal is subsidizing "infill" housing in the Biltmore neighborhood.

Alas, Gordon refuses to take on his former boss. And so we're left with a swarm of gnats who will barely touch big Skip.

I conducted my own informal poll of activists, fellow journalists and city council members, and no one could tell me anything, really, about the five guys who have joined Rimsza in taking out petitions from the Phoenix City Clerk's office: Ryan Jenkins, Gerard Myers, Michael Clemenson, Patrick Dardis and Mike Renzulli.

The prospects of an upset are so dismal that even "neighborhood activist" Anthony Abril--distinguished by his tendency to don a toga and brandish feathers at city council meetings--has dropped out of the race.

I'm not saying these men wouldn't make kick-ass mayors. But let's be realistic. This pack has about as much chance at the brass ring as I have of being drafted by the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix elections are rigged in favor of the incumbent. Candidates campaign in July and August--the time when most of the city's voters are on the San Diego beaches--and turnout is historically abysmal, around 16 percent. The lower the turnout, the better the incumbent's chances.

And while Skip Rimsza may not have done a lot as mayor to further public policy debates, he's made sure his campaign machine is well-greased. At one fund raiser alone last February, Rimsza raised well more than $250,000. He's got the cash, he's got the name recognition, he's got the hair.

He's going to be our mayor for four more years.

To understand why Skip Rimsza needs a turbo-charged challenger, you need to know a little of the history of government in Phoenix.

Like our federal and state governments, Phoenix city government has three branches. But instead of legislative, executive and judicial, Phoenix government is divided thusly:

1. Mayor and council.
2. City manager.
3. Business community.
Once in a while, the mayor runs the city.
But more often than not, it's one of the other two "branches."

Margaret Hance, who served as Phoenix's mayor for almost a decade in the Seventies and Eighties, deferred to business leaders. The "Phoenix Forty," as the city's most powerful bankers and lawyers were known back then, ran the joint.

"Margie was a ribbon-cutter, a smiler," says one longtime political observer.

Then Terry Goddard was elected mayor in 1983. Goddard diffused power in Phoenix by ushering in a new era, where council members were elected by district instead of at-large, and planning was revamped to reflect the "village" concept. Goddard listened to business leaders, but also had his own vision of where the city should go. His successor, Paul Johnson, was much the same.

We'll long remember Goddard for his leadership on the bond election that built a new City Hall, a new library and a new art museum. Johnson championed the teen curfew.

While they took charge in some respects, Goddard and Johnson still ceded much of their power to the city manager, first Marvin Andrews and now Frank Fairbanks.

Rimsza has let the city manager take care of day-to-day operations, while business leaders such as Jerry Colangelo and organizations such as the Downtown Partnership and Phoenix Community Alliance have co-opted the city's vision.

That's why we now have a bizarre, Galleria-like parking garage rising like a roadblock in front of Colangelo's behemoth new baseball stadium--but squalid services for the homeless.

And now, I hear again and again, Fairbanks and his crew are exhausted. No wonder--they've been running the show for years.

Memo to Fairbanks and the support crew at City Hall:
Reinforcements are not imminent.

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: [email protected]

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at