Michael Nowakowski’s unlikely Phoenix City Council win puts him on Big Money’s radar

In the weeks after Michael Nowakowski scored a major upset to win a seat on the Phoenix City Council, something curious happened.

His mailbox filled with checks.

Nowakowski wasn't supposed to win the District Seven seat. For one thing, he was running against the daughter of Congressman Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, and the state's entire power elite, from Governor Janet Napolitano to Attorney General Terry Goddard, had lined up with her and against him. For another, Nowakowski had run out of money. In the process of raising $150,000 through October, he tapped out his entire donor list. Just keeping up with his well-funded opponent in the final weeks of the campaign required a dip into his savings — and extra contributions from his dad and his brother.

Then, unbelievably, Michael Nowakowski won, and won decisively. For all of Pastor's money, she simply failed to get out the vote. Suddenly, people who'd never given Nowakowski the time of day were mailing in contributions. Nowakowski's final campaign-finance report, filed last month, details an unbelievable list of contributors who ponied up after his come-from-behind victory: Wayne Howard, the Phoenix developer. Jerry Simms, who owns Turf Paradise. Jerry Colangelo, who used to own the Phoenix Suns. Even Mario Diaz, the political operative-turned-payday-loan-lobbyist who'd worked for Pastor's campaign.

"We were shocked," admits Ruben Gallego, who was Nowakowski's campaign manager and is now his chief of staff. While the campaign did hold a fundraiser to pay down Nowakowski's debts, "for the most part, this was completely unsolicited."

It's a funny thing, winning. After a victory, the underdog is everybody's best friend. Everybody is scrambling to pretend they were there all along.

But Nowakowski's sudden popularity with fat-cat donors is, I think, the perfect illustration of an increasingly problematic trend at Phoenix City Hall.

Big money has taken over.

Political consultants say that winning a city council seat used to take $40,000. You could run for mayor on a quarter-million bucks, even in a hotly contested election. But now, even with campaign limits of $390 per donor per year, we're talking $200,000 just for a council seat. The cost of running for mayor is up near a million dollars.

Consider this: Despite having only nominal opposition, Mayor Phil Gordon spent about $730,000 to scare off potential opponents and retain his seat — roughly $10 a vote. Maria Baier, who was elected District Three councilwoman, spent $252,732, or $22 per vote. As for the congressman's daughter Nowakowski bested in District Seven, well, Laura Pastor would have been better off buying each of her supporters a Cuisinart. Pastor's losing effort cost a staggering $93 per vote.

To put it in perspective, look at Tucson. There, only one council candidate spent more than $50,000 on his campaign last year — and his spending still tallied less than $2.50 per vote. As for Mayor Bob Walkup, he spent just $40,807 on his re-election campaign. That's less than 90 cents per vote.

The problem isn't just that Phoenix politicians are trying to outdo each other with high-priced consultants and glossy brochures. As Jon Altmann, who spent $82,000 in an unsuccessful campaign for the District Three seat, says, "There's big developer money, there's big business money . . . It's just a bunch of big special interests."

After all, few candidates can raise $200,000, much less $1 million, just by hitting up friends and family. It's simply impossible for anyone who isn't Richie Rich.

So the steep price tag instead forces candidates to cut deals to keep opponents out of the race, or to schmooze the people who need something at City Hall: developers, lobbyists, zoning attorneys, bus management executives, ambulance honchos. For these guys, campaign contributions are a cost of doing business. But, if a politician alienates them by standing up for the constituents or just plain ol' good government, he can expect the money stream to dry right up.

Gallego admits as much. While he wouldn't talk specifics — hey, the guy works for City Hall now — he did tell me that some of the Deep Pockets who heard Nowakowski's pitch initially asked whether they could count on the councilman's support for their projects. When Nowakowski wouldn't offer his immediate support, some of them walked away. No money for him.

Not until, of course, he managed to pull off the biggest upset of the year. Now they have to deal with him, and his campaign coffers are suddenly $52,000 richer.

But if Nowakowski votes against whatever they're seeking, well, there's always 2011. Who do you think is going to get the money then, the guy who's voted against the fat cats, or the would-be politicos who'll sell their soul for a shot at election?

I've always been skeptical of campaign-finance reform. So few people pay attention to council races that it's hard to blame campaigns for needing glossy fliers and roadside signs to let the electorate know their options. Money really is free speech, sometimes, and if we didn't have it, we'd be stuck only with establishment candidates.

But this is out of control.

The influx of money in the system is not increasing voter participation. Only 19 percent of the city's registered voters bothered to go to the polls in September. District Seven, despite having the most expensive council race in Phoenix history, drew less than that — just 15 percent in the November runoff. That's one reason why Phoenix candidates' per-vote costs are so high. But even beyond that, the numbers are out of whack. It shouldn't cost $250,000 to win a job that mostly amounts to dealing with griping neighbors and sitting through interminable meetings!

There are a few ways we could fix the system.

First, we ought to consider some sort of Clean Elections-style financing. Tucson does it. If council candidates there get 300 contributions of $10 or more, and agree to limit their spending, they can get up to $45,090 each in matching funds. It's an imperfect system, but it bears consideration.

Second, at the very minimum, the clerk's office should put campaign-finance reports online. If nothing else, residents should get to see who's giving, without having to trudge to City Hall every time there's a vote coming up. It's no hardship for full-time troublemakers like me, but what about the guy with three kids and a full-time job who is concerned about a project coming to his neighborhood?

Tucson city clerk Kathy Detrick says that her office put PDFs of campaign-finance reports online for the first time last year. It cost nothing. In fact, Detrick says, they may be actually saving money; her staff doesn't have to deal with nearly so many requests for photocopies.

Better disclosure would help in the short term. But it's only a first step, and if we're not willing to do something to turn off the big-money spigot, we're going to see more and more good candidates taking at a look at the amount spent in the 2007 races — and deciding not to run in 2009.

Jon Altmann, for one, tells me that he's decided to run for state representative this year instead of making another attempt at city council.

When I ask how he's going to finance that, Altmann just laughs. "I'm using Clean Elections," he says.

Smart guy. But pretty sad when a statehouse seat is more affordable than one on the City Council. And pretty sad when the bidding gets as high as $93 a vote. After all, this isn't Iowa. You shouldn't need Mitt Romney's money, much less a relative in Congress, to get your foot in your door.

Speaking of money, let's talk about $86 million. That's how much money the agencies that are supposed to be building our freeways and light-rail lines have decided to put toward building . . . a building.

Remember Proposition 400? When voters passed it in November 2004, we heard about how the one-half-cent sales tax extension would pay for light rail, buses, and new freeways.

We did not hear much about high-rise office buildings in downtown Phoenix. But that's exactly where $86 million of our transportation funding is now expected to go. Basically, the three regional agencies that spend transportation dollars — Valley Metro, the Regional Public Transit Authority, and the Maricopa Association of Governments — have decided that they ought to be under one roof, and that the roof in question ought to be brand spanking new. So they've bought land at First Avenue and McKinley Street and hired a design consultant. Unless the agencies have a change of heart soon, we'll see a groundbreaking by year's end.

Bryan Jungwirth, assistant to the executive director of the Regional Public Transit Authority, insists that construction will actually save money. "We would probably spend a lot more over the course of 30 years on rent," he says. "The return to the taxpayer is much greater to build or own something than to rent it."

I have to admit I'm skeptical about that. Maybe it is less expensive to buy than rent, but new construction is never that much of a bargain.

And that raises another question: How exactly do they intend to pay for this?

In October, the Arizona Department of Transportation revised its estimates on just how much money Proposition 400 would be generating, thanks to the state's economic downturn. In 2007, for example, we're looking at $149 million less than the year before.

As the board of directors for Valley Metro concluded in a recent report, the Regional Office Center, a.k.a. the $86 million Shrine to Regional Transportation Bureaucracy, was supposed to be financed by "'unallocated' revenues received from the Proposition 400 tax." However, under ADOT's new projections, the report concludes, "There currently is no 'unallocated' amount . . ."

You know what that means. They're going have use allocated money on construction — money they were planning to use for freeways and surface streets.

Jungwirth tells me that the agencies believe the financing will be there when it's needed, without eliminating any of the planned roadwork. They'll continue to revise the estimated revenue as the economy changes over the 20-year life of Proposition 400, he says. Who's to say things won't turn around?

Maybe Jungwirth is right; maybe this thing will pay for itself. But I suspect I'm not the only one who'll be cursing the loss of $86 million the next time I'm stuck on the I-17.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske