Phoenix City Council Race: Mudslinging and Daddy's Political Clout Rule in District 4

Justin Johnson and Laura Pastor, the legacy candidates in Phoenix's 4th District, have spent considerable time and money delivering political jabs in their bids to win a spot on the City Council in the November 5 general election.

The upcoming election also will decide whether Warren Stewart, pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church, or Kate Widland Gallego, wife of state Representative Ruben Gallego, wins the District 8 seat on the Phoenix council

Johnson, son of developer and former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, has been criticized over vacant, eyesore family properties; for primary employment by family-controlled businesses; and for favorable votes as a city planning commissioner on projects represented by attorneys or developers raising campaign cash for him.

The most damning criticism the younger Johnson has faced stems from his own words during a candidate forum — where he admitted to donating money to every council member to, as he put it, "make things smoother" for his development projects.

Pastor, daughter of Congressman Ed Pastor, has been compared to hotel heiress Paris Hilton; one campaign flyer claims Pastor and Hilton would be "nothing without Daddy."

It's true that both candidates have leveraged their fathers' political connections.

The longtime congressman hosted a fundraiser and launched a neighborhood walk for his daughter. An independent political committee working to get Pastor elected invoked the congressman's name while soliciting money from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

"You may have heard of Laura Pastor," a May 13 letter states. "Laura is the daughter of . . . Ed and Verma Pastor. Congressman Pastor . . . serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee."

Johnson, 32, has worked nearly exclusively for his father's companies and gained support from such notable developers as Wayne Howard and zoning attorneys such as Paul Gilbert, men who have close relationships with the former mayor.

Justin Johnson tells New Times that he started Old World Communities, a firm that performed construction work for his father's homebuilding company. According to Arizona Corporation Commission records, Old World is managed by two other corporations controlled by the elder Johnson, and Justin is listed as a member.

Two additional companies that Justin Johnson lists on financial-disclosure documents filed with the city — Predecessor Development and NSPAZ, both construction-related businesses — aren't around anymore. While Justin was in sole control of Predecessor Development, several of his father's companies had controlling interests in NSPAZ.

Johnson maintains that Old World Communities is doing great things. In a press release, the council hopeful describes it as a firm that "has focused on revitalization projects throughout" Phoenix.

Soon after the statement, Pastor's campaign released a photo of Johnson's family-controlled property near 27th and Georgia avenues tainted with graffiti.

Critics also went after Johnson for his "yes" votes for projects represented by Gilbert and developer Ed Bull during May 14 and June 11 city Planning Commission meetings.

Bull and Gilbert were listed among the hosts of a $250-per-person May 30 fundraising event for Johnson put on by a who's who of Valley developers, consultants, and zoning attorneys.

Johnson isn't apologetic about voting on the projects.

"Those are the types of tough decisions we have to make on the City Council," he says. "And I evaluate the projects on their merits."

He fires his own criticism at Pastor for her adamant support of the payday-loans industry in 2007. At the time, political consultant Mario Diaz reportedly worked for the industry and a paid fundraiser for Pastor's then-council campaign.

Pastor had a change of heart, as noted by e-mails sent by state Representative Debbie McCune Davis, a lawmaker who fought to abolish the industry in 2008.

"Laura Pastor supported our ballot initiative to end payday lending," McCune Davis now says in statements.

Pastor's campaign also notes that Johnson's disparagement is ironic because his campaign is run by HighGround Inc., a high-profile lobbying firm that was the public-relations arm of the payday loan industry when it tried to re-enter the market in 2009.

Johnson's voting in May and June on projects that are making money for the same people helping to stuff his campaign coffers is aggravated by comments he made during the September 12 debate.

The moderator asked Johnson which council and mayoral candidates he has financially supported.

"I would say every single council member [who's] actually on the City Council today. I'm in the construction business — I'm a general contractor — and we often submit plans down to the city. And it's nice to have people to call down there and ask for help on what the process is, how we can make it smoother, how we can make it better," Johnson said.

Asked why he made such a connection between his financial contributions to elected officials and getting something in return for his construction business, Johnson says, "I stand by my reasons. I donated because I believe in the city of Phoenix."

Johnson notes that developers also have donated to Pastor's campaign. "They're just people," he says.

One other connection between Johnson and high-profile developers lies in one of the worst-kept secrets in town: Wayne Howard's "breakfast club" meetings.

His monthly gathering of developers and the politically connected, as described in a 2010 New Times story, are often the source of huge campaign dollars for political candidates.

Johnson's selection process among the mighty members of the breakfast club can be likened to the way Pastor Warren Stewart was approved to run in the District 8 race by a small clique of power brokers in the African-American and Latino communities ("Black Power," April 11).

A far cry from a church basement, where Stewart supporters gathered to pledge support for his candidacy, Johnson's circle of political friends — including Howard, lobbyist Billy Shields, and developer Mike Leib — don't rely on the subtle security that a basement provides.

Rather, they opt for the more obvious security provided by the prestigious members-only Arizona Country Club.

Much like Stewart was the choice of South Phoenix politicos, Johnson emerged as the candidate of choice for the North Phoenix development lobby.

Johnson says he attends Howard's breakfast club meetings but adds that he will attend "any and every meeting" to which he's invited.

Breakfast club members can raise large sums of campaign contributions for elected officials favored in the development world.

New Times hasn't been invited to the club, but those who have been tell us it goes something like this:

Several times a year, a sitting elected official will attend to make a stump speech, usually on the importance of the development community to the region. On their way out the door, they pick up a handful of campaign checks for the maximum contribution allowed by law.

In return, perhaps it's as Johnson explained during the candidates' forum:

"It's nice to have people to call down there, to ask for help on what the process is, how we can make it smoother."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo