Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman isn’t afraid to step on a few toes as he waltzes into his second term

Hugh Hallman and Sandra Day O'Connor are dancing.

It is not exactly elegant — not yet. This is only their first rehearsal, and song-and-dance routines do not come together without sweat.

And both Hallman and O'Connor are clearly sweating this.

It is not every day that a guy gets to dance with the first female justice on the United States Supreme Court, even if that guy is the mayor of Tempe, Arizona. And it is not every day that a former Supreme Court justice gets ready to perform a soft-shoe number that will be seen by hundreds of people.

Hallman is nervous; O'Connor is cranky.

Hallman tries a joke. "Hugh, you're to the right," says choreographer Janie Ellis, lining up her dancers.

"Some would say I'm . . . always to the right," Hallman quips. "Of course, you started on the right," he tells O'Connor, "but then you moved to the center."

"Oh, come on!" O'Connor says. Her voice is, perhaps, sharper than she intended.

Their duet, a version of "Gary, Indiana," rewritten to pay homage to Tempe, is to be the super-secret grand finale at a fundraiser for the O'Connor House Project. The nonprofit group is working to save the Paradise Valley adobe where O'Connor lived as a young lawyer. Once slated for demolition, it's now being dismantled, brick-by-brick, and rebuilt in Tempe's Papago Park — thanks, in part, to Mayor Hugh Hallman.

O'Connor is fretting about her ability to remember the steps. "It's going to be good if we get it right," she says. "But we're not. We're not."

"We will," Hallman says. Nervously.

They start to get it after a half-dozen takes. For a 78-year-old woman, O'Connor is a good dancer, and Hallman, a theater geek who's acted in a number of community theater productions, knows how to lead.

But O'Connor — who only recently moved back to Arizona from Washington, D.C. — can't understand why the choreography calls for her to put her hands around Hallman's neck in a bit of show-business-style mock-strangulation.

"Why do I want to choke him?" O'Connor asks, plaintively.

Ellis, the choreographer, has a quick reply: "Because he's the smart-ass mayor of Tempe!"

Indeed, plenty of people in Tempe would be more than happy to choke Hugh Hallman.

In a city that's long enjoyed genial, nonpartisan politics, the recently re-elected mayor is something different: Both crusader and gadfly, he doesn't see the point in making nice when something isn't nice. Nor does he care whether he comes off as holier than thou — or whether his campaigns are too aggressive for the Kiwanis Club crowd.

He's made a point of eschewing the perks of power. He won't take a car allowance from the city, or even a parking space next to City Hall. If it's something not available to the lowliest clerk, Hallman doesn't want it.

Nor will he take campaign contributions from people doing business with the city. He first ran because he wanted to change the clubby way things are done at City Hall; to this day, despite four years as mayor, he still thinks of himself as an outsider.

With Hallman, the problem is often more style than substance. Oh, he has plenty of ideological disagreements with his colleagues on the City Council — most of Tempe's power structure is Democratic, and Hallman is a libertarian-leaning Republican who believes in keeping government on a strict diet.

His fellow council members might forgive him that, if only he wasn't so impatient with them. He lectures. He snaps at people who ask stupid questions. Hallman infuriated one councilman to the point that he famously leaked Hallman's confidential tax information to the news media. Another was so aggravated by Hallman's smug tone that he recently walked out of a City Council meeting.

He still has Tempe's vote.

Hallman has never lost a municipal election — and though his initial campaign for mayor was hotly contested, he waltzed into a second four-year term this year with near-universal support.

By his accounting, he won the highest number of votes in Tempe's history. And that's what matters to him.

"I have the ability to stand by myself if I need to," he says. "I'm not here to make friends."

Hallman and O'Connor are done dancing. And after 2 1/2 hours, the mayor's finally done with a budget session, too. He's running late. Has been all day, actually — a morning accident on the 202 cost him 25 minutes, and he's been trying unsuccessfully to make it up ever since.

But when Hallman arrives at the launch party for a new condominium high-rise being built in Tempe, he does not pull up to the valet station, even though the valet is standing there waiting, even though dozens of pretty young women are shivering in their summer dresses on this unseasonably cold day, waiting for his remarks.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske