The Valley is full of colorful characters, culture wars in the Republican-led legislature, struggles with addressing a growing unsheltered population, working conditions and wages, crime, heat deaths and fatal police encounters.
But some stories resonated with us more than others. Here are our picks for the eight biggest stories of the year.
Kari Lake just won’t stopLike a little Energizer MAGA Bunny, Kari Lake just won’t stop. The failed Republican gubernatorial candidate started the year trying to convince any judge who would listen that she’s the real governor of Arizona. (She’s not.) Now, Lake is ending 2023 trying to convince voters that she’s the best choice for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. (Also, nope.) In June, the former TV newscaster dropped a single and proved that she really does “live on planet crazy,” where she cohabitates with former President Donald Trump in a cozy mansion with golf course views.
The song — “81 Million Votes My Ass” — was written and performed by Nashville singer-songwriter Jeffrey Steele, who has crafted chart-topping hits for artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Billy Ray Cyrus. While Lake didn’t perform on the track, it’s full of sound bites from her speeches, including “I am not suicidal” and “We’re living on planet crazy.” To no one’s surprise, Lake earned the Best of Phoenix title we bestowed on her this year: Best Political Grifter.
Neo-Nazi, 2 others arrested in killing of gay Phoenix manIt’s a disturbing truism of life in Maricopa County, the fourth-largest county in the U.S., that homicides happen daily — a record high of 438 in 2022, in fact. Sadly, it takes a particularly gruesome crime to rise above the fray and get noticed. That’s exactly what happened in the August beating of Jake Kelly, a 49-year-old gay Phoenix man who died from his injuries two weeks later.
Kelly was assaulted and left in his driveway until his housemates, Cory and Shannon Young, carried him inside. Yet, police said, the pair didn’t call for help. Instead, they allegedly took Kelly inside, gave him a bath and waited until the next day before taking him to a hospital. Kelly’s face was “completely pulverized,” large gashes went down his arms, a “piece of his bowel had died,” and after yet another surgery, he contracted sepsis and went into a coma before dying, according to Jan Kelly, his mother. Jake Kelly officiated at the marriage ceremony of the Youngs in the same home in March.
Shannon and Cory Young — a neo-Nazi skinhead with a swastika inked in the center of his chest — were later charged with hindering the investigation. Their friend, 34-year-old Angel Mullooly, was charged with second-degree murder.
Gov. Katie Hobbs dubbed Veto QueenSinged by tamales and stumbling through her first days in office, Gov. Katie Hobbs got off to a wobbly start as the state’s first Democratic governor in 14 years. But when she took a victory lap to celebrate her first 100 days in office, Hobbs reminded Arizonans that she isn’t one for fanfare and showiness by taking just six minutes to celebrate her accomplishments. It was a calm reprieve from what could have been. “This election was not about Democrats versus Republicans. It was about sanity versus chaos,” Hobbs said at the April press conference.
As the legislative session dragged on to become the longest in Arizona history, thanks to alt-right Republicans bent on posturing more than legislating, Hobbs gained more than just her footing. She swatted back, rejecting several anti-LGBTQ+ bills on her way to vetoing 142 pieces of legislation and setting a new record for Arizona governors. We dubbed her the Veto Queen in April and Best Veto Queen in our Best of Phoenix issue in September. In October, Hobbs became the first Arizona governor to attend the Phoenix Pride festival and declared, “With me as your governor, you don’t just have an ally, you have a champion.”
Phoenix police kill record number of menPhoenix police — despite a lingering federal investigation into its use of force and other issues — will end 2023 having killed more people than officers did in 2022, a year in which officers killed nearly twice as many people as they did in 2021. Deadly encounters with Phoenix police reached 18 this year, including 12 men who were shot and killed by officers. Another man died while being restrained, a result the medical examiner said was due to meth and a heart condition. One man died of smoke inhalation after barricading himself inside a QuikTrip storage room that he set ablaze. Another died from hyperthermia due to heat exposure after being handcuffed. One man died after what police called a “medical episode” in custody, and another from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while being chased.
The increased number of deadly encounters with Phoenix police comes as Chief Michael Sullivan has expanded the arsenal of nondeadly tools officers can use while on patrol and tweaked the agency’s use-of-force policies.
Rallies, rats and low wages at Sky HarborIt was an unprecedented year for the U.S. labor movement. According to the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University's Labor Action Tracker, there were 406 labor strikes across 677 locations nationwide. In Arizona, there were 14 total labor actions, nearly half of which originated at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“America’s Friendliest Airport” was named the top airport in the nation among large airports by the Wall Street Journal. But behind the scenes, workers are struggling with hazardous working conditions, low wages and expired contracts.
Baggage handlers and cabin cleaners with Prospect Airport Services, a company contracted to perform ancillary services at the airport, filed a formal complaint with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health on Aug. 24. The complaint alleged that Prospect failed "to maintain a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees.”
Two months later, food workers with SSP America went on a one-day strike on Oct. 25 amid allegations of unsanitary working conditions. Employees at several popular restaurants in Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4 said they have witnessed rats and cockroaches in the kitchens and dining rooms. A second worker strike took place in November.
By December, United Airlines flight attendants were threatening to strike, as well. The workers told us they've been working under an expired contract for two years as the airline refuses to come to the bargaining table. An official strike has not been approved, but Peter Coenen, a United flight attendant and regional representative for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said on Dec. 14 that a strike may be imminent in the new year.
Alt-right troll Ethan Schmidt-CrockettMetro Phoenix is a Valley full of trolls. But one in particular keeps catching our attention. Maybe it’s his penchant for harassing chemotherapy patients in a wig shop, his targeting of local synagogues, his destructive stunts in big box stores or his knack for trying to profit from his offensive behavior. Or, it could be his ability, despite all of this trolling, to stay out of jail. Yet Ethan Schmidt-Crockett is still roaming the streets of Phoenix on his bigoted crusade, recording his antics to share on social media while trying to terrorize marginalized people.
At some point, this Valley antagonist and occasional Grindr user will end up in a jail cell and not just on probation. He compares his work to that of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence and civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement. And when asked about the latest agency to arrest him, he quipped this: “Scottsdale PD can kiss my ass.” It is no wonder we bestowed on him the honor he’s so earned — Best Criminal Redneck Bigot.
Phoenix clears the ZoneNational media descended on Phoenix in May as the city began clearing out the Zone. The decision to clear out the downtown homeless encampment, which stretched between Ninth and 12th avenues south of Washington Street, resulted from an order by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Attorneys representing 15 people who own properties in the vicinity of the encampment filed suit on Aug. 10. In March, a judge ruled in their favor, giving the city until July 10 to clear the area.
The first sweeps began in May despite the city’s lack of available shelter beds. The city would eventually clear the entire Zone, but it would take well into October for the last tent to be dismantled.
Concern over the reality of a lack of available shelter was not the only issue troubling activists. Elizabeth Venable, co-founder of the nonprofit Fund for Empowerment, said she had spoken with many unsheltered people who had their property, including ashes of deceased family members or key documents needed for receiving assistance, destroyed by city officials.
A virile bandit returnsEngland may have Bansky, but Phoenix has Penis Man. After a prolonged hiatus, signs of the Valley’s virile vandal were spotted on the lid of a garbage can just outside The Green Woodpecker bar at Park Central in Midtown in late January. In the tagger’s typical fashion, the garbage can was defaced with a simple tagline: “Penis Man.”
Although Tempe police arrested Dustin Shomer on January 23, 2020, after identifying him as a potential suspect, Shomer was defiant. "Penis Man is neither man nor woman, you nor me," Shomer wrote in a Facebook post at the time. "We are ALL Penis Man."
One year later, Shomer pleaded guilty to two felonies: aggravated criminal damage/defacing a school and attempting to commit trespassing in a critical public service facility. He was sentenced to three years of supervised probation, $8,000 in restitution and 500 hours of community service.
After his arrest, Tempe cops said there were other "Penis Men" still at large. Shomer has said the original "Penis Man" is one of his high school friends from Tempe. That individual, he said, "coerced" him into doing the tags.