The Gay Blade

Lame duck mayor Skip Rimsza screwed up taking roll call for the new version of the Phoenix City Council at a recent council meeting.

"Vice Mayor Simplot?" he asked.

"Ah, jeez, sorry," Rimsza quickly caught himself. "Not so quick. Councilman Simplot."

Maybe it was a Freudian slip. Sure, newly elected Tom Simplot of District 4 is the youngest and newest member of the city council. But everybody from Rimsza on down knows Simplot won't be stopping his political career at the District 4 council seat.

Many already have Simplot pegged to be the next Phoenix mayor after Phil Gordon.

"There is no doubt Tom will be a force in Arizona politics in the years to come," says Sal DiCiccio, a Republican who represented District 6 from 1994 to 2000. "He is so bright, so motivated, so focused and knows how to get things done. There is no doubt he'd make a great mayor someday."

After Rimsza's gaff, Simplot rose and stood with his right hand raised in the council chambers taking his oath from Rimsza. He then walked to his seat at the far right side of the council and gave his first speech as a councilman.

He spoke of reaching out to his Hispanic constituents, he talked about quickly getting a proposition to voters to pay for more support staff for city police.

He promised to tackle two new issues: The rise of a new type of slumlord, one who builds shanty-style apartments behind existing homes, and the troubles property owners along Central Avenue are sure to face as light rail begins snaking through the city core.

He even quoted Richard Florida, the urban development guru who will be coming to Phoenix on October 21, and promised to meet with Florida to discuss ideas for downtown Phoenix.

His allusion to Florida's work caught me off guard. From earlier interviews with him, I didn't think Simplot was a Florida fan.

But after Simplot touted Florida's ideas about building a more vibrant and livable downtown, I realized that Florida and Simplot actually make a perfect match.

And if anybody is well positioned to champion Florida's innovative ideas for revitalizing Phoenix's urban core, it's Tom Simplot.

Simplot already has spent a lot of time developing property in downtown Phoenix. His great passion is restoring and finding viable new lives for Phoenix's historic buildings. He's a passionate promoter of urban soul, that nebulous stew of history, funk, iconoclasty and buzz that makes some cities real and others Anthem.

But more important, perhaps: Tom Simplot is an urban gay professional. And in Florida's model of great cities, it's the urban gay professionals along with young creative types that create the bedrock for a city with soul.

Simplot is the first openly gay councilperson in Phoenix's history.

One of the rocks upon which great cities are built, Florida argues, is tolerance of different ideas as well as the ideas that come from those people often locked out of city building.

District 4 voters were willing to get past Simplot's sexuality and elect him on his ideas and experience. In a weird way, Simplot's own victory could be a harbinger of a more progressive attitude that Florida and others say must be in place for a downtown to prosper."I think Tom's election and the margin of my own election show that voters are interested only about issues affecting their city," Phil Gordon tells me. "It's not gay, anti-gay, Hispanic, anti-Hispanic, whatever. It's about tolerance and moderation and getting people in here with the energy and ideas to make life better for the people who live here."

"I like to think that my own election says something good about where Phoenix is heading," Simplot says. "It shows we are open to all sorts of people. It shows we no longer fit the stereotypes people outside of the city have of this area."

I see it all as an insightful episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Downtown. In a testament to his sense of humor, Simplot is willing to play along with the notion that his sexuality fosters stylish urbanism.

"Ok, yes, we like to fix up old houses and buildings," he says with a boisterous laugh. "We're just going to take all those silly shows to an urban renewal level."

Simplot was raised in Iowa. His roots there trace all the way back to his great, great grandfather, who was the first child born west of the Mississippi.

Interest in history gained from researching his own family stayed with him when he moved to Tempe to attend ASU in 1980. He graduated from the University of Iowa Law School in 1983, then returned to Arizona for good.

Simplot's interest in Arizona history grew rapidly once he returned.

"I remember watching them tear down this 1920s-era villa at 32nd Street and Camelback around that time and it just killed me," he says. "That was the pivotal moment. From then on, it just became so clear that we had to stop tearing down our past."

That ultimately led to Simplot's appointment by Rimsza to the city's historic preservation board, where he has served for six years. Among other work, Simplot was a vocal opponent to the Phoenix Diocese plan to tear down St. Mary's School.

Tracking his past, it's easy to see why Simplot and Gordon believe they can work together and with other council members on redevelopment and other issues.

"Phil and I have similar pasts and a similar view of things," he says. "We're both recovering attorneys, we're both consensus builders, we both have been passionate about preservation and neighborhoods for a long time. Besides Phil, I've already worked closely with everyone on the council for many years. We're going to be a group of people who know how to work together."

Sadly, while Simplot is a very welcome addition to the city council, his political future in Arizona could still be limited by his sexual preference. He perhaps won in the only district an openly gay city council candidate in Phoenix could win -- the upscale and bohemian mix of District 4. And he arguably won with the only political philosophy a gay man could win: He is a fiscally conservative small businessman who, because of that philosophy, could get the vote of enough conservatives in his district who otherwise would not vote for a gay candidate.

How the rest of the city will accept a gay man on the city council is still unknown. This becomes more of an issue four to eight years down the road, when many city political insiders expect Simplot will be a leading candidate for Phoenix mayor or other higher-profile political spot.

"He'll be facing an electorate in which 15 to 20 percent of the people will refuse to vote for a gay man," DiCiccio says. "But if anybody can overcome that prejudice, it's Tom. He has already swayed a lot of conservatives. I expect he can continue to do that."

On a recent weekday, Simplot and I stand out on the sprawling balcony outside the mayor's office surveying the city he now will help shape.

Tom directs my eyes north toward the Central corridor, his home, his district. He imagines light rail shooting up through there.

"I wish we could just pull all those buildings right down here," Simplot says, vocalizing the widely held frustration with Phoenix's two substandard skylines that should have been one decent one. "It would help so much with the energy down here."

"I'd love to see it buzzing all the time with the activity of a genuine big-city downtown," he says. "I'd love to see this be the place to be."

Since mid-town can't be moved, Simplot will push for development along Central Avenue that merges the two commercial centers. Simplot envisions first improving public transportation through the corridor by extending the Downtown Area Shuttle, or DASH, up Central. Then, of course, light rail will come through.

Simplot also plans to promote residential infill along Central.

"We've got to have both affordable and high-end high-density owner-occupied housing all through here to make this all come together," he says. "People must be here to bring it all together and make it vibrant."

Addressing the needs and concerns of the large Hispanic community will be another large hurdle for Simplot. He beat the "Hispanic candidate," Jessica Florez, who had been appointed to the District 4 seat after Gordon left precisely because Hispanic leaders made the argument that the council needed Hispanic representation. Simplot, a very white conservative attorney from Iowa, certainly doesn't look like he would care about his constituents west of I-17, where he lost several predominately Hispanic districts.

Simplot plans to once again go door-to-door in his district, this time to introduce himself and learn what his constituents want from him. He will be helped greatly on this journey through this 58 percent Hispanic district by his new chief of staff, Alma Hernandez, a bilingual fourth-generation Arizonan who has served on several political administrations in the Valley.

Expect him to succeed at bringing the divergent interests of his district together.

Expect the same kind of success bringing the divergent interests of his city together.

Then we'll be able to expect a more vibrant and more interesting Phoenix thanks to Tom Simplot.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-744-6549.

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Robert Nelson