The Invisible Man

Thank God I'm having 40-weight coffee with Phil Gordon at Starbucks. Because taken straight, Gordon can make a guy awfully sleepy.

The position to which Gordon aspires apparently has the same effect on Phoenix voters. Of the 1.3 million residents of what soon could be America's fifth-largest city, only 125,000 citizens, less than 10 percent of the population and about 20 percent of the registered voters, are expected to vote September 9 to determine their next mayor.

Perhaps the apathy stems from the fact that there is no race. Phil Gordon, the longtime city councilman and city government insider, has more money, more powerful and respected support, more experience, more ideas, more goodwill, more humanity, more political savvy, more children, more everything -- and the few people who care already know it. You need not stay up the evening of the election. Get your sleep knowing Phil Gordon will defeat that other guy, Randy something, to be the next mayor of Phoenix.

And this is a good thing. Good like a pair of Dexter shoes, a four-yard gain by your fullback, a share of Berkshire-Hathaway stock or sex with your longtime mate.

Let me make an argument for dull and invisible, for four more years of blah. Phil Gordon is not Willie Brown or Richard Daley or Richard Riordon or Rudy Giuliani. He is not what Americans think of when they think of a big-city mayor: charismatic, forceful, bellicose, omnipresent, driving policy and political discourse with chutzpah and panache and arrogance.

He is, instead, a quiet, fiercely competent, forward-thinking, conciliatory, consensus-building centrist dweeb.

He's exactly what Phoenix needs at this critical juncture in its development.

Gordon's long history of civic involvement began back in 1979, when he was a kid just out of law school representing developers who owned land in downtown Phoenix.

In one of his first cases, Gordon was representing a tenant in a fight against a landlord. Representing the landlord was another developer lawyer, Terry Goddard.

The case was settled amicably. In the process, Goddard began selling Gordon on the idea of the city and property owners working together to preserve historic buildings in the Valley. Goddard had caught the preservation bug from former Phoenix mayor John Driggs, who had caught the bug looking at how other cities were working to save their pasts.

"It was a novel idea and one that the development community here was pretty much dead-set against," Gordon says. "I've got to admit, at first I was brought kicking and screaming into that mindset."

Soon, Goddard was mayor. Soon after, Gordon was being asked to head historic preservation committees. After heading a few restoration projects, and seeing the impact those projects had on reinvigorating blighted neighborhoods, Gordon became the inspired leader of the Valley's historic preservation community.

"Terry Goddard was the father, John Driggs was the grandfather," he says. "As I learned from them and got more and more involved, it became a real passion. It's something I came to believe was critical for building a great city from a foundation of great, unique, vibrant neighborhoods."

To be sure, selling historic preservation in the grow-grow Valley is a game of subtle give-and-take diplomacy. Insiders who have watched Gordon say he grew through the '80s and '90s into one of the city's great consensus builders. While Phoenix city politics became known for its petty infighting and divisiveness, Gordon -- then a city staffer -- was quietly working behind the scenes to bring divergent interests together.

"He really has a special ability to bring people together to get things accomplished," says Sal DiCiccio, a city councilman from 1994 to 2000 who often sparred with Gordon. "Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, he was always civil and you always knew he was trying to do what he believed was the best thing for the city. He's just a good man."

In the late '90s, Gordon brought that flare for consensus-building to the city council when he was elected in District 4.

"I think you've got someone who learned very early on that you can't get much done for your district with your one vote on the council," says Bob Grossfeld, a longtime political strategist in Arizona politics. "You need a little help and public awareness about your issues. Phil built that support for issues like slumlords and random gunfire and preservation. And he helped people far outside his own district in the process."

Gordon's ability to get along bodes well for one aspect of his new position. He is political friends with the majority of the current city council. Next year will be the first time in many years that the mayor will have overwhelming goodwill in the council chambers.

But constant deal-making can brand you a wuss. While Gordon gets things done, he often gets only half or three-fourths of what he and the people he champions were fighting for.

And Gordon has what feels like an almost pathological need to be liked and to get along. In my interview with him at Starbucks, he on several occasions retreated nearly instantaneously from comments he apparently thought might offend me or go contrary to my opinions.

Because of my own pathologies, I generally like a mayor who takes glee in not giving a rat's ass what I think.

I say this only because Gordon's genteel Michael Dukakishness may not play as well in his new role of figurehead -- the face and voice of Phoenix. He is one of those guys who is easily upstaged. As Phoenix fights for the national political clout that is befitting of the nation's fifth-largest city, he may get lost in the wallpaper.

We don't need yet another mayor that nobody inside or outside the city knows or cares about.

Grossfeld and former mayor John Driggs, though, argue that I'm full of crap.

They agree that Phoenix city hall is generally an under-scrutinized, under-appreciated, under-interesting place.

There is a historical reason for this. They argue that people historically aren't interested in city hall because city hall has a history of competence.

Driggs blames it all on Charter Government, the city government reformation project that began in 1949. After restructuring city government under a strong city-manager framework, civic leaders like the Goldwater brothers and others would hand-select their nominee to be the next mayor. That nominee won every election through the 1950s and 1960s.

City hall was secretive, undemocratic and hopelessly pro-development, but scandal and mismanagement were minimal.

Driggs was the Charter Government pick in 1969. His race was interesting, though, because he was pitted against the standing mayor, who wanted to serve past the traditional two-year term of Charter candidates.

That election drew about 20 percent of the population of Phoenix at the time, about twice the percentage expected September 9.

In the 1970s, the Charter nominee system broke down. By the 1980s, there were no longer Charter nominees, but there still were candidates that seemed to be groomed, financed and anointed by the business community.

Like this year, there were many elections that seemed like they were done deals.

Which bores the hell out of voters and the media. Over the years, the number of city hall beat reporters in the Valley has dropped from five to one. Phoenix continues to be considered a well-managed city. With few problems and little coverage, city hall has pretty much purred along without the public caring.

"Sometimes a lack of interest can indicate a good thing," Grossfeld says. "The city hasn't had the kind of major problems or major goofballs that bring that kind of local and national attention. It's a well-run city. That may be boring, but it doesn't mean something is wrong."

But that is changing. Phoenix's political clout is building as its mass grows. Grossfeld and Driggs argue that as clout grows (I apologize for using the Chicago word "clout" here), you will see Phil Gordon and future mayors become more visible on the national stage.

"I think people locally may not realize it, but Phoenix is becoming a player on the national scene and that will just continue to grow," Grossfeld says. "The role of the mayor of Phoenix will expand along with the prestige of the city."

Is Gordon ready to play the role of big-city mayor?

"I think my ability to bring people together will be just as important or more important when I'm mayor of this city," he tells me. "No, I'm not flashy or whatever it is some mayors have. My strength is working together with people to reach our goals. And I'll continue to do that with the energy and passion I've already displayed in my other positions."

Specifically, this means Gordon will get involved personally with recruitment of high-paying, technology-based industries, he says. He plans to meet with company CEOs personally.

Which connects with Gordon's longtime passion -- improving the quality of life in Phoenix neighborhoods.

"You improve schools, restore important structures and fight crime to make this a good place to live for your citizens," he says. "But what you're also doing is creating a quality of life that's appealing to those businesses you'd like to see in your community. I want Phoenix to be attractive to the best and smartest in the country. I want this to be a place everybody wants to be."

Gordon will push light rail and the new downtown convention center, both projects that stand on questionable long-term economic projections.

He is also hot on the life-sciences industries and plans to aggressively recruit high-tech businesses to cluster with the Translational Genomics Research Institute and the International Genomics Consortium buildings going up in downtown Phoenix. He wants Phoenix to create its own research and development vortex à la San Francisco, San Diego or Raleigh. And he dreams of expanding that technology cluster to include nano-technology companies.

I have yet to meet a mayor who didn't want the next Research Triangle Park in his city. It will be up to Gordon to lead Phoenix in a tech recruiting and infrastructure funding environment where so many other cities have failed. (Check out Akron, Ohio's woes.)

Basically, he has big, progressive dreams for Phoenix. And that's refreshing to see from a mayor of a big city known for its lack of progressive thought.

The big question: Can this easily invisible man in this presently invisible position take the city and his position to a new level of visibility?

We'll just wait and see.

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Robert Nelson