Michael Nowakowski’s unlikely Phoenix City Council win puts him on Big Money’s radar

In the weeks after Michael Nowakowski scored a major upset to win a seat on the Phoenix City Council, something curious happened.

His mailbox filled with checks.

Nowakowski wasn't supposed to win the District Seven seat. For one thing, he was running against the daughter of Congressman Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, and the state's entire power elite, from Governor Janet Napolitano to Attorney General Terry Goddard, had lined up with her and against him. For another, Nowakowski had run out of money. In the process of raising $150,000 through October, he tapped out his entire donor list. Just keeping up with his well-funded opponent in the final weeks of the campaign required a dip into his savings — and extra contributions from his dad and his brother.

Then, unbelievably, Michael Nowakowski won, and won decisively. For all of Pastor's money, she simply failed to get out the vote. Suddenly, people who'd never given Nowakowski the time of day were mailing in contributions. Nowakowski's final campaign-finance report, filed last month, details an unbelievable list of contributors who ponied up after his come-from-behind victory: Wayne Howard, the Phoenix developer. Jerry Simms, who owns Turf Paradise. Jerry Colangelo, who used to own the Phoenix Suns. Even Mario Diaz, the political operative-turned-payday-loan-lobbyist who'd worked for Pastor's campaign.

"We were shocked," admits Ruben Gallego, who was Nowakowski's campaign manager and is now his chief of staff. While the campaign did hold a fundraiser to pay down Nowakowski's debts, "for the most part, this was completely unsolicited."

It's a funny thing, winning. After a victory, the underdog is everybody's best friend. Everybody is scrambling to pretend they were there all along.

But Nowakowski's sudden popularity with fat-cat donors is, I think, the perfect illustration of an increasingly problematic trend at Phoenix City Hall.

Big money has taken over.

Political consultants say that winning a city council seat used to take $40,000. You could run for mayor on a quarter-million bucks, even in a hotly contested election. But now, even with campaign limits of $390 per donor per year, we're talking $200,000 just for a council seat. The cost of running for mayor is up near a million dollars.

Consider this: Despite having only nominal opposition, Mayor Phil Gordon spent about $730,000 to scare off potential opponents and retain his seat — roughly $10 a vote. Maria Baier, who was elected District Three councilwoman, spent $252,732, or $22 per vote. As for the congressman's daughter Nowakowski bested in District Seven, well, Laura Pastor would have been better off buying each of her supporters a Cuisinart. Pastor's losing effort cost a staggering $93 per vote.

To put it in perspective, look at Tucson. There, only one council candidate spent more than $50,000 on his campaign last year — and his spending still tallied less than $2.50 per vote. As for Mayor Bob Walkup, he spent just $40,807 on his re-election campaign. That's less than 90 cents per vote.

The problem isn't just that Phoenix politicians are trying to outdo each other with high-priced consultants and glossy brochures. As Jon Altmann, who spent $82,000 in an unsuccessful campaign for the District Three seat, says, "There's big developer money, there's big business money . . . It's just a bunch of big special interests."

After all, few candidates can raise $200,000, much less $1 million, just by hitting up friends and family. It's simply impossible for anyone who isn't Richie Rich.

So the steep price tag instead forces candidates to cut deals to keep opponents out of the race, or to schmooze the people who need something at City Hall: developers, lobbyists, zoning attorneys, bus management executives, ambulance honchos. For these guys, campaign contributions are a cost of doing business. But, if a politician alienates them by standing up for the constituents or just plain ol' good government, he can expect the money stream to dry right up.

Gallego admits as much. While he wouldn't talk specifics — hey, the guy works for City Hall now — he did tell me that some of the Deep Pockets who heard Nowakowski's pitch initially asked whether they could count on the councilman's support for their projects. When Nowakowski wouldn't offer his immediate support, some of them walked away. No money for him.

Not until, of course, he managed to pull off the biggest upset of the year. Now they have to deal with him, and his campaign coffers are suddenly $52,000 richer.

But if Nowakowski votes against whatever they're seeking, well, there's always 2011. Who do you think is going to get the money then, the guy who's voted against the fat cats, or the would-be politicos who'll sell their soul for a shot at election?

I've always been skeptical of campaign-finance reform. So few people pay attention to council races that it's hard to blame campaigns for needing glossy fliers and roadside signs to let the electorate know their options. Money really is free speech, sometimes, and if we didn't have it, we'd be stuck only with establishment candidates.