Gordon goes all out With mayor viewing bond vote as referendum, you won't find complacency at City Hall

Richard de Uriarte Republic editorial writer Feb. 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Most bond election campaigns are low-key, almost hush-hush, affairs. Don't wake up the voters, get your own supporters out and you'll pass your bonds. That's the winning strategy.

But most bond campaigns don't involve Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who sees the March 14 election as a personal referendum, on himself, his city, its future (and his). As he told a small group of campaign workers recently, "The first obligation is to win, but the mandate is to move forward."

This is no low-profile, election-by-invitation-only operation. True enough, they're holding it on the second Tuesday in March (not in November), and they're zooming in on about 150,000 reliable voters in a 15 percent turnout.

But they're also raising more than $1 million. They've brought in national pollsters. They're sending out hundreds of thousands of mailers and almost that many phone calls. They've got a fancy Web site. They're planning Spanish-language radio spots and even TV commercials. Yep, TV commercials . . . for a city bond election.

This for a campaign for which there is no well-funded, well-organized opposition and for spending issues that were lopsidedly ahead in the polls before the campaign even started.

No complacency here, folks.

The bond campaign indeed reflects the personal and political style of its No. 1 cheerleader, Gordon, the hyper ringmaster who believes if 100 phone contacts are good, 190,000 will be that much more effective. If 150,000 campaign-generated e-mails will reach most likely voters, then a half-million will do even better.

And in classic Gordonesque form, the mayor hasn't limited his charms to loyal supporters. He has spent significant time and effort cajoling potential opponents, especially the politically and financially influential. He met with Republicans House Speaker Jim Weiers and Senate President Ken Bennett. He visited with former Gov. Fife Symington and East Valley activist Dave Thompson, both of whom opposed Proposition 400 on transportation in 2004.

Gordon even visited with the Senate GOP majority caucus last fall and several deep-pocketed Republican business types who could bankroll a legitimate opposition campaign, either on their own or through the fledgling Arizona Free Enterprise Club. But so far, the group is content to lobby the state Legislature for broad income-tax cuts.

Just a few weeks ago, when neighborhood activist (and longtime Friend of Phil) Donna Neill declared that the bond issue had shortchanged public safety, Gordon courted and fawned until Neill reversed her position. Now, Neill, the leader of NAILEM, is practically unavoidable at campaign events.

When angry East Camelback, Biltmore and Arcadia residents petitioned successfully for a citywide referendum on the Trump high-rise development, Gordon and the City Council reversed themselves faster than a spinning top. They don't want any outside controversies muddying up their $878.5 million baby.

Actually, the city would benefit from an open, high-intensity discussion on sprawl, height and density. We should welcome such a debate. But city leaders don't want it on the March 14 ballot.

They're running scared in an election where, according to internal polling, the only bond question in potential jeopardy is Proposition 4, proposing $120 million for parks and open space. (Senior women, the city's most highly efficacious voters, don't use them that much.)

Actually, running scared is a prudent plan. This is not your ordinary meat-and-potatoes bond proposal that folks at City Hall have been routinely passing for the past half-century. Since 1957, 11 bond elections have been held, and of the total $3.9 billion requested, Phoenix voters have endorsed $3.7 billion.

Not a bad record, but this one is different.

First, more than a quarter of the spending is targeted for downtown, this in a city of 514 square miles. And most of that, an estimated $233 million, would establish Arizona State University's downtown campus. Which raises a relevant question: Why are city voters financing a state institution? And why is the downtown getting so much in a city that is still spreading out like burr clover on its northern and southern edges?

Second, tens of millions of dollars will build facilities for non-profit social service and cultural agencies like the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Valle del Sol, Native American Connections and Body Positive, operations not typically associated with basic municipal services.

A well-financed campaign, with articulate, credible leadership, might have provided a sharp attack on these issues. However, the anti-tax libertarian opponents can only manage a few handmade signs about property taxes and hint at dark conspiracies. They are no match for the veteran campaign operatives in charge of the nuts and bolts of this campaign, much less Gordon and former Mayor Paul Johnson, who headed the Citizens Bond Committee and is now the titular head of the bond campaign. They have assembled an enviably long list of endorsements they will be sharing with Phoenix voters over the next several weeks.

You'll be hearing a lot of words like "invest," "the future," "preserve," "protect."

Over and over and over again.

Reach de Uriarte at or (602) 444-8912.

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