Is Mayor Scott Smith Arizona’s Next Governor?
The businessman-turned-mayor is turning Mesa around while leading the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Could this moderate Republican bring his pragmatism and policy knowledge to the governorship next?
On a cool yet sunny February morning in an office steps from the state Capitol, a handful of Arizona mayors sit hunched around a table discussing their strategy for an upcoming meeting with Gov. Jan Brewer. Scott Smith -- the mayor of Mesa, the second-largest city in the Phoenix region -- is running late; a meeting with a local homeowners’ association ran over. As soon as he arrives, Smith is all business, quickly taking control of the conversation.
At issue is a topic Smith, a former homebuilder and accountant, knows all too well. Gov. Brewer is touting a tax reform plan that would change the way construction materials are taxed. It’s an arcane topic, but it caters to Smith’s expertise. While Brewer believes a simplified, lower tax could actually mean more revenue for the state through increased compliance, Smith and the other mayors are skeptical. If she’s wrong, the state -- and its cities -- could lose out on millions, and in an anti-tax climate, it would be almost impossible to undo the change.
On his way to the meeting, Smith had described the plan as a “potential Armageddon.” But with his peers, he’s cool and calm, urging them to take the same approach when it’s time to meet with Brewer. The strategy the group ultimately agrees on -- the Smith strategy -- is not to get bogged down in details, to avoid being combative and to simply try to get the governor to question the data she used in formulating the plan. It’s classic Smith -- steady, pragmatic and oozing with policy knowledge and a confidence that can often make him seem like the smartest person in the room.
“He’s serious, focused and also just really cool,” says Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who serves with Smith on the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ leadership team. “He listens well. You come to him with an issue, and he’s trying to pragmatically figure out what’s the real answer here.”
It’s that style that helped Smith go from a businessman with no elected experience to the mayor of Mesa, a city undertaking big, high-profile projects despite an economic downturn that’s plagued all five years of his tenure. It is the same style that will see him take over as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June and that’s getting him increased attention on the national stage. And it’s the style that some say could soon make him the next governor of Arizona -- that is, if a state famous for its firebrand Republican politics is ready for him.
For a long time, Mesa was denigrated as a place of wide streets and narrow minds. It lives in the shadow of Phoenix and, despite having a population of more than 400,000, isn’t as well known as many smaller cities like Atlanta, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Smith says that’s part of the reason he ran for mayor in 2008, despite having no government experience and being mostly uninvolved with municipal politics.
Smith isn’t a total stranger to government service. Though he was born in Tucson, Smith moved with his family in his youth to Mesa, where his father served as superintendent of the public school system. Until his run for mayor, however, Smith says he had almost nothing to do with politics. Instead, Smith led a homebuilding business and chaired the local United Way.
It wasn’t until 2006 that he seriously considered a run at politics. Just three years earlier, Smith had sold his homebuilding business to Hovnanian Enterprises, a Fortune 500 company that kept him onboard with a three-year contract. The timing worked out well; Smith’s contract ended at the same time a wide-open mayoral race was approaching. Through his homebuilding business, Smith had interacted with just about every facet of the city, from the planning office to the police force. On top of that, he had an impressive set of credentials, including an accounting degree from Brigham Young University and an MBA and law degree from Arizona State University.
“I didn’t believe that Mesa was acting like a big city,” says Smith, explaining his rationale for a run. In particular, Smith cites an incident from 2007 when a city council member -- to protest the war in Iraq -- refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. The move caught the attention of the national media, Smith says, leaving the city government looking like a sideshow.
As Smith tells it, Mesa was hurt by the recession in the late 1980s. When the economy rebounded, city officials weren’t as aggressive as they should have been in fighting to retain its role as a regional leader and lost out to other cities east of Phoenix. As those cities boomed, Mesa languished. A sense of urgency was missing, according to Smith. “We’re the 38th largest city in the country. We needed to start acting like it. There’s nothing wrong having big dreams and big plans.”
Smith, running against two councilmembers, pitched himself as a political outsider who had the know-how to fix city hall and boost the city’s image. Still, his campaign didn’t exactly scream renegade. His campaign manager was a former congressman and he outspent his opponents by dumping $87,000 of his own money into the race. He won with 56 percent of the vote.
Since taking office, Smith has moved quickly, embracing a slew of projects. He recently inked a deal to build a new spring training stadium for the Chicago Cubs (a plan voters overwhelmingly approved by 63 percent). He helped push for the successful passage of a $70 million parks and recreation bond that was largely the outgrowth of something called iMesa, an online portal that gives citizens the ability to submit ideas for projects they want the city to pursue. Smith is also working closely with the regional transit authority to build a light-rail extension. He even has a bike-share program in the works.
But Smith’s signature effort has been to advance Mesa’s unusual position as a new hub for small, private liberal arts college campuses. The endeavor is part of Smith’s goal to revitalize downtown Mesa -- a cliché, he admits, that is spouted by just about every mayor. “It’s so nebulous,” says Smith. “What does it mean?”
In the case of Mesa, Smith and his colleagues realized that “downtown redevelopment” was too vague a goal, so they refined it and decided to measure their success by the number of new residential units. Their reasoning was that if downtown was improving, the number of people living there would serve as a good way to measure it. It also forced them to think big. If they focused on entertainment venues, people might show up at night; if the city focused on business development, it might be busy during the day. Neither strategy would necessarily give people a reason to move downtown. That’s when Smith and other city leaders tapped into the unorthodox idea of trying to open satellite campuses in Mesa.
Colleges, Smith says, create activity 24/7. They also give Mesa an area where it can be competitive. While Arizona has behemoth public universities and is home to the for-profit University of Phoenix, there’s a lack of small, private, nonprofit schools in the state. It’s a sector Mesa wants to own. In 2011, the city took a step toward that effort and started mailing letters to 1,000 private colleges and universities, urging them to consider establishing campuses there. The city argued that by expanding to Mesa, universities would gain a foothold in the Southwest market. Officials also pointed out the wealth of downtown land available for expansion, and played up downtown amenities like a forthcoming light-rail extension, a world-class arts center and a library. It worked. This fall, five schools -- all of them based outside of Arizona -- will start teaching students in Mesa.
The school with the largest footprint will be Benedictine University, a Catholic institution based in Illinois that has big aspirations for its Mesa venture. This fall, Benedictine hopes to have 100 students enrolled there, but within 10 years, it hopes to increase that total to 1,500. Initially, the students will almost certainly be locals, but the plan is to eventually make the new campus at least somewhat resemble the typical undergraduate experience, complete with an athletic program and student housing. “There’s a lot of things we have on our plate that would have never come about had it not been for the vision of the city of Mesa,” says Charles Gregory, Benedictine’s executive vice president.
Key to the undertaking is the city’s renovation of multiple downtown buildings that will house the new universities. Benedictine, for example, signed a lease on a 68,000-square-foot health facility, and Wilkes University and Westminster College, both based in Pennsylvania, will open up in the 53,000-square-foot former municipal court (you can still see the outline of the judge’s bench and witness stand on the floors). Two other schools, Pennsylvania’s Albright College and Upper Iowa University will operate outside of downtown.
The new schools are working with Mesa Community College to accept transfer students seeking bachelor’s degrees. City leaders say the schools will remain small, but they expect the new institutions will help stop some of Mesa’s brain drain and make the city’s college-bound high school students consider sticking around. Gregory says Smith is directly responsible for his institution’s decision to open a Mesa campus, noting that the school has turned down similar pitches made by other cities. “Quite honestly, a lot of it hinged on the mayor and his vision,” Gregory says. “When he says something, I have a tendency to believe it.”
“He’s the visionary,” adds Jaye O’Donnell, Mesa’s deputy director of economic development. “He’s the one who’s been out in front promoting this initiative.” The effort has also been praised by officials from Arizona State University, who say the state is short of the number of colleges it needs to serve its citizens.
Yet the most enduring legacy of Smith’s time in office so far seems to be the widespread view that his enthusiasm has changed the way people view Mesa. City Manager Christopher Brady says that having a mayor who acts as a cheerleader is something that’s relatively new to the city. (Brady characterizes Smith’s predecessor as more of a behind-the-scenes technician.) “Mesa is a major American city in its own right,” says Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “Sometimes there’s an issue of what’s their independent identity. I think Mayor Smith, just by his personality, has helped change a lot of people’s image of Mesa.”
Part of how he’s done that is through humor. Smith’s been known to break out into song in the middle of city hall, and he’s taken that tendency public. At a recent presentation for a newly renovated apartment complex, a video dubbed with a cheesy pop song was played. Afterward, Smith opened his remarks by crooning its familiar hook. In a video that’s become popular with the Arizona political set, Stanton and Smith ham it up in a “Laverne & Shirley” parody, romping around their respective cities in a cutesy montage. “I think you make better decisions when you don’t take yourself too seriously,” Smith says.
Smith’s style -- and the results he’s achieved -- has clearly resonated with voters. Last year, he ran unopposed in his re-election bid. He’s so popular that even one-time political rivals are in his camp. “He’s exceeded my expectations,” says Claudia Walters, a former council member who ran against Smith in the 2008 mayoral election. “I thought he’d be good, but he’s been even better.”
Even Dennis Kavanaugh, the lone Democrat on the city council, praises Smith. He says Smith has congenial relationships with lawmakers of all parties, a refreshing position in highly partisan Arizona. “He really doesn’t like ideologues,” Kavanaugh says.
Indeed, throughout his short political career, Smith has maintained an almost universally recognized reputation as an all-around nice guy who eschews partisanship. He has helped pique the interest of many who believe he could be destined for higher office. It would be an interesting fit for a state where the Republican Party is known for being especially red. It is, after all, the state where Brewer, the Republican governor, infamously shoved her finger in the face of President Obama; where Joe Arpaio, the Republican sheriff of Maricopa County, insisted on investigating the president’s country of birth; and where Russell Pearce, a Republican state senator, created an immigration law so controversial that it’s become a national lightning rod.
“We’ve gone through a lot of confrontation in Arizona,” says Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant who’s worked with Smith, Brewer and other top Arizona Republicans. “I think he’s looked at as a consensus-builder. I think that’s attractive to a lot of people.”
Powerbrokers in Arizona’s Republican politics agree that Smith could make a serious run at the governor’s mansion, and the fact that he’s mayor of a city with an extremely high number of Republican voters works to his advantage. “He’s a very credible candidate,” says Nathan Sproul, a political strategist and former state Republican Party chair. “It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like him. He has a lot of charm and a lot of personality. I think a lot of people are drawn to that.” (In his spare time, Smith, who learned to fly seven years ago, works with United Blood Services, shuttling donated blood in his plane across Arizona.)
Smith’s leadership role within the U.S. Conference of Mayors hasn’t hurt either. Mesa City Hall typically isn’t a springboard to national prestige. But his role in the organization has raised his profile by affording him the chance to meet with the president on several occasions, as well as many other Washington bigwigs. Smith has also been quoted by The New York Times, interviewed by Diane Sawyer and has had op-eds published in The Wall Street Journal. A recent February trip to Washington -- as chronicled by Smith’s own social media accounts -- is telling. It included a media briefing at the National Press Club; interviews with CNN, NPR and Politico; and meetings with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The idea of a gubernatorial run -- not to mention actually holding the office -- would seem to run counter to his persona as someone who doesn’t enjoy political battles. That dissonance isn’t lost on him, and it’s clearly something that will play a big role as he considers his decision. “One of the factors that will weigh into my decision is whether my style of doing things will play out on a very partisan stage,” Smith says. “I’m not 100 percent sure that it does. I’m disappointed it might not.”
Complicating matters is Arizona’s resign-to-run law. For Smith to enter the race, he’d have to quit the job that helped thrust him into the spotlight. Smith says he’s spending this year considering a run and will decide in early to mid-2014 -- the gubernatorial election is November 2014. If he decides to run, the race won’t be an easy one. The Republican field of declared and rumored candidates is already crowded, including former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, State Treasurer Doug Ducey, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and State Senate President Steve Pierce. Brewer has also argued she’s eligible for a third term. (She served a partial term after Gov. Janet Napolitano left in 2009 to become the federal secretary of homeland security; Brewer was elected in her own right in 2010.)
Smith says partisan politics is not something he craves. “There are some people who thrive on the game,” Smith explains. “I’m more about solving problems, but I’ll work with whatever system I have and I think I’ll be OK at it.”
Still, some in Arizona speculate that Smith, with his easygoing persona and historic avoidance of partisanship, could struggle in a Republican primary that seeks to win over the party base. As mayor, he hasn’t had to flex his partisan muscles. Meanwhile, his record -- a supporter of transit, a spender on capital projects and a creator of new taxes -- doesn’t exactly scream conservative. (Smith successfully championed an effort to create the city’s first property tax since the 1940s in order to help pay for $169 million in bonds for road improvements and emergency services facilities and equipment. The move was the result of what he saw as an unhealthy reliance on the city’s utilities and sales tax revenue to pay its bills.)
Smith bristles at the insinuation that he might not be viewed as a conservative. The city is leaner. In his first year in office, Smith cut Mesa’s operating budget by $65 million through eliminating and consolidating departments and laying off employees. Creating a property tax, he says, is responsible fiscal policy. Supporting transit, he says, is a key part of economic development. “If you approach things based on a sound philosophy, you can be a conservative but still create opportunities.”
Regardless of whether he enters the race, Smith says he doesn’t plan on changing his style. “The reality is, I get it that in today’s political world I’m somewhat of an anomaly,” Smith says. “It doesn’t concern me. I am who I am.”
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