Some mayors have it easy. They can write their own budgets and dismiss department heads who don't want to follow orders. The mayors of Phoenix can't do that. They operate under a classic weak-mayor system. But no one seems to have told Phil Gordon that he was a weak mayor. He keeps pushing big ideas and getting them approved. In March, he persuaded voters to invest $878 million in a wide variety of new projects, most of them aimed at revitalizing (or maybe just vitalizing) the downtown area. One of those projects will bring a chunk of Arizona State University into the city from suburban Tempe.
Shortly after taking office in 2004, the 55-year-old Gordon drew criticism for being a hyperactive mayor in a government that didn't demand that. The Arizona Republic ran an editorial cartoon mocking him as a plate-spinner trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. But Gordon is gradually turning the doubters into believers. "In this system, you've got to earn your power every day," says Mike Bielecki, a longtime city official now working for a law firm. "If you have his qualities of good ideas, energy and reaching out to others, you can be a commanding presence anyway."
In recent years, officials in Phoenix applied the usual remedies to its ailing central city, building a new ballpark and bigger convention center. Gordon decided that sports and tourism weren't enough. He began focusing on other businesses and institutions. What was going to be the site for a new football stadium will instead house a biomedical campus. The new ASU facility will bring as many as 15,000 students downtown. Meanwhile, developers are working on 1,000 new condos and other housing units--maybe a pittance compared to many places but a better start than Phoenix has previously had. Other initiatives include a new light-rail system.
Gordon got his downtown dollars by making sure the rest of the city got plenty of bond money for soccer fields, storm sewers and libraries--164 projects in all. That was smart politics, but it was also in keeping with his overall approach. Without any real leverage over the council members whose support he needs, Gordon has cultivated them one by one and has presided over a surprising number of unanimous votes. He's also reached out for bipartisan support beyond the council. "I believe Phil's a Democrat, and I'm a Republican," says state Senator Robert Blendu, "but he does look for middle ground and consensus, and he has a good sense of where that consensus is."
Gordon is lucky in the sense that Phoenix's professional managers run an exceptionally efficient city, leaving him free to think big and not sweat the administrative details. He isn't shy about claiming credit for the results. During his most recent State of the City address, the mayor showed the old Arizona Republic "juggling" cartoon and ticked off the number of "plates" he'd managed to land safely, including the ASU campus and the other major downtown projects. "We've done pretty well," he bragged. "None of the plates are broken, not even a chip."