How One Conservative Mayor Sold His Suburban Community on a More Urban Future

The GOP leader of Mesa, Ariz., championed a new property tax; loves mass transit; and lured liberal-arts colleges to his city. Can these moves propel him to higher office in a red state?

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith speaks at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
National Journal
Sommer Mathis
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Sommer Mathis
Jan. 28, 2014, 4:30 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Mesa.

MESA, Ar­iz.­­­ — Scott Smith isn’t go­ing to be may­or of this city for much longer. In early Janu­ary, end­ing months of spec­u­la­tion, he of­fi­cially an­nounced he’s run­ning for gov­ernor of Ari­zona. State elec­tion law will force him to resign from his cur­rent po­s­i­tion by spring.

It’s hard to over­state how un­usu­al it is that a may­or of Mesa is con­sidered a vi­able can­did­ate for the statewide Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion here. Dis­missed for dec­ades as a mere bed­room sub­urb of Phoenix, Mesa has seen its pop­u­la­tion boom over the past 20 years. At 453,000 res­id­ents, it’s not only the third-largest city in Ari­zona, it’s also the 38th-largest city in the United States, big­ger than Pitt­s­burgh, Oak­land, and even At­lanta.

But be­fore Smith, 57, a former ac­count­ant and home­build­er with both an M.B.A. and a law de­gree from Ari­zona State Uni­versity, was first elec­ted in 2008, Mesa’s size still wasn’t enough to put the city on any sort of na­tion­al radar. Hardly any­one thought of Mesa as a ma­jor city, let alone a play­er in the state and re­gion­al eco­nomy. Smith says that was a prime mo­tiv­a­tion for him, as a then-polit­ic­al novice, to run for of­fice. Pre­vi­ous may­ors, he says, had ap­proached the job as something more like a city man­ager, mak­ing sure the garbage got picked up and the streets were clean, but fail­ing to craft or im­ple­ment any­thing re­sem­bling a big-pic­ture eco­nom­ic strategy.

That fact was evid­ent when Smith won his first elec­tion and im­me­di­ately learned he was in­her­it­ing a $65 mil­lion budget short­fall just as the re­ces­sion was kick­ing in to high gear. He now counts among his ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments the fact that he quickly brought about a dif­fi­cult re­struc­tur­ing of city gov­ern­ment that more than made up the dif­fer­ence

Smith will go in­to the gov­ernor’s race with more than just his downs­iz­ing abil­it­ies to tout, al­though not all of them may be as ap­peal­ing to the tea-party voters who hold sway over the Ari­zona GOP. He cham­pioned the es­tab­lish­ment of Mesa’s first prop­erty tax in more than 70 years to help fund a series of trans­port­a­tion im­prove­ments and new fire sta­tions (al­though he’s quick to de­fend it as both a mere “sec­ond­ary prop­erty” tax and as the fisc­ally re­spons­ible thing to do in the face of dwind­ling re­ces­sion-era sales tax re­ceipts). And last sum­mer he be­came pres­id­ent of the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors (an­oth­er po­s­i­tion from which he’ll soon have to resign), pla­cing him at the head of a largely Demo­crat­ic group of big city lead­ers who care about things, as Smith does, like ex­pand­ing mass trans­it op­tions.

The list of Smith’s ma­jor re­devel­op­ment vic­tor­ies is lengthy too, from per­suad­ing voters to help pay for a new spring-train­ing sta­di­um for the Chica­go Cubs, to lur­ing a hand­ful of col­leges and uni­versit­ies to move in along a forth­com­ing light-rail line through down­town. The ul­ti­mate cherry on top was the Novem­ber an­nounce­ment that Apple would be mov­ing in to the former First Sol­ar man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in East Mesa, bring­ing 2,000 jobs to the area.

More than any one of these big pro­jects, where Smith seems to have been most suc­cess­ful is in chan­ging Mesa’s im­age. At­lantic Cit­ies Ed­it­or Som­mer Math­is, who grew up in Ari­zona, sat down with May­or Smith the day be­fore he an­nounced his gubernat­ori­al run for a wide-ran­ging dis­cus­sion about Mesa’s past, present, and fu­ture. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

Just what was the eco­nom­ic situ­ation in the city when you first took of­fice?

It was asleep at the wheel, and it also took things for gran­ted. I could re­mem­ber when Mesa was a re­gion­al and eco­nom­ic lead­er for not only the east part of Phoenix, what we now call the East Val­ley, but also the east­ern part of Ari­zona. Places 150, 180 miles away, farm com­munit­ies, they would come to Mesa on their back-to-school trips. But the world changed. Three things had a big im­pact on Mesa, and No. 1 is Wal-Mart. The big boxes, Wal-Mart, Home De­pot, changed cit­ies like Mesa more than people really un­der­stand.

The mer­chant class has ba­sic­ally been elim­in­ated in sub­ur­bia. Mesa’s a big city, but we have vir­tu­ally no mer­chant class any­more. Now those outly­ing com­munit­ies didn’t have to come in here to shop. Wal-Mart came in­to Ari­zona in the ‘90s. Well what else happened in the ‘90s? The In­ter­net. I’m sure you’ll see this if you go to Iowa and In­di­ana and a lot of places around the coun­try, towns and cit­ies that used to be re­gion­al cen­ters are no longer re­gion­al cen­ters, be­cause com­merce went to them.

The next thing was the high­ways. In­ter­state 10 was com­pleted in 1988, ‘89. That was right at the time when we were com­ing out of a huge re­ces­sion. Mesa had got­ten all the in­vest­ment pri­or to that. And after 1989, all those is­sues came to­geth­er, in­vest­ment didn’t come to Mesa, and city lead­ers were asleep at the wheel. And all that sets the stage for the eco­nom­ic chal­lenges that cit­ies have today.

Mesa’s prob­lems go back to the 1980s?

In the 1990s and 2000s, Mesa floundered. All the in­vest­ment dur­ing that time went to the new com­munit­ies — Chand­ler, Gil­bert, Tempe.

And you be­came may­or in mid-2008, not a great year.

I took of­fice in June of 2008 and with­in three weeks I was meet­ing with the fin­an­cial team, and we looked at the sales taxes, and it wasn’t just a de­cline — we fell off the cliff. I had to make one de­cision: Is this a tem­por­ary situ­ation, or is this, what I dubbed, my new real­ity?

So you de­cided it was a per­man­ent change. 

That was im­port­ant be­cause, cer­tainly in Ari­zona, we were one of the only cit­ies that took that ap­proach. Every­body else said, “Let’s throw some Band-Aids on it like we’ve done be­fore.” From Au­gust of 2008 to Decem­ber, we un­der­went a com­plete re­struc­tur­ing of city gov­ern­ment. And on Janu­ary 9, we laid off 10 per­cent of our work­force on one day. It was hor­rible. We ba­sic­ally pulled the Band-Aid off in one pain­ful, quick rip. But we nev­er had a fin­an­cial crisis from then on, while oth­er cit­ies con­tin­ued to chase their budgets.

How im­port­ant is civic pride to a city like Mesa?

In­cred­ibly im­port­ant. When I got here the cit­izens didn’t be­lieve in their own com­munity. When your cit­izens don’t be­lieve in your com­munity, that’s when you go in­to sur­viv­al mode. This is a great com­munity, but it had lost its swag­ger. And when you do that, people leave. And we were see­ing the brain drain. About a year and a half after I took of­fice, I had a meet­ing with sev­en thirtyso­methings, all of whom had gradu­ated from Mesa high schools, all very suc­cess­ful in their chosen pro­fes­sions. And only one of them lived in Mesa. The rest of them had all moved out to oth­er com­munit­ies.

With­in the metro area?

With­in the metro area, these were sev­en who had tech­nic­ally stayed here. I can’t tell you how many of them left the area al­to­geth­er; that’s a prob­lem Ari­zona has. You don’t live here any­more.

There aren’t a lot of journ­al­ism jobs in Ari­zona.

You went for op­por­tun­ity. And wheth­er it’s journ­al­ism or high tech, we have a huge brain-drain prob­lem. If you went back to your high school, Uni­versity High [in Tuc­son], which is ob­vi­ously a high-per­form­ing high school, how many of your class­mates are still in Ari­zona?

Maybe more than I would have guessed, but, yes, a lot of them have left.

I’d like to be­lieve that you would have had an op­tion. The idea is that, yes, people are go­ing to leave, we’re a mo­bile so­ci­ety, but I asked these kids, why don’t you live in Mesa any­more? And they were try­ing to be nice to me, but they ba­sic­ally said, “Mesa’s not cool any­more.” So here’s the ba­ro­met­er we use. We have some great, older neigh­bor­hoods right around here. And one City Coun­cil mem­ber said to me re­cently, “We’re do­ing the right things. It’s work­ing.” And I asked him, well, how do you know? “We’ve had five young fam­il­ies move in in the last six months.”

Of­ten in state-level polit­ics in the U.S., there seems to be this urb­an-rur­al di­vide. How do you see your ex­per­i­ence as may­or in­form­ing what you might do, if giv­en the op­por­tun­ity, at the state level?

Cit­ies are the drivers of a state’s eco­nomy. They’re the drivers of the na­tion’s eco­nomy. To ig­nore cit­ies or to leave them on their own is just dumb.

But there’s even a par­tis­an ele­ment to it to, as though urb­an en­vir­on­ments, and things like your light-rail pro­ject, are some­how only at­tract­ive to people on the Left.

That is the biggest change that will im­pact polit­ics. It’s not the Latino growth. It’s the urb­an­iz­a­tion of Amer­ica. When you live in a city, you have a very dif­fer­ent view of col­lect­ive en­gage­ment. You have to work to­geth­er in a city.

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