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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Latest Count: 12 Trump Campaign Staffers Had Contact with Russians
1 days ago
Mueller Seeks Documents from DOJ
4 days ago

Special counsel Robert Mueller "is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation." A source tells ABC News that "Mueller's investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter."

Trump May Be OK with Dropping Mandate Repeal
4 days ago

"President Donald Trump would not insist on including repeal of an Obama-era health insurance mandate in a bill intended to enact the biggest overhaul of the tax code since the 1980s, a senior White House aide said on Sunday. The version of tax legislation put forward by Senate Republican leaders would remove a requirement in former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law that taxes Americans who decline to buy health insurance."

Media Devoting More Resources to Lawmakers’ Sexual Misconduct
4 days ago

"Members of Congress with histories of mistreating women should be extremely nervous. Major outlets, including CNN, are dedicating substantial newsroom resources to investigating sexual harassment allegations against numerous lawmakers. A Republican source told me he's gotten calls from well-known D.C. reporters who are gathering stories about sleazy members."

Trump to Begin Covering His Own Legal Bills
6 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.