By Jason Rose
I ran my first successful campaign in Scottsdale in 1994. Two years later I consulted on the campaign that elected the city’s first female mayor, Sam Campana. Ever since I have been heavily involved in the Scottsdale political scene leading elections for other mayors, hockey arenas and bonds to fund new infrastructure.
I offer these credentials not to tout – because all they really do is make me feel old – but they cause frequent questions of me with many in Scottsdale: what the heck is going on politically in the city?
Most of the questions come from those in the business or development community. Over the years my answer when asked similar questions has been “welcome to Scottsdale schizophrenia.” City council elections have often been decided by who was pro-business or pro-development, and how much money was raised from such interests. These candidacies most often, but not always, prevailed and governed the council’s majority. Unlike other cities, Scottsdale’s electorate persistently wanted to keep a leash on pro-development proclivities. Sometimes the majority would swing decidedly in a pro-development favor as it did in 2008 when the economy was down, but most other times enjoyed smaller 4-3 or 5-2 margins. This had been the case for decades.
But then something remarkable happened in 2018, largely caused by a citizen uproar over the ill-conceived Desert Discovery Center that returned and swept an incumbent and newbie – Kathy Littlfield and Solange Whitehead – to the City Council. Incumbent Linda Milhaven barely hung onto win.
The next cycle in 2020 saw the arrival of a growth suspicious Mayor Ortega to replace the very pro-business Mayor Lane. Then, just weeks ago Littlefield and Whitehead overwhelmingly won re-election and all 3 of the more pro-development candidates finished last with development skeptic Barry Graham also performing impressively.
This can no longer be called “Scottsdale schizophrenia.” This may very well be a political pendulum becoming permanent, a fundamental change in the Scottsdale body politic for the first time in the city’s history.
Looking to Scottsdale’s next door neighbor, Paradise Valley, may be instructive. There, undoubtedly, lies a beautiful community that has settled into its identity with desert, views, resorts and low crime. Those who run for office there know they are no more than custodians for the enviable enclave, because the leadership before them was so outstanding. In other words, don’t screw the place up. Paradise Valley doesn’t need anything to be great; it already is. It’s that electoral evolution that drives decision-making and candidacies there. And it seems to be what is happening now in Scottsdale. At least that’s this consultant’s analysis.
Scottsdale, like Paradise Valley, has determined that between McDowell Mountain preservation, a thriving Old Town, the Indian Bend Wash, great employment centers, great neighborhoods and fantastic special events it too is exceptional, already. And factoids would seem to bear that out as signature events enjoy record attendance, property values have skyrocketed and the city has even become the number two destination in the country for bachelorette parties!
Campaigns that touted “Keep Scottsdale Special” in the past with mixed results now win in landslides. That type of messaging is emblematic of most every political campaign in Paradise Valley, and has been for years. Scottsdale doesn’t need a bunch more stuff to be cool, voter attitudes seem to be. It already is cool they are proclaiming at the ballot box.
Are there economic risks with such an approach? Sure. But Paradise Valley, which doesn’t even have a property tax, has proved enduring so why not Scottsdale?
Redevelopment will still occur in both communities, as it should and must. And silly opposition to some of these plans isn’t in keeping with the shifting attitudes being expressed here. It’s just, as said above, silly.
But it is undeniable that more plans, proposals, and appropriations are now judged more suspiciously by the ultimate bosses – the people – and if it keeps Scottsdale, or Paradise Valley, special.
Three election cycles in a row of successful slow growth candidacies is not a blip. It is a trend. Of something. Time will tell if my assessment is right, or wrong. But just as Scottsdale’s first decades were dominated by can do councils that created and approved so much it may be now, like Paradise Valley, voters really want to applaud those achievements by not applauding those who want to do too much more.
Rose is a long-time, Scottsdale-based political consultant and public relations executive who founded and runs Rose & Allyn Public & Online Relations in Scottsdale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.