#LocalBuzz: Q & A With Scottsdale City Council Candidate Tom Durham

By Scottsdale Pinetop

Tom Durham is one of the six top vote-getters in the recent August 4th primary who will continue on as they seek to fill three seats on the City Council on the November 3rd general election. Mr. Durham gathered 25,140 votes in the primary election, which placed him fourth on the list of six candidates. The other candidates that will be moving onto the Nov. 3rd ballot include Betty Janik, Tammy Caputi, John Little, Guy Phillips, and Becca Linnig.

Mr. Durham and his wife have lived in Scottsdale since 2015. He became interested in local politics in 2018 during the controversy surrounding the Desert Discovery Center. He served as Treasurer of the Protect Our Preserve PAC, the effort behind Proposition 420.

We had the chance to talk with Scottsdale City Council candidate Tom Durham about his take on the results from the August primary election and issues facing Scottsdale residents.

Your campaign had an impressive finish in the August election. What do you attribute your success to in the primary race? 

Betty Janik and I had a similar message and we both did well in the primary, so I think our message resonated with the voters.  The main point of our message is that we favor thoughtful growth for Scottsdale.  By that we mean growth that embraces the future, but respects Scottsdale’s unique character and preserves its open spaces, unique neighborhoods, and view corridors.  Above all, Scottsdale voters should get to determine the future of their City.  After talking to hundreds of voters, the message I heard was that voters were tired of overdevelopment and developers’ failure to pay the additional costs of infrastructure required by their projects.  Voters felt that the City Council had not listened to them on the Desert Discovery Center, the Marquee, and Southbridge II.  Voters don’t want fifteen-story buildings in Scottsdale.  As a result of the Council’s refusal to listen, citizens led revolts against the Desert Discovery Center and Southbridge II, which showed that the Council had been completely out of touch.  Voters also recognized that my service, along with Betty Janik’s, in protecting the Preserve by getting Proposition 420 on the ballot and getting it passed showed our commitment to representing Scottsdale citizens.  

Based on the primary results, what do you believe that says about the mindset of Scottsdale residents?

It seems pretty clear that Scottsdale voters wanted a change in the City Council.  The two Council incumbents running for Mayor both lost to newcomers–although both David Ortega and Lisa Borowsky have served in the past, they were new faces in this election.  Guy Phillips is still in the running for City Council, but he has a lot of ground to make up.  So, it is likely that three new faces will be joining the Council in January.  In my view, this is a pretty clear signal of dissatisfaction with the Council’s actions over the last few years.

Some say you don’t deserve a seat on the City Council because you haven’t lived here long enough. What say you? 

I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, and learned that Abraham Lincoln first ran for the Illinois legislature six months after moving from Indiana to New Salem, Illinois.  He turned out to be a pretty good representative for Illinois.  But more seriously, it is a fair question.  By serving as the Treasurer of the Protect Our Preserve PAC, I showed my commitment to and understanding of Scottsdale citizens.  I spent quite a bit of time studying the remarkable history of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.  I quickly became convinced that the Desert Discovery Center should not be built in the Preserve. Even though I was a relative newcomer, I understood that the overwhelming majority of Scottsdale citizens were opposed to the Desert Discovery Center.  I was right, because Proposition 420 passed by an overwhelming majority, and I spent hundreds of hours making sure it passed.  Some people who have lived here for decades, however, including members of the City Council, thought the Desert Discovery Center was a great idea.  I think that this shows the length of time in a place doesn’t necessarily lead to good judgment.  My showing in the primaries is also pretty good evidence that many Scottsdale voters put their trust in my abilities.

Also, I think most of us have experienced the sensation that a new set of eyes can uncover new dimensions in a place or subject.  My wife and I first came here as tourists over seven years ago, and after a visit of four days decided to stay here forever.  In some ways, I still view Scottsdale as if I were a tourist–I continue to be amazed by the climate, the open skies, the mountains, the Preserve, the Greenway, the spring training games, the open spaces, Old Town, and everything else we love about Scottsdale. And so, I am totally committed to protecting the things that make Scottsdale such a great place to live.  I hope I never lose the feeling of being a tourist who is lucky enough to live here.

Finally, after thirty-five years as a trial lawyer, I am a quick learner.  During my career, I was required to master the intricacies of Brazilian tax law (in Portuguese), pharmaceutical production, making shingles, manufacturing chocolate, computer factories, instant coffee, mass transit, sports stadiums, banking regulations, and many, many other subjects.  I think I will do equally well in studying Scottsdale’s issues.

You previously stated that many Scottsdale residents have lost faith in the current council. How do you plan to resolve that?

As evidenced by the vote in the primary, Scottsdale voters wanted a change at the City Council.  The biggest solution to this problem is simply listening to the voters about their vision for Scottsdale.  The current Council did not do that in the case of the Desert Discovery Center and Southbridge II and that failure to listen was the source of these upsets.  If I am elected to the Council, I will make listening to and communicating with voters my number one priority.

Photo by Lauren Lynne Rudin

In your opinion, what is the driving issue for the November election for Scottsdale?

I have said in the past the number one issue is restoring trust in the Council.  Above all, we need a Council that will listen to citizens.  The nature and extent of development will continue to be an important issue. Some of the remaining candidates in the race were on the wrong side of the Desert Discovery Center and are still advocating for fifteen-story buildings in Scottsdale. I think these issues need to be clarified so citizens will understand the issues.

You have been criticized by some as being anti-business. Is that a fair critique?

Absolutely not.  This is a charge that has been leveled by some of my opponents and it is totally untrue.  I was a business lawyer for thirty-five years representing real estate developers, banks, computer companies, food companies, pharmaceutical companies, and many other industries.  I understand how a robust business economy is crucial to any city.  Scottsdale presents a great environment for business, in large part because it is a great place to live, and I intend to keep it that way.

If elected to the Council, however, I will insist that businesses follow the rules that make Scottsdale such an extraordinary place to live.  We must stop the endless parade of zoning variances that alter neighborhoods, view corridors, increase density and traffic, and have the potential to affect Scottsdale’s unique quality of life.  Scottsdale’s voters get to determine the type of city in which they live, and I will continue to oppose projects that citizens don’t want and which would alter the character of Scottsdale.

Many Scottsdale businesses are hurting. What would you do to help them?

We should relax regulations whenever possible to make it easier for small businesses to cope in this environment.  My friend Betty Janik suggested allowing some restaurants to place tables in the streets to allow social distancing at restaurants. I believe that was carried out at a few places before summer heat made dining out uncomfortable.  The City should help in any way it can in ensuring that federal funds be directed to our businesses.

One thing that concerns me is that the City Council is considering giving  $9 million in development subsidies to Axon Corporation for them to build a new headquarters building here in Scottsdale.  Axon Corporation is a very profitable company, and both our City’s budget and many small businesses are suffering.  Many small businesses will never come back.  It is hard for me to understand why a successful business should get $9 million in City funds when so many small businesses are suffering.

With the circumstances brought by COVID-19, how have you been able to reach voters and get your message out? Do you plan to do anything different leading up to the November election? 

I have been in many Zoom meetings and have been assisted by a wonderful group of volunteers who have shared messages, sent emails, posted on Facebook, distributed flyers, and done many other things to get the word out.  Many voters have called or emailed out of the blue and I have had great fun talking to them.  My plans for November will depend on COVID.  I would love to get out and see more voters in person but not sure when it will be possible.

What don’t people know about Tom Durham and your campaign for Scottsdale City Council?

My wife Martha is an Episcopal Deacon at Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale.  I have two grown sons, one in Indianapolis (a software engineer) and one in Minneapolis (a city planner).  When it is not too hot, I spend quite a bit of my free time on my bike.  I have ridden in the annual great bicycle ride across Iowa (RAGBRAI) nine times, with a great group of friends, including my best friend since seventh grade, my college freshman roommate, college professors, and others I have met over the years (unfortunately it was canceled this year).  I love reading history and visiting the places where it happened.