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)

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.