Rex Griswold’s official campaign hangout is Anzio Landing, an Italian eatery near Falcon Field in Mesa that he built into a successful business but sold a few years ago. As the owner of the building, he still gets the run of the place.
http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/page/flash?h=345&w=780&file=mesamayors/mesa_mayor_Griswold.swf',800,450);"> INTERACTIVE: Q & A with Rex Griswold
Through a window at a meeting place at the bar, you can see a small propeller plane lift into a blue sky scattered with cumulus clouds on a windy, brisk day.
Politicians often refer to the “30,000-foot view” — the bigger picture on an issue — devoid of all the messy details.
That view suits Griswold these days.
But for the past five years as District 5’s representative on the Mesa City Council, Griswold has worked the important details.
Answering constituent complaints at all hours. Joining fellow council members in advocating “privatizing” a number of city services and cutting others. His is an ideology largely based on the notion that government needs to be run like a business.
But lately he’s been looking at Mesa from the hilltops of his district’s upscale Las Sendas neighborhood. And he sees Mesa’s future.
The renamed Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is budding with new investment from aircraft manufacturers. Upscale developers DMB Associates will be building on 3,200 acres near Elliot Road, U.S. 60 and the yet-to-be-completed Loop 202 Santan Freeway. There’s a lot the city can do to capitalize on the optimism, he says.
But that optimism is buffered by Mesa’s reputation as a tough place to do business and with a downtown struggling despite significant city investment in a signature downtown arts center.
“We’ve got a window of about four years to be a great city,” Griswold says. “After that we’re going to be mediocre.”
Griswold believes Mesa’s overarching problem is that its system of financing simply won’t work for the future.
The system was developed in the late 1940s when the city funded itself through utility revenue and sales taxes, and had a small cadre of property owners who didn’t tax their properties. Now the city faces serious limitations in just keeping fire stations operating, police on the streets and roads free of potholes. That forces small ideas and next-day solutions, Griswold believes.
“We compare ourselves to cities like Queen Creek and Gilbert,” he says. “We should be talking about being like cities like Atlanta and Pittsburgh.”
Still, when the city faced a $14 million budget deficit two years ago he supported slashing virtually all Mesa-sponsored community events and selling excess city property for private investment.
But Griswold was a late swing vote in the run-up to a 2006 vote, along with Vice Mayor Claudia Walters, on a controversial package that would have created a primary property tax in Mesa.
It failed miserably with voters, losing by about 60 percent. However, an increased sales tax did pass in the same election.
Charlie Deaton, president of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, was advocating the property tax. He said Griswold was a pragmatist in the matter and simply “didn’t stick his finger in the wind” to break a tough political logjam that developed on the council. On the seven-member council, four votes are needed to get anything passed.
Deaton said the chamber is supporting all three mayoral candidates this year — Griswold, Scott Smith and Claudia Walters. He said all three are good choices from a business perspective.
Griswold wants to see a $400 million bond proposal go before voters in November so that residents can decide if they want to pay for services. The proposal would be tied to a secondary property tax dedicated to police and fire services and roads.
Bruce Merrill, a political consultant with Arizona State University, said that older, conservative voters who have traditionally been powerful forces in Mesa’s elections might reject a candidate who even suggests more taxes.
“There is the older constituency that doesn’t support new taxes in any way, shape or form,” Merrill said.
Griswold, 55, started his career in the hospitality arena after graduating from Cornell University. He decided to open his own restaurant after opening and operating Good Earth and Olive Garden restaurants for General Mills.
A father of three, he said that he wanted to open his own business shortly after the birth of his youngest daughter.
Business leaders, Hispanic activists and resident say that it’s important that Mesa elect a leader with a clear vision. Pat Esparza, a former board member for the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, said leadership qualities are key in this year’s race given tough issues the council and mayor will need to address.
The city is facing a $12.5 million deficit in the next 18 months, and a painful solution awaits. Mesa’s building services division suddenly laid off 35 employees this month and more cuts are certain to come.
Now, city departments are being asked to trim 5 percent from budgets that are already bare bones.
Griswold has shown a propensity for coming up with big ideas to solve some of Mesa’s thornier issues. But some haven’t progressed very far.
For instance, Mesa last year considered eliminating weekend Dial-A-Ride service for the disabled. But that would have meant cutting back weekend bus service, too, because the law says governments can’t offer regular bus service and not Dial-A-Ride.
Griswold has advocated that “transit corridors” be developed in the city, which would limit bus service to major roads within Mesa. He thinks the people who use or need bus service could move to those transportation corridors to keep the service affordable to the city.
Griswold also broached the idea of raising the salaries of Mesa’s council members and the mayor, annually $19,000 and $38,000 respectively. In contrast, the mayor of Phoenix receives $88,000 a year and the council members $61,600.
The idea gained no traction, with council colleagues quickly backing away from the idea that would seem to fly in the face of the city’s current budget crunch.
In a city where about one in every four residents is Hispanic, Griswold has called for more immigration cross-training for local officers and advocating a guest-worker program.
He said he supports Mesa police Chief George Gascón’s policy that Mesa police ask the immigration status of those booked into jail, where they are turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further action.
Judah Nativio [CORRECTED: Original story incorrectly spelled last name as Naitivio], 29, grilled Griswold at a recent forum of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, about expanding the diversity training for city workers and increasing diversity staff.
Nativio said he had served on a city human relations advisory board that he felt had little power because it was undercut by the City Council.
Nativio took exception with Griswold’s statements that Mesa should act more like a big city.
“It was empty rhetoric,” said Naitivio, who is a candidate in Senate District 18 [CORRECTED: Original story incorrectly said District 19 ]. “What (Griswold) was saying was not lining up with how the city had supported the board.”
Griswold is a resident of Red Mountain Ranch, one of Mesa’s eastern suburbs. At the time he was first elected in 2002, Mesa had just divided the city into voting districts that ensured that a growing and affluent constituency of the less-populated suburbia in east Mesa was represented on the council.
A religious dynamic — not a geographic one — could play a role in this election. Smith and Walters are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons represent about 10 percent of the city’s total population and are usually active in elections.
If no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the primary the two highest vote getters would face off in a runoff.
A three-way race with two Mormon candidates could propel the outsider to a runoff after the March 11 primary, Merrill said. “There’s some possibility they could split the Mormon vote,” he said. “If there was only one LDS person it would make that candidate very formidable.”
Griswold says he wouldn’t be running for mayor if people like City Manager Chris Brady and Gascón weren’t able to implement the vision of the city council.
Now, he promises to be an “aggressive communicator” as mayor and wants to reshape Mesa’s reputation into one of a city that is flourishing.
“We let lies sit on the table until they become the truth,” he said. “As a city, we need to do a better job of communicating our successes.”
Occupation: Owns the building at Anzio Landing, a restaurant he used to own. Restaurant consultant
Education: Cornell graduate. Bachelor of Science in business administration
Community activities: Junior Achievement of Arizona, Baseline Rotary, Mesa Chamber of Commerce, Red Mountain Community Church