Las Vegas Sun

August 23, 2014

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THE B.S.:

Bruce Spotleson: Like every other city, Phoenix has its issues, too

Wait just a second: Let’s not put Phoenix on a pedestal.

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

Timing is everything in the news business. What makes headlines one day is so often dullsville the next. Good or bad, it’s something you understand in this business.

But after having it fester in me for a couple of weeks, I want a piece of the discussion raised in our well-written Michael Squires cover story about Phoenix. Like me, Michael grew up there, though his childhood was spent on the west side, the other end of the Valley from where my folks lived.

There are a lot of us here in Vegas, former Phoenicians busily working as entertainers, attorneys, developers, bankers and in all kinds of other jobs. As far as I can tell, most transplants seem to prefer it here.

Oh, we know the Phoenix selling points: The zoo, the museums, the Mexican food, the citrus and that Southwestern culture that seems part Native American, part Mexican. And because they’ve been growing longer than us, you want to believe they’ve learned from the experience. Our big growth spurt began only about 15 years back, whereas in Phoenix, the first real population spike happened a half century ago.

But like every other city in the world, Phoenix has issues. And this is without even bringing up its immigration law and the sheriff’s enforcement dragnet. Don’t even need to go there.

Some things are, of course, just the breaks of nature. For example, we may both be desert cities, but our climates aren’t really the same. You hear a few gripes about the wind here—especially this year—but some air movement certainly beats the inside-the-oven stagnant air and ozone layer that smother Phoenix in August. Although they can’t do much about that.

And they apparently can’t seem to do much about their roads. Phoenicians are back to being dangerous behind the wheel, having ruined one recent safety solution they came up with. With the nation’s highest fatality rate associated with drivers running red lights, they installed photo radar as a deterrent a few years back. Generating tons of citations and revenue, the cameras soon went up all over town. Typical of Phoenix excess, it finally went too far, and public reaction resulted in most cameras going away. So drive defensively when you’re in the Valley of the Sun.

And lock your car. Stolen autos, burglary and theft rates in Phoenix rank with some of the highest in the US, some of the reason the state prisons are packed beyond capacity.

One would think that, in the past half century, they’ve been able to make progress on growth-related challenges in their schools. But no, Maricopa County still scrapes the bottom when it comes to educational performance. Overcrowded classrooms, poor test scores and low teacher salaries. Given so much time, Phoenix hasn’t exactly solved those challenges.

Las Vegas has seen a few politicians move on to state office, some to the Governor’s Mansion, where they have generally served the state admirably. Not quite the same in Phoenix, nor with a bunch of their community leaders who moved into the Arizona governor’s office over the years.

Jack Williams, a longtime radio personality, put John Birch Day on the official state calendar and later barely survived a recall attempt after other goofball decisions. Evan Mecham, a well-known auto dealer, was impeached and removed from office, suspected of funneling money to his dealership. Another Phoenician, Fife Symington, was charged with extortion, making false financial statements and bank fraud when he resigned as governor in 1997.

And let us not forget what happened when Arizona refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day in the 1980s. It was only the tourism dollars that changed that original decision, which was of course inspired by Phoenicians.

Compared with the political history of Phoenix, Las Vegas looks almost saintly, even when you throw G-Sting into the mix.

But my own favorite lesson from Phoenix is how its political leaders legendarily carried out the half-baked whims held by the late Eugene Pulliam, the dictatorial and ultraconservative longtime publisher of The Arizona Republic, the big daily newspaper in town. Our leaders remained silent as his team distorted and manipulated the news the public saw.

The Republic’s censored version of news did have the positive effect of drawing a few young people I knew into journalism. Now, many years later and 300 miles away, I’m happier here.

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