Meet the Phoenix Mayoral candidates: Kate Gallego, Moses Sanchez, Daniel Valenzuela, and Nicholas Sarwark

After six years in office, former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton resigned to run for Congress in Arizona’s ninth district.

Now, the race for mayor of the nation’s fifth largest city is in full swing. There are currently no polls predicting which two of the candidates are likely to win the top two spots in the general and compete in the runoff election.

The four candidates are:

Kate Gallego

Gallego was elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2013, representing District 8. Before being elected to office, Kate worked on Strategic Planning and Economic Development for Salt River Project. Kate received an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University.

Daniel Valenzuela

Valenzuela is a Phoenix native and was elected to the Phoenix City Council in 2012, representing District 5. Prior to being an elected official, he worked as an instructor for the Arizona Department of Emergency Management and the director of the National Fire and Rescue Services Information Officer Network. Valenzuela has also been a firefighter for more than 15 years.  

Moses Sanchez

Born in the Republic of Panama, Sanchez’s family migrated to the U.S. when he was five. He served in the Navy for 21 years and currently serves in the reserves. Moses is the Director of Operations at Arizona-based company Nonnahs Marketing. He served on the Tempe Union High School District Governing Board and has been a professor at South Mountain Community College for more than 10 years.

Nicholas Sarwark

Sarwark is a Phoenix native who earned a law degree from the American University Washington College of Law in 2008. Prior to running for office, he worked as the Deputy Public Defender in Colorado and his family runs a small business in Phoenix. He also serves as the Chairman of the Libertarian National Committee.

Chamber Business News reached out to all four candidates to see where they stand on some key issues:

Question: Why did you decide to run for Mayor of Phoenix? What unique thing do you believe you’ll bring to office?

Gallego: I am the only candidate who offers a record solving problems at the city of Phoenix, coupled with real work experience as a chamber member.  I have expertise in some of the most important problems facing the next Mayor of Phoenix such as water rights and transportation challenges. My election would show that Phoenix is an open city where people who work hard can succeed—I wasn’t born here, I don’t look like your typical mayor, and I have a last name that many people can’t pronounce, but Phoenix voters value results, and that’s where I have a proven track record.

Valenzuela: I’m a husband, parent, and lifelong resident of Phoenix. Being a firefighter re-enforced in me the importance and value of service, encouraged me, and instilled in me the thought that perhaps there were other ways to serve. So, I became active in the community. Seven years ago, I decided to take my community involvement to the next level. I sought the District 5 seat on the Phoenix City Council, representing West Phoenix and was re-elected in 2015. Phoenix is on the right track. But we can’t take our progress for granted. I know I don’t, because I remember growing up, regardless of the neighborhood I was living in at the time or the classroom window that I gazed out of in a given year, I could often see the tall buildings of downtown Phoenix. Although only a few miles in the distance, they might as well have been a continent away. I wondered what those buildings were REALLY like. Just who were the important people in them? Just what did they do? And I dreamed that maybe one day, I would have a chance to see those buildings on the inside for myself. I have worked to achieve and advance some of those dreams by bringing people together and being a problem solver. Because while we are a great city, we can be an even greater city, and we will if we continue to set lofty goals and pursue our dreams. I am committed to setting those goals and achieving our dreams as Mayor.

Sanchez: I’ve lived with my family in Phoenix for the past 14 years and I’ve been fortunate to serve my Ahwatukee community in a number of roles. As a parent, teacher, school board member and small business owner, I’ve seen the strength of our community and worked to produce results that impact our families. Unfortunately, too many Phoenix families feel like there is a disconnect between them and the politicians at City Hall. I’m running for Mayor because we need a leader who will focus on the local issues that directly affect Phoenix families, like public safety, public assets and improving our quality of life. My diverse background in leadership experiences has uniquely prepared me to lead the 5th largest city in the country, which has shown over the past decade a desperate need for fresh, new leadership.

Sarwark: The city of Phoenix collects $4 billion a year in fees and taxes and from that spends $500 million on debt service, while spending just $83 million on streets. Couple that with $1.6 billion in tax breaks handed out to big developers over the last 6 years and the looming $2.3 billion in pension interest debt, and you can see that the city council has been asleep at the wheel for the last 6 years. As a small business owner and someone that has served the community as a public defender, I can balance both the city checkbook and needs of the people of Phoenix.

Q: Phoenix’s water supply could be drying up in the next eight years. How do you plan to handle the situation?

Valenzuela: Our infrastructure – water, wastewater, and transportation assets – is a foundational responsibility of city government. It is a priority We face challenges beyond our control — a now 18-year drought and the decline of the water level of Lake Meade which supplies almost 40 percent of our water. California and Nevada rely on that same supply. That may very well force us to tap our aquifer reserves by as early as 2026. That means we need to prepare and act.

To address our challenge, I propose the following:

  1. Expansion of our water system that meets the demand for future growth that pays for itself. Existing business and residential water users should not pay to bring water service to new communities. That cost needs to be absorbed as part of those developments. By the way, the added benefit of that is that it encourages infill development – not sprawl.
  2. Include ongoing and effective maintenance that minimizes future higher costs, especially in older parts of Phoenix with aging water pipelines. We cannot neglect maintenance needs. It will just ultimately be more costly in the future.
  3. Take steps now to prepare for the future potential crisis should the 18-year drought continue

and we need to find alternative water supplies.

  1. Prepare to tap the aquifer, where we have wisely banked water for an emergency, but

also, wisely did not make the capital investment needed to access the water that we hoped we would not need.

  1. Prioritize stormwater management and green infrastructure across all City departments and work with experts to identify best practices for incentivizing stormwater retrofits at homes and businesses. Let’s capitalize on the 4-6 inches of rain we do receive each year rather than allow it to evaporate off. That will serve the dual purpose of addressing flood control needs in areas of the city such as far south Phoenix where it is a chronic issue.

Sanchez: First, we need to understand this will take regional cooperation and leadership in working with other states and cities in the Southwest. So far, we have not seen that kind of leadership from my City Hall opponents. Secondly, we should be discussing ways we can address this shortfall without continuing to raise rates on Phoenicians without seeing any substantive results. Two ideas that could be put to use would be giving residents a 10% credit towards their next bill for every dollar they save on their water bill and creating a tiered approach where the heaviest water users pay more money.

Sarwark: A Phoenix water crisis isn’t a question of if, but when. Lake Mead is at critical levels due to higher demand, a 16% annual drop in surface water, and 70% less snowfall feeding the Colorado River. Even if we do not hit a tier 1 shortage and the recently released Drought Contingency Plan is agreed to and fully implemented, when the Colorado River Compact comes up for renewal talks in 2026 it will likely have steep cuts in water supply. To prepare, we need to audit our water collection, storage, pumping, and delivery systems and have several experts weigh in on alternatives. Nearly 40 years ago the city abandoned and dismantled its groundwater pumping wells in favor of surface waters and canals. We can ill afford another mistake like that. As Mayor, I will lean on the legislature to address the issue of ground water usage by water intensive agriculture in central Arizona, such as almond and alfalfa farmers. The level of aquifer pumping for a one-time well-pump fee is robbing the city of its water rights and already creating water scarcity in some areas. I will also implement an expanded version of the city’s Shade Plan to include more trees and drought tolerant ground cover being added to all the unoccupied dirt patches the city is doing nothing with. We will encourage neighborhoods and homeowners to use permaculture principles to help ease the heat island effect and create soil that can retain more water that will filter down to the aquifer.

Gallego: I worked in water rights at the Salt River Project, so I have the expertise to lead on securing our water supply.  Investing in our water maintenance infrastructure and working to secure our water supply is a top priority of mine. Water is our most precious resource, and we must think long-term when making decisions about Phoenix’s access to water. I support additional investment in wells and pipelines to make sure we can deliver water to our entire city.

Q: How do you plan to fix the city’s pension problem?

Sanchez: It will take innovative solutions and looking at best practices around the country to come up with a solution for Phoenix, which has been failed by its leadership for too long. First, we need an actual concrete number of the debt we owe. If you ask 8 councilmembers what we owe, you’ll get 9 different answers. That’s not acceptable. Secondly, we should commit to not touching the pensions of any current or retired first responders. Third, we should take innovative ideas, like the “cost corridor” concept from Houston, and apply them to our situation here. This isn’t a new problem, but we need new leadership to fix this mess.

Sarwark: First and foremost, we cannot handoff our responsibilities and obligations of today to our children. When the city council voted to spread our pension payments over 29 years, instead of 19 years, they handed the next generation a $2.3 Billion interest bill. I propose that we rework that plan to pay it off faster and create retirement security for our first responders and prevent our children from inheriting the failures of the city council to do their jobs. I would also work with city employees and first responders to address limiting future obligations while maintaining a strong retirement package for our dedicated workers.

Gallego: To look into solutions, we must look back at decisions previously made that got us here. We need to meet the obligations we have made to our employees and right now the public safety pension is only 40 percent funded; that is unacceptable. I have the financial background – MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – to address the issue, and I would be the first mayor in a generation to be elected without support from any city unions.

Valenzuela: When I joined the Council, I inherited the major challenge of an underfunded public safety pension system. In response, I teamed with then State Senator and now Congresswoman Debbie Lesko and Co- Chaired the Yes on Prop. 124 statewide measure approved by Arizona voters by a 70-30 margin that instituted financial reforms to a system that was facing insolvency. More needs to be done to bring stability to the public safety pension system that is financially sound and build on the reforms I helped to institute. This is not only a Phoenix issue but a statewide challenge, requiring the State Legislature to act as well. But rather than just point the finger and blame others for this problem that ultimately impacts all taxpayers, I’ve done something about it. And I’ll continue to do so as Mayor.

Q: As mayor, how will you help small businesses grow and thrive?

Sarwark: My family business, started in 1942, was a founding member of Local First Arizona and has been a member of the NFIB since 1990. For 76 years we have been part of the small business community of Phoenix.  As the only candidate for Mayor with retail business experience, I understand and have felt the impact City Hall has had on small businesses. Too often it feels like the city council does things to us, not for us. We find out last minute that lanes of traffic, in front of our struggling businesses, will be closed for weeks or months. Community meetings are held at times when it is impossible for someone working in their small business to attend. And our taxes are used to enrich our competitors or big developers, while our streets are falling apart and police response times are dangerously high.  It has been decades since small business owners had a real champion in the Mayor’s office. I will be that champion.

Gallego: Much like raising a child, it takes a village to maintain and grow a small business. As Phoenix Mayor, I will ensure the city is a partner and listens to our local economy. Just last year, Phoenix experienced the highest small business wage growth in the nation. We must continue to work on access to capital, business loans and providing education needed to empower our local markets.  We need to cut red tape wherever possible.

Valenzuela: Phoenix has experienced unprecedented growth – in large part due to the collaborative efforts of our local and regional public-private partnerships. Today, the city is a very attractive place to do business. We do not need to recruit every retail and big-box business with costly incentives or favors that can come at the expense of small business development efforts. That is not fiscally responsible or sustainable over the longer term. We can recruit businesses but also help to grow them from within. Rather than solely hunting for the next big business location, today’s economic challenge is to also make strategic investments that strengthen the sectors that most enhance our city’s business ecosystem while providing the best long-term opportunities for economic growth. As Mayor, I want our economic development efforts to reflect a more strategic approach. An increased focus on attracting and growing businesses that are economic drivers, that create new opportunities, and that strengthen the economy in every sector. The expansion of “base” sector businesses, along with the provision of a solid economic foundation, will result in the local market industries in the form of small businesses to closely follow and be successful.

Sanchez: I am the only candidate in the race who has started a small business from the ground up. When I talk to other business owners about what the City of Phoenix can do better, the discussion isn’t around taxes or regulations as much as it is on quality of life. We don’t have enough police officers in our city, which has given us the status quo of a 10-year high for homicides and 50% increase in violent crime since 2011. When communities do not feel safe, businesses cannot grow and thrive. We should be focused on improving our quality of life, keeping our neighborhoods safe and upgrading our infrastructure throughout the city. Once we focus on being brilliant at the basics, small businesses will be able to focus on growing their companies.

Q: There has been significant economic growth in Phoenix in recent years. How will you ensure the city remains on this path?

Gallego: Prior to serving on the city council, I worked at the Salt River Project with a focus on economic development and strategic planning. I know how to work with businesses that are deciding where to locate and how to invest — the district I represented gained about 7,000 jobs because of that these last five years. Another area I plan to focus on is our healthcare and biosciences, jobs related to that field grew by 22 percent in Arizona and only by 8 percent nationally.

Valenzuela: My economic development plan, PhoeNEXT, is the most extensive and comprehensive jobs and economic development plan of any candidate for Mayor. The 22-page plan outlines in detail my commitment to build on the foundation of progress I fostered as Chair of the City Council’s economic development arm, the Downtown, Aviation, Innovation, and Economy Subcommittee… As Mayor, I want to continue our focus on being strategic with attention on the creation of higher wage jobs. The private sector doesn’t need a parent, it needs a partner. Sometimes business development requires a little push by the government, and sometimes it needs government to take a step back. I want to combine building the economy by building the community. We need to focus on job creation, but also making the city livable and with neighborhoods that are woven together. This is my home, and it’s your home too. But to do this we need to continue to build on our solid foundation. A strong economy makes for strong tax collections. This allows us to invest in physical infrastructure like roads and intellectual infrastructure which is our workforce. To encourage job creation, we need good infrastructure, we need skilled workers, and we need a foundation that allows people to prosper. Incentives can be PART of the value that the city offers a company. But, businesses need things just like people need things. Roads, skilled workers, competitive taxes, lots of stuff. As a Councilmember, I’ve made wise use of incentives. Wise because the key to incentives is to not lead with them, and always make sure there’s a positive return on the investment. The redevelopment and growth of our downtown and the positive return in high wage jobs, and overall expansion of our tax base would not have occurred without the use of these tools. To blindly commit that incentives will not be used is an economic development strategy just to fulfill some political ideology is not only foolish but irresponsible. We are competing in a global economy, and such tools are critical in that competition. That is why we have taken advantage of the incentives and programs offered by our partner at the state level, the Arizona Commerce Authority. And that’s why every city and town in Arizona utilizes incentives as part of their economic development strategy.

Sanchez: Economic growth hasn’t been an issue in the state of Arizona, thanks to the leadership of Governor Ducey and his focus on growing our economy. At the City level, however, we should do a better job of allowing businesses to thrive by providing them with a trained and talented workforce. That means creating a city where young people want to stay and work, and we should do a better job of creating vibrant neighborhoods that retain our students and attract those from throughout the country to come here.

Sarwark: Business are attracted to areas with low crime, high quality of life, and a fair regulatory system. We don’t need to bribe them, through tax breaks and special deals, to thrive in Phoenix. We need to refocus on the city core services like libraries, parks, public safety, infrastructure, and clean and reliable water delivery. We also need to balance our checkbook and eliminate our out of control city debt. When the next recession comes, Phoenix needs to be prepared. The only way that will happen is if we stop borrowing against our future and tackle the problems today.

Emily Richardson

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