It is perhaps with this in mind that Arizona’s largest city is touting its light rail system and dense downtown footprint to lure either party's 2016 presidential convention , a relatively unforeseen twist for a place often associated with car culture and urban sprawl.
Of the eight cities bidding for the Republican National Convention, Phoenix has the largest population, approximately 1.5 million. (It also is bidding to host the Democratic National Convention.) Visit Phoenix has identified 16,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 suites that could be used for a convention, including a city-owned, 1,000-room hotel just a few blocks from any convention’s main sites.
Overall, about 6,300 rooms or suites are within two blocks of the city’s Metro light rail system.
“It’s a turn-key operation,” Visit Phoenix CEO Steve Moore told CQ Roll Call on a recent stroll through downtown. “The city owns all the key actors: Convention center, airport, U.S. Airways Arena, light rail and the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown, with 1,000 rooms. Makes it easy.”
But what about Phoenix’s vaunted heat, dry as it may be?
“It’s hot everywhere in August,” quipped Wes Gullett, a political consultant, former campaign aide to Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, and former member of the Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission.
August heat is familiar to those who attended 2012’s conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. “We’re actually equipped to deal with it,” Gullett said, because planners know a thing or two about air conditioning and making sure people are protected from the desert heat and sun.
Moore points to the “canyon effect” that downtown’s massive awnings and native plant life produce to shade and cool people passing to and fro hotels, bars and restaurants, and potentially, sports venues such as Chase Field, home to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Civic leaders believe the area will appeal to convention planners. “The compactness … leads to more free time,” Moore said. Arizona’s earlier time zone would also allow delegates more time to get out on the town and explore the city after the floor action wraps on East Coast television hours.
Convention watchers like to speculate about the reasons cities are chosen for the nominating confabs, musing over whether the nominee or party is making a concerted Electoral College play for the host state.
The record is remarkably mixed. A Republican nominee has not won the state of a convention host city since 1992, when George Bush was nominated in Houston and won Texas in November. The Democrats have a slightly better record, although they’ve goosed the win column by choosing places such as Boston to nominate Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and Los Angeles in Democratic-dominated California to nominate Al Gore in 2000. In 2008, though, the Democrats picked swing-state Colorado and then-candidate Barack Obama used Denver's massive outdoor football stadium (then named Invesco Field at Mile High, now known as Sports Authority Field at Mile High) to deliver a speech that served as much as an organizing event as a nomination speech.
A convention in Arizona would come at a unique time in the state’s history. For the first time, registered independents outnumber voters registered with either Republicans or Democrats, according to the Arizona secretary of State.
Independents make up 34.9 percent of voters in the Grand Canyon State, Republicans make up 34.8 percent and Democrats 29.5 percent.
Republicans dominate the Legislature and statewide offices, but Arizona’s status as a potential purple state, particularly given its continued growth, might make it a prime place to host a party's big party.
Phoenix’s rise as a major metropolitan area coincided with a post-World War II boom that went hand-in-hand with the age of the automobile. Freeways and single-family houses dominated urban planning for decades, as people poured into the Valley of the Sun.
But transit-oriented development is on the rise and has been steadily pushed by both Republicans and Democrats in the state, particularly as population growth led to traffic congestion and air pollution.
“The goals have always been non-partisan, rather than bipartisan,” said Gullett, who lost the 2011 mayoral race to current Mayor Greg Stanton.
In 1989, the city voted down “ValTrans,” a multibillion-dollar comprehensive transportation plan that included more than 100 miles of mass transit rail line. But by 2005, Metro broke ground on light rail construction to serve Phoenix and the cities of Tempe and Mesa. It opened in 2008 and has a daily ridership of approximately 45,000. The heart of the system passes through Sky Harbor Airport to downtown Phoenix, which is about four miles away.
Former mayors Skip Rimsza, a Republican, and Phil Gordon, a Democrat, helped make light rail a reality. Stanton, a Democrat, recently called for tripling the number of light rail miles in his State of the City address, all the while extolling transit-based planning. Basically, everybody’s on board.
Downtown, once a ghost town after 5 p.m., is now a happening residential and nightlife destination. Arizona State University, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University branch campuses sit alongside more than 150 bars and restaurants, along with the city’s sports venues at U.S. Airways Arena and Chase Field.
When the Super Bowl comes to Phoenix on in 2015, the host committee will set up its Super Bowl Central and the NFL Experience not at Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium, where the game will be played, but downtown at CitySpace and the Convention Center.
Phoenix and the other seven RNC finalist cities (Las Vegas; Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio, Denver, Kansas City, Mo.; and Dallas) have made their pitches to the GOP convention planners and a decision to further winnow the list will likely come soon, with site visits to follow in April. Democrats have sent out feelers to 30 cities.