Kate Gallego: Four years in, with a lot more to come

Councilwoman Kate Gallego poses for a portrait with council aide Dominic Braham in her office at the Phoenix City Council Sept. 7, 2017. (Katelyn Finegan/DD)
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Roots

Long before she won an unopposed reelection campaign at the end of August, District 8 Councilwoman Kate Gallego grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a culturally diverse community Gallego credits with preparing her for politics. In high school, she would visit a science class lab partner who lived in a “little pueblo” on the outskirts of Albuquerque. She experienced all her hometown offered.

A combination of asthma, air quality and Albuquerque drove her to an Environmental Studies degree at Harvard. Summer internships in politics sparked her interest. She went through a “journalism phase” with an internship with the Center for Public Integrity, where investigative journalism, data analysis and presentation were key.

Gallego earned her bachelor’s degree, but Boston weather drove her back west.

“I loved the city but hated the weather. I missed being out west with our open space and landscapes and the ability to get outside,” said Gallego.

Back in Arizona, Gallego found work with the Arizona Democratic Party and former governor Janet Napolitano promoting tourism in the state. Her electoral career was sparked when she worked on economic development with the Salt River Project.

She left SRP with a sense that there was more to do to build up the local economy.

When she was sworn in to City Council in 2014, Gallego took an oath and delivered a speech of priorities and goals she had for Council District 8, which encompasses part of downtown. She envisioned a “downtown for all ages,” from the arts to public transportation.

“We’re really just trying to build a downtown for everybody,” said Gallego. “A downtown that has great things to do if you’re under 21 and great things to do if you’re over 55.”

Public Projects

Gallego’s first major project was equal pay for women in Phoenix. When she joined City Council, she was the only woman on the council; three years later, half of its members are women.

An unintentional impact of city contracts assuring “equal pay is a priority” for business partners lead to more women in “executive leadership” positions, according to Gallego.

“We found that in the city, our workforce [of] men and women were generally paid comparably, but we didn’t have as many women in the more higher paid positions in Phoenix, which tend to be public safety and public works,” said Gallego.

Gallego said there is an effort make sure women are more aware of such opportunities.

“It was not part of the equal pay effort, but we’ve had a significant number of women in executive leadership positions,” added Gallego. “When I was elected, I think only one of the largest city departments had a permanent female director, and now, 506 of them are led by women.”

The Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which the Council voted to add to its lease agreement with ASU in 2015, is a development she is “very proud of.” Gallego sees potential with a partnership between the Council and both the University of Arizona and ASU to grow the campus and increase research buildings and opportunities for innovative ideas.

Gallego chaired the campaign for Proposition 104, which increased Phoenix’s sales tax for transit to fund the expansion of the Valley Metro light rail and bus routes. She said the light rail would triple in track by 2050.

“I had a seizure shortly after I was elected,” said Gallego. “In Arizona, when you have a seizure you lose your driver’s license for several months, so I navigated the city without a car. In our downtown area where we had light rail, it was very easy to get around and a great experience, but in other parts of the city it was pretty hard.”

Proposition 104 expanded bus routes, and Gallego hopes the light rail will eventually run south of downtown toward Baseline Road and branch off from Cityscape, where one line could reach the state capitol.

Gallego wants to see investment on improved safety for the light rail and outreach to businesses along light rail routes. There are various partnerships in the works as well, including a program called “Rail Ride Event,” where Talking Stick Resort Arena ticket purchases qualify the attendee for a free light rail day pass.

While public transportation expands, Gallego said that additional parking space is a public desire. She said repurposing garages or garages with ground level attractions, such as the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center, are possibilities, but the discussion is focused on the long-term implications of changing methods of transportation.

Development and Preservation

As fresh apartments and modern buildings fill in the gaps of downtown, efforts to preserve historical sites of significance is important, Gallego said, because of the “culture” they create.

“We recently did a deal with some of the business owners,” said Gallego, referring to structures like Wurth House on Roosevelt Street. “We’re partners on those buildings and they agreed to 30 years of protection for those buildings in exchange for the city making a financial contribution.”

Development and additional housing in downtown is a priority for Gallego. She believes there is not enough housing and hopes to build more “traditional, high rise buildings” to add density rather than expanding outward.

“My district … has county islands that are not incorporated in the city of Phoenix, and I think in many of those cases I expect eventually that land to be part of the city of Phoenix, but to me that’s different than continuing to grow outside our boundaries,” said Gallego.

GPLET, or Government Property Lease Excise Tax, “has been important to get all the pieces” they need for developing vacant land. Gallego said GPLET came into play when high rises were not being developed in certain areas. GPLET replaced the property tax with a smaller excise tax, thus reducing operating costs.

Gallego wants to both “protect history” and see more “density and height” within downtown. To do this, she wants to push for more housing and high rises, provide aid to property owners like those in Roosevelt Row in understanding the costs of protecting their property, and develop more adaptive reuse.

“Having an ecosystem within a critical mass of people is important. You’re more likely to have success if you have many companies in the area instead of just one, but that also they need great places to work together and collaborate,” Gallego said. “The fact that we have more breweries also helps fuel the type of community we want to have. You just need to have those fun spaces in addition to work spaces.”

Challenges

Gallego voiced concerns with Phoenix’s rapid growth. A report came out this summer placing Phoenix back in front of Philadelphia for the fifth highest city population in the U.S.

“In the last year, we added more people than any other city in the country, so when you’re growing that quickly, you have to be careful to still think long-term and not just plan for the short-term,” said Gallego.

The uncertainty that growth throws into long-term planning carries over into the city’s financial matters, Gallego said.

“There’s pressures on our budget,” she added. “We want to invest ahead of the growth, and make sure that we have the infrastructure to keep people safe, healthy and moving about efficiently. It’s very expensive to plan ahead, and we also have to be fiscally responsible for the residents we have here today.”

Gallego’s time as councilwoman is marked with both ups and downs, which she considers learning experiences.

Early on during her time on Council, Gallego held a meeting with constituents whose neighborhood was being proposed as the new home of a strip club. She asked residents to vote whether they wanted the proposed strip club, called Bottom’s Up Gentlemen Club, in their neighborhood, but people who did not live there voted in favor of construction.

“I believe that the people in the community didn’t want the strip club, but we didn’t set up a good system for allowing them to demonstrate it,” said Gallego. “You have to be smart when you make plans … and want to be able to anticipate if things go wrong.”

More recent events, such as the protester take-over of the August 30 City Council meeting, added to Gallego’s learning experience.

Gallego supported an independent review of the Phoenix Police Department’s actions after President Donald Trump’s rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22 to “help them understand the choices made.”

She said the fact there were no fatalities is something to be celebrated, but it should be evaluated “if we can do better.”

“I thought an independent review made sense,” Gallego said. The independent review was withdrawn and no vote was passed. As for a future independent review: “It does not look like one will go through.”

Despite the challenges, Gallego expressed that it is “exciting” to be part of District 8’s development and growth.

“It’s a wonderful responsibility to be part of shaping the future of Phoenix, but it’s also a very difficult city to manage,” Gallego said.

Contact the reporter at kfinegan@asu.edu.

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