As part of my Independence Day theme, I’m delighted to have caught up with Jim, and to bring you all an insider’s perspective on what it takes to hold the leadership positions he has.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I lived in Westmont, my Dad taught in Hinsdale and I’m from Downers Grove. I went to Downers Grove South High School.
Are you a Chicago sports fan?
Yes, I’m a big sports fan – White Sox, Bears, you name it. My first love was the White Sox in 1976, so I’ve been a devoted fan for a long time. I know what you’re thinking and yes – I root for Chicago’s generally abysmal sports teams! I am a fan of all Arizona sports teams!
Were you in leadership roles early on?
I was to a certain extent. I have always been more of a lead-by-example type person, though. I was a very quiet kid, which surprises people when I’m in public. But, left to my own devices I am a quieter person trying to do the right thing. I like to live by what Churchill said, rather famously, during the World War: “Never, never, never, never give up.” That’s me, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and I figure if you hang in there, like Rocky did, good things happen.
You have served as a state senator for seven years and now serve as a councilman for the City of Phoenix. What made you want to get involved in politics?
This is not a career for everyone, and I honestly didn’t know it would be a career for me. I was in education, my parents and aunt were all teachers and my grandfather was a judge. My whole family was very big on public service. I was always interested in history, and at some point I went from thinking that history is fun to read about to wanting to create a little of my own history. I have no delusions of grandeur as a city councilman compared to a president. However, my role does impact the community, and that is its own way of making history. I like politics, also, and have volunteered for various candidates. Then in 2002, I ran for the state senate and I enjoyed it. And now I’m enjoying being a part of the Phoenix City Council.
So, was politics something that your family talked about or did you go to campaign events when you were a kid?
No, actually. Quite the opposite. My parents would talk about politics and I always watched the nightly news back when that was a common pastime. I learned a lot about presidential politics through the news. Ronald Reagan was elected when I was 12, and I remember looking at his picture on the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year. I discussed it with my grandparents and watched the political conventions. Most kids, no matter how nerdy, aren’t doing that. So, I was definitely interested in politics at an early age, but the passion didn’t really take hold until I was in college.
What are some lessons you have learned over the past decade working with constituents and fellow elected officials?
Two things: 1) Most people are well-intentioned, and 2) You probably can’t make everyone happy. And your goal shouldn’t be to make everyone happy. It’s not realistic.
I have really enjoyed working with my fellow elected officials. There have been some disagreements, but I understand that people get passionate in the heat of the moment, so I don’t take things personally. Former Senate President Bob Burns, who was a mentor of mine (and is a wonderful man), has said, “These are bills, these aren’t your kids. Fight for them hard, but don’t make it some grudge match with another lawmaker.”
I think I have been successful staying out of personal feuds with both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, I just ran into a former Democrat colleague of mine, Linda Aguirre, who I had not seen since 2010 when I left the senate. She at least pretended that she was excited to see me and I was very excited to see her! We had a great time catching up. I remembered her family very fondly. So, it’s not just about people on your side of the aisle or the other. I try to roll with it and not take others or myself too seriously.
In terms of constituents, I try to do my best for them. I did a lot more constituent-related bills at the state senate. It wasn’t my thing to run a bill that a lobbyist presented to me. It was always my idea or my constituent’s idea.
And, you left out staff. I had a great working relationship with the staff and have developed some very close friends from the senate. I would try to help them with their careers any chance I had. Some have gone onto bigger and better things.
You are known as a champion for veterans’ issues, as well as for protecting victims of domestic violence. Tell me more about why these issues resonate with you and what you are currently doing to advance them.
I got to know Senator Smith, who had been a Marine and who I believe finished as a Lieutenant Colonel. He served in the state senate before I arrived. When he was leaving, he brought a bill to me that he had not been able to pass. I can’t remember the gist of the bill, but it was for veterans. I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t get the bill through – it wasn’t a reflection of his talents as a senator. It seemed like such an obvious one – why wouldn’t you want to support our veterans?
The same situation happened with domestic violence. I remember a conversation with a group of advocates who said that a lot of people supported their bill. And when I asked how long they had been trying to pass the bill, they said five or six years. Again, I didn’t understand how everyone supported the bill, yet it hadn’t passed in five or six years. Somewhere there was a disconnect.
So, I went to work to rectify it. I have kept in touch with these stakeholders even at the city. I just had a chance to touch base with someone who retired from the National Guard as a Lieutenant Colonel, and he was still talking about the work we did seven or eight years ago on veterans’ issues and how much it meant to him. That made me feel good and meant a lot to me. I hope that we had some impact. These were two groups that had been neglected and shamefully so – so I picked up the cause and had some success.
Another issue that is important to me is fiscal responsibility. At the state, I chaired the Senate Finance Committee. It is much more budget-related at the city, as we don’t really deal with social issues. We have more day-to-day concerns, like keeping the police force and fire departments functioning smoothly.
Generally, I have found that if you get more than three or four issues to focus on, you lose your impact. If you have a few areas of expertise with fewer bills, you have a greater chance of success.
Speaking of veterans, a leadership coach, Len Fuchs, has said, “Ethical leaders have nonnegotiable standards.” What are some standards that you live by?
I think people may view me as somewhat hard-nosed. I try to get along with most people. I gravitate to people who I think uphold a more rigorous standard of doing things a certain way. I know what I want to do and how I want to do it. I have a vision for what I want to do, and if that means knocking on doors in campaign season or facing the music when I have to make a tough vote, that’s what I’ll do. Some people have asked me whether I regret any of my votes. Sometimes you just have bad choices – like with cutting programs during a budget deficit. No one wants to cut important services, but you have to do it by determining which is less injurious to the community. It’s not fun. But, I can’t think of any vote that I regret. I feel very good about people examining my record.
What do you see on the horizon in terms of challenges facing the city of Phoenix?
Certainly the budget situation. Councilmen Bill Gates, Sal DiCiccio and I have talked about this a lot and have had some success getting the word out. We need to keep our eye on the bottom line. Unfortunately, other city elders have not always followed that wise counsel, so we face a big budget deficit next year. As city council members, we are obligated to balance our budget. I just spoke to the city manager yesterday about getting to work on the budget. He said we will get started in the fall, and I think why not now? Or six months ago? But, here we are now and we must be laser-focused on this issue.
Do you have any favorite expressions?
I am a fan of Winston Churchill. So, any quotes on never giving up or never giving in and always continuing to fight are favorites of mine. There have certainly been times in my life where I’ve asked how in the world can I keep moving forward? But I always have kept moving forward. What are you going to do – give up? It’s not an option.
Do you have any pets or pastimes?
I don’t have any pets. I enjoy travel, reading, tennis and working out. Now that my wife and I have five-year-old twin boys, these activities have been severely curtailed! I would say tennis has suffered the most, but reading and travel have been cut back too. I try to work out still a little. And, with the boys getting older, we are hoping to do some more travel soon.
What would you tell someone thinking about a career in public service?
Volunteer. Many of the senior staff at the city of Phoenix started out as interns – the city manager, assistant city manager and former city manager. I always focused a lot on school and working hard to get good grades, which paid off with scholarships in college and graduate school. But, if I had to do it all over again, I would have focused more on the real world experience. It wasn’t emphasized enough when I was in school. In this day and age, you need practical experience to get ahead in the public and private sectors. I learned in the school of hard knocks. If you are sixteen and interested in public service, start volunteering and get good grades. The workforce has changed a lot in 30 years, and this is the best way to prepare for it.