Phoenix City Councilman Bill Gates: Passion for the Past, Present & Future in Politics

April 28, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
Currently up for reelection to the Phoenix City Council, District 3, Councilman Gates is a busy man. Luckily, I was able to snag him for a quick chat and in my latest blog post, I share with you his thoughts about the past, present and future in politics.

Where did you grow up?

I moved around a lot as a kid. My dad was, and still is, in the nuclear industry so we would go somewhere and live for a few years and then move. I was born in Wyoming and lived there for four years. I lived in three different places in Washington state. I also lived in Detroit, Omaha and New Orleans. In 1985, we moved to Phoenix and I attended Deer Valley High School for all four years as well as graduated from there. That was the longest I had ever lived anywhere.

Were you in leadership roles early on?

I was. In fourth grade, my teacher was very much into politics and he would have an election every month for class officers, which was funny. I remember I was elected president of the class four times and I always made the point that I was like FDR. When I was in high school, I started the Teenage Republicans at Deer Valley High School with Mike Brewer, Governor Jan Brewer’s son. I was just reminding the governor that she wrote me my first check ever in politics - $200 to help get our high school club off the ground! When I was in college in Iowa at Drake University, I was a state officer in the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. Upon my return to Arizona, I was involved in a variety of civic organizations and eventually City Council.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career before you went to college?

Yes, I did. I was involved in the mock trial program at Deer Valley High School and fell in love with it. We won the state championship twice and went to nationals. I knew at some point in high school that I wanted to become a lawyer and I always had an interest in politics. When I was in kindergarten, I stood up in show-and-tell and told my class that they needed to go home and tell their parents to vote for Gerald Ford if they wanted to keep their jobs. My teacher took me to the teachers’ lounge and told everyone, “Listen to him!”

So did your parents instill this love of politics?

My parents talked about politics a lot. As you can tell, I was repeating what my dad was saying at home in kindergarten. I also had a lot of people call me Alex. P. Keaton in high school.

What made you decide to run for elected office?

I have always had this interest in the world around me – always. I remember as a kid I wanted to be an architect because I would see land being cleared and wonder what it would be. The problem was that I am not artistic. But, that fascination was really about being interested in what was happening in my community. That’s what is great about serving on the Phoenix City Council. I’m able to learn about new projects from the very beginning and actually shape them.

You were appointed to Phoenix City Council in 2009, and then elected to a four-year term in 2011. What are some lessons you have learned over the last six years?

One of the most important lessons that I have learned is that we can never give the public enough opportunities to be heard. People want to be aware before things happen. As an elected official, it is your responsibility to make a decision to vote. But coming up to that, you want people to have access to information and to weigh in.

Now the interesting thing today is what that public process looks like. Right now, we see two types of engagement – social media and ‘old-school’ meetings. It’s great that there are more ways for people to participate, but I think these two forums have very different perspectives. You think from social media the consensus is A, but then you go to a meeting and the consensus is B. Some of that has to do with demographics and who is comfortable with social media versus a community meeting. So, it’s a challenge for a policy maker to blend them. I’m not sure what the lesson is in that, but I have come to learn that there is a division occurring and we need to get everyone talking to one another.

How do you see technology impacting the public process?

As we position the city for the future, we need to use technology so that people can participate in the process, like Skyping into a public meeting. The millennials and digital natives have never known a world without technology. They’re very comfortable using Skype or Facebook, and they would be more than willing to use technology to participate in public meetings. So, we need to create these nodes where people can go, or just let them participate from home. We must embrace the new technologies.

Add to that the 517 square miles within the Phoenix city limits. The land north of Anthem has never been touched, but we still have people living out there. They don’t come down to City Hall, so implementing technology allows these residents to participate.

When we look at technology projects, it’s obvious we are not like the private sector. We can’t go out and buy new technology in five years. We have to be looking at where we think technology will be in 20 years. Like apps, for example. Private enterprise has done an incredible job of creating apps. There are so many things I personally use apps for – my banking, Fry’s card, AMC card are all on my phone. We have lagged in this area in government, but people demand it. We do have a new city website that is more user friendly, so we made that step. Now, we have to look at apps – my library card needs to be on my phone, for instance. We need to be thinking about these kinds of things.

Are there any challenges to going completely digital and using apps?

There still is a segment of the population that is not comfortable with technology or using apps. Take for instance one the city’s water services bill payment centers. When I saw this on a past council agenda, I asked, “Can we get this off the books? Are people really paying in person?” But the truth is they are. Even though some residents don’t mind paying by phone, there are others who prefer to walk into a center to pay their water bill in cash. So, we have a divide.   Unlike the private sector that can develop an app for a distinct target market, the city has to serve everyone. That’s a challenge.

What does the future look like for Phoenix?

We are the sixth largest city in the country and we are fortunate enough to have a diverse landscape and demographic. For instance, we have all of this land that we can annex to continually reinvigorate our city. The fact that we are creating a new mountain preserve is tremendous. So, even though it’s a challenge to have a spread-out city, it gives us opportunities that other cities don’t have. In the future, we will be the third largest city in the country. It will happen in only a matter of time. So we need to start thinking that way.

If you project us as being the third largest city, we need more jobs. How do we create the economic engine now to become the third largest city?

There are a lot of answers to this. One of them is that we need to continue to have a pro-business climate. For me, that means keeping taxes low; it means making it easy to do business in Phoenix, like streamlining permit processes. It also means that we have to offer certain amenities. But, we need balance the amount of amenities because we need taxes to pay for them. Things like the Light Rail - I don’t see as a panacea - but it is one component of having a strong transportation infrastructure in place. Also, building Interstate 11 and maintaining a vibrant Sky Harbor are important. We need to continue to grow the universities and private higher education. It’s not a coincidence that Tempe has had rapid growth, thanks to ASU’s presence. In Phoenix, the bio science campus and downtown medical school have been very important and we are replicating this at Mayo. And, finally, we need to nurture local entrepreneurs. The next Google could be among us.

Do you have any favorite expressions?

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe this. To this day we continue to be reminded that when someone has absolute power, like in Russia, that it does corrupt. And eventually these systems break, costing people’s lives in the process. There is no reason why everyone shouldn’t have the prosperity we have in our country. We can never forget how lucky we are.

What’s something that you read everyday?

Besides the paper, I read Twitter everyday. I am a breaking news junkie.

Do you have any pets or past times?

Yes, we have two dogs – Sugar and Pickles. Sugar is a Bichon. Santa Claus brought her to the house. Pickles is a rescue dog. I was an only child and we moved around all the time, so it was hard to make friends. But we had one dog I grew up with, so I love dogs! I am not that into cats – but we don’t want to upset any cat voters! One of my favorite pastimes is golf. I’ve been golfing since I was 12, and considered it a dream job when I started at Ping. My family really likes to go to movies. And, we don’t go to Camel View. I’d love to brag and say I do, but we like the action and adventure movies and comedies. We also like to bike, and I love to hike in the mountain preserves. Of course, we like to go to our daughter’s activities – club volleyball and competitive cheer.

What would you say to someone who is interested in running for elected office?

In my opinion there are very few jobs that you can do that are more rewarding. In particular, local government service is so fulfilling because you are affecting what is happening in people’s neighborhoods. At the same time you work on broad policy issues like taxing and spending, public pensions, as well as charting the course in technology or light rail where we are looking out 20-30 years in the future. On the other hand, if you are an elected official you are never off the clock. You have to be ok with that. Some people really need their boundaries, but there are few (if any) boundaries in this job. Every time you go anywhere, people want to talk. You have to manage that. There is literally something to do every night. So, you do have to create some boundaries to spend time with your family – or have another job.

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