Does Experience Count for Much?
Candidate Walters no stranger to controversy
Lindsay Butler, East ValleyTribune, Phoenix, Arizona
She's been compared to Chicken Little and Ma Kettle and criticized literally head to toe - from her red hair to her naked toenails.But in the past eight years on the Mesa City Council, Claudia Walters also has earned a reputation for her intimate knowledge of city issues, her snappy wit, her face-to-face approach to community problems and her passionate dedication to public service.
Many see her years of experience as a plus, but Walters has more history and hurdles to overcome in the March 11 mayor's election than her opponents - businessman Scott Smith and former Councilman Rex Griswold, whose city tenure lasted five years.
Some of Walters' most public decisions have been the Bailey's Brake Service eminent domain controversy, the overwhelming defeat of a property tax and the closing of the city-owned Escobedo Apartments that displaced many low-income residents.
And in a year when female politicians are shattering glass ceilings on a national level, Walters, 54, is in line to be just Mesa's second woman mayor - a concept that scares some people enough to say it to her face.
But in a three-person race so close that some are endorsing all candidates, Walters stands out as having the most lucid and specific plan, laid out for her first 100 days in office, which includes improving blight, connecting police with communities and emphasizing education opportunities in the city.
Walters said she got her first taste of community service over family dinner.
Her father, William Reeder, was a professor of rural sociology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and worked to get regular people more involved in their communities.
"People ask me how I got interested in community things, neighborhoods and all those kinds of things," she said. "Well, I grew up with that at my dinner table."
After Walters' sophomore year in high school, her father was scheduled to teach for one year at Brigham Young University in Utah on sabbatical from Cornell and planned to move the family.
Rather than lose her place in line as editor of the yearbook, Walters figured out she could graduate early from high school and enter BYU as a freshman at 16. By 19, Walters was a college graduate and went on to earn her teaching certificate.
She married Steve Walters in 1975. Two years later, with their first child in tow, the Walterses moved to California, where Stevewas to start with a fledgling technology company: Intel.
In 1984, Intel began transferring families out of Silicon Valley, and the Walterses chose to come to Mesa, impressed with its schools and music programs.
Walters lived in Mesa for about a year before she was asked to serve as president of a parent-teacher organization. There, she saw problems that went beyond a single school and decided to run for the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board. She won one of the three open seats.
During her time on the school board, Walters was instrumental in creating alternative programs for students, like the arts emphasis at Highland High School.
"I'm very proud of that," Walters said. "In a way, we led the charter school movement."
School board member Mike Hughes served with Walters and said she was respectful and courteous of dissenting opinions, but also very strong.
"She was able to take her position but make you feel that you were heard and respected," he said. "And that's a nice quality to have."
Walters served on the school board from 1993 to 1996, when she ran for re-election but lost in a race she said came down to money, and she wasn't willing to dip into her retirement fund.
"Was it difficult? Maybe for a couple minutes," Walters said of losing her first race. "But I had a really great clarifying moment in the midst of that. I realized somebody else can do this job. It's really all right."
The next year, Walters was tapped by then-Mayor Wayne Brown to fill a vacant seat on the City Council for seven months. She served out the term, then was elected in 2000.
Walters was on the council for a year when the Bailey's Brake Service battle erupted.
The city had tried to use eminent domain to shut down the auto shop in downtown Mesa but was struck down in court and nationally flogged for abuse of government power.
Walters said that the city had been following the traditional path of redevelopment but thinks it was not handled well.
"There are times in your life you'd like do-overs," she said. "Knowing what I know now, I would do everything different."
The conflict brought national attention and a handful of candidates to oust Walters and others from office. Those efforts, however, were unsuccessful, and Walters was re-elected in 2004.
Two years later, Walters found herself in the middle of another heated public debate - this time about the proposal to levy Mesa's first property tax since 1947.
Walters said she supported the primary property tax because a proposal to increase sales tax went along with it. She said she knew the property tax was not going to pass.
The campaign before the May 2006 vote brought talk of severe budget cuts.
The public revolted, saying that city officials were acting like Chicken Little in predicting Armageddon if the tax didn't pass.
The Arizona Federation of Taxpayers wrote, "Pro-tax Councilwoman Claudia Walters is already playing the 'starving children card,' warning the city would have to shut down libraries, parks and recreation programs, pools or the arts."
The property tax was defeated with 60 percent of the vote, while the sales tax increase was approved.
One year after the property tax defeat, Mesa was considering a move to help the financial situation: sell the city-owned Escobedo Apartments but displace dozens of residents.
Although most agreed that the city should not be in the housing business, former Escobedo resident Pam Wilson said she felt the council was treating the residents "like idiots."
"She showed us a lot of disrespect," Wilson said of Walters. "She was laughing at us. We felt very belittled. And I called her office and told them so."
Wilson has since moved and the property is nearly empty. But she never wants to go through another move like that.
"I am going to dance at the new mayor's celebration party, and it will not be Claudia or Rex (Griswold) if I have anything to say about it," she said.
Throughout her campaign, Walters has said there is too much negative talk about living in Mesa. One of her main slogans is to "change the conversation," and tout the city's benefits, like schools and family communities.
One of her first moves as mayor would be to capitalize on that conversation and encourage residents to invest in their homes and businesses. She's calling it "Mesa Clean and Green."
Walters plans to ask people to step outside and put a fresh coat of paint on their homes or clean up their parking lots, because "people equate clean with safe."
Residents would be encouraged to send in "before and after" pictures and be publicly lauded for their efforts.
Along those same lines, Walters said she would invite residents to give back to the city in some way - sort of a John F. Kennedy plea to ask what you can do for your city.
"We're not talking about money. Even if it's just to go to your kid's parent-teacher conference. Or organize a food drive," she said. "Do something to give your heart to Mesa."
That program would be linked to privately funded community scholarships - maybe only a couple hundred dollars - but again publicly recognizing residents who participate to build the buzz.
"Mesa Clean and Green" also would include talks with grocers to find an outlet for used plastic grocery bags, creating nonfinancial incentives for developers to build "green" and a citizen committee to support environmental programs.
To bolster public safety, Walters plans to tap her many neighborhood contacts to identify areas needing the most attention. She would then invite neighbors and police officers to meet in the mayor's office and talk about common solutions.
Walters said she is dedicated to reducing nonemergency medical calls, an effort that would further a current program using small fire trucks for lesser calls.
She plans to tap her experience on the school board to promote education in the city with a program called "Mesa LEARNS: Leading in Education, Advancement, Reading and New Skills." The program would tout the city's connections with Maricopa Community Colleges, Arizona State University and the public library system.
As Mesa faces a multimillion-dollar budget crunch, the next mayor will be charged with fixing the finances. Walters supports levying a secondary property tax to fund bond projects. Past bond projects have been funded with sales tax revenue, a model she said no longer works.
Walters plans to hold training sessions for the new City Council, which will have five new members, to more fully understand the city budget.
Although it has been suggested before, Walters said she would bring back the idea of providing unpaid internships to students to help with city office work and earn college credit.
Mayor Keno Hawker has officially endorsed Walters, citing her knowledge of city finances and big-ticket issues like transportation and water.
That history and background alone would probably be enough, he said, but he also likes her positive message.
"I think I've been pretty good at identifying what's wrong, and I get blamed for identifying it," he said. "I like her message about what's right for Mesa."
Hawker eschewed critics' notions that Walters drowns in the details and lacks vision for the big picture.
"I think just the opposite," he said. "I think she has the big picture but can go down to the neighborhood level. She has the ability to do both."
Another common complaint about Walters' campaign is that she has had eight years to achieve her goals and "couldn't get the votes."
It is probable that no one has voted against Walters more than Councilman Tom Rawles, whom she described as diametrically opposed to her views.
Rawles said that Walters sees the role of government as taking an active role in people's lives and cited her plan to regulate the location of payday loan stores.
"Fortunately, I was able to deflect her on that," Rawles said. "I don't think the government should dictate. She was trying to do it from a perception standpoint, but there's no reasons for these restrictions."
But even Rawles described Walters as fair, thoughtful and bright and as playing a large role in things the city is doing right.
"The city is on the right track now," he said. "She needs to make people aware of these. She needs to make people understand that things are better."