A watershed moment: the birth of the political gadfly

A view of the entrance into the Scottsdale City Hall Kiva Auditorium where members of city council discuss the local matters of the day. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Every municipality has them, every level of government deals with them and everyone knows who they are when they step on taxpayer soil: the grassroots activist who, somewhere along the way, picked up the moniker “political gadfly.”

A political gadfly is defined as a person who persistently annoys or provokes others with criticism, schemes, ideas, demands or requests.

But while nature’s gadflies play their typical role — an annoyance of larger mammals dealing with a collection of any of the three major types of flies: filth flies, drain flies and blow flies — the political variant is growing in stature.

And, the shadow of that stature has grown over the last decade, local media experts agree, pointing out significant changes in how any public campaign can succeed or be sabotaged with a little digital insight and the right keystrokes.

However, the American game of local political activism is nothing new, but what is shifting is who holds the power of influence over the masses.

The Independent reached out to several political aficionados, citizen journalists and anonymous bloggers to better understand the mindset, approach and environment of the local political gadfly in their natural environment:

  • One local activist who has made the leap to elected leader sheds light on the work behind the curtain at Scottsdale City Hall meanwhile an Arizona State University professor dissects the 21st Century shift of the American media landscape;
  • Two political pros — one a former journalist and the other a Republican insider — share their thoughts on how local activism has risen from afterthought to paramount concern; and
  • An examination of two political movements that have successfully reset local politics in the city of Scottsdale and has legacy power brokers scratching their heads in confusion.

Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips, left, along with councilwomen Virginia Korte and Suzanne Klapp being sworn in during the council Inauguration last January. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez).

A local guy making a difference

Roughly six years ago, Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips was an everyday citizen who says he felt powerless against the municipal machine of progress in the name of economic development.

“I think that was twofold, one was my passion for Scottsdale and I was getting increasingly concerned about the direction the city was going, mostly by removing its history and charm and replacing it with development,” Councilman Phillips said in response to being asked what was the catalyst for his leap into activism.

“The other was the feeling that as a person I had no say and government seemed to be doing whatever it wanted at the expense of its citizens, not just Scottsdale but nationwide.”

ASU Research Scientist at the Global Security Initiative, Scott Ruston, says the sentiment expressed by Councilman Phillips is similar to ones illustrated in recent case studies focused on the idea of citizen journalists.

“One of the things our case studies illustrate in the early 2000s there was a lot of utopic talk about citizen journalists,” he said.

“I remember very distinctly the first reports that came out of Thailand when the tsunami hit — it was cell phone photos. First-hand reports from those tourists who were on some of the first internet-enabled phones. Everyone is now empowered because everyone has a camera in their pockets and a means to communicate.”

Mr. Ruston also points out the Baby Boomer generation came of age during a time of significant mistrust of all government during the Vietnam era and now those adolescent thoughts and ideals have matured.

“The Vietnam era was a significant change and struck a blow in the veracity of governments,” he explained of how those mindsets are appearing in today’s politics — at the national, state and local levels. “In the past 25 years there has been an enormous concern about the veracity of the press as being an establishment. This migrates into the digital space as well.”

Councilman Phillips explains he too was beginning to question the veracity of government — and he wanted to do something about it.

“I wanted to make government aware that we the people voted for them to represent us, not special interest groups. I joined the Tea Party in its infancy to be with like-minded people with hopes as a larger group we could affect change at the government level,” he said of a time when he was a campaign volunteer of then-Republican candidate for Congress David Schweikert in the early 2000s.

“I never thought about running for office until after a while of attending these meetings I realized we can get government officials to listen to us, but some had to be replaced.”

Councilman Phillips credits the congressman with encouraging his step into politics.

“After being elected I soon realized that you can’t change government overnight, it is a long and arduous process of politics and reformation. Government is an entity to itself. The staff feel they run the show, and are not fond of listening to someone who may only be there for four years when they have spent 20 years on the job,” he explained. “I feel I learned a smarter way of affecting change through negotiation and politics rather than just shouting from the rooftops. However, as a city official, I also feel stifled in responding to issues.

As an activist you can say what’s on your mind with no repercussions but as an official, you could lose valuable strategy to affect change by alienating those who you need to deal with on a daily basis.”

Councilman Phillips says anyone can become an activist if they desire, but being an elected member of city council hasn’t curtailed the heart of an activist.

“I actively campaigned against previous bond measures for a lot of reasons like transparency and accountability, but mostly because I didn’t feel there was enough thought behind them,” he said of his public efforts to thwart two separate bonding programs endorsed by city council.

“It’s easy for government to entice voters with feel good projects and get them to put it on their property tax, but when I see the projects not always fulfilled or diverted to other projects then I needed to speak out. The city will always have projects, some needed, some not so much.”

In November 2015, Scottsdale voters approved two out of six bond questions focused on “street pavement replacement,” and “public safety – fire,” which many at City Hall counted as a win as two years earlier the entire bond program sent to voters was denied.

Councilman Phillips spoke out against both of those measures while serving as a member of Scottsdale City Council.

“It probably takes a certain personality to see it through, but under the right circumstances anyone can be an activist,” he said.

“If your child gets hurt by a toy you might be the one who gets the issue out to get the manufacturer to fix the problem. I remember someone who told me they would never run for office because they were afraid if they spoke out they might end up in the river, so there is a bit of courage involved as well. Sometimes all it takes is a moment of heroics or inspiration to get you activated.”

But getting activated — and activating those like-minded around you — has never been easier, according to Mr. Ruston.

“Those kinds of technologies, the camera in the pocket and the phone that provides access. Then comes Facebook, Twitter and even more robust social media venues that accelerates the process,” he said of how technology has fueled a destruction of barriers to the business of disseminating information.

“The traditional revenue model has changed and that drives resources for traditional reporting down and coupled with that emerges a symbiotic relationship or the rise of the citizen journalist.”

The Scottsdale Unified School District community — one that spans the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale and the Town of Paradise Valley — has been ignited against current leadership at SUSD. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

A 21st Century approach

Jason Alexander and Mike Norton are two men who have — under the auspiciousness of anonymity, records requests and a tech-savvy approach — successfully transformed the local political gameplan in Scottsdale.

Where the political gadflies before them had failed to resonate with the masses both the collective messages of Mr. Alexander and Mr. Norton on two matters — the proposed Desert EDGE construction and alleged financial maleficence at the Scottsdale Unified School District — has taken hold of community conversations.

Scottsdale residents have been coming out in full force to voice their opposition to the proposed Desert EDGE project. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

As of press time, the outcome of the Protect our Preserve signature campaign is the keystone to the prospect of the Desert EDGE meanwhile Scottsdale Schools, Tuesday, March 21, announced the dismissal of its superintendent as an Arizona Attorney General’s investigation into alleged wrongdoing unfolds.

Mr. Alexander openly confirms he started the NoDDC movement and its anonymous approach, and Mr. Norton who along with a handful of concerned citizens launched the anonymous Respect Our Scottsdale Students Facebook fanpage.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue July 31, 2017. Located on less than six acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the center includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and might cost somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

Jason Alexander

“When I was just a blogger for a while — and was a volunteer within SUSD in my kids’ classroom — that’s how I first got to know Pam Kirby, John Washington, those folks,” Mr. Alexander said of local personalities whereas Mr. Washington has maintained a long-standing community website coined Scottsdale Trails and later the Scottsdale Citizen Facebook fanpage.

“I don’t know if it will manifest into actual power. When NoDDC started, that is how Mike and I got to know each other. We absolutely use some of those same concepts and tactics when doing things.”

Mr. Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Alexander says his feelings of activism was sparked by an article he read in his local newspaper.

“It was an article in the Independent and I just said to myself this is a pet project,” he pointed out.

“This has always been from a point of view of passion, obviously, but also a point of view of responsiveness of government to its citizens. It is easy to get behind something you love. We are just absolutely disgusted by the lack of responsiveness of our government. We have lost a significant amount of trust in the leadership of our council majority.”

And, it’s this lack of trust of government and legacy media institutions, Mr. Alexander says, that has provided fuel for his efforts — both personally and from what he has witnessed others doing.

Mr. Ruston suggests the idea goes deeper as many Americans, in Scottsdale or anywhere else, have lost faith in where they can find the truth.

“Who speaks with veracity, who speaks with the truth behind them? Who is a sanctioned arbitrator of truth?” Mr. Ruston said of academia’s view. “I don’t think many people significantly questioned the veracity of city council, or congress or the government like they are now.”

Mr. Ruston also argues the competition for media dollars has deluded some legacy media brands while emboldening others.

“It is indicative of the lower barrier of entry into the industry as now any individual can participate,” he pointed out. “What does the human brain turn to when previously socially sanctioned and credible sources are destabilized?”

For Mr. Norton, that destabilization was a call to arms.

Mike Norton

“I was reluctantly drafted to serve on the 2012-13 Academic Year Budget Committee for SUSD,” Mr Norton said of when he first dipped his toe in local political waters. “I had never been politically active. My kids had attended and were attending Copper Ridge. The principal urged me to serve after talking with a few of the teachers who knew my family.”

Turns out, Mr. Norton explains, that was the same fiscal year when the district, which under the guidance of former Superintendent Dr. David Peterson, sought to find a solution to dwindling taxpayer allocations.

“After working with six to eight active and smart people, we were able to convince the district not to cut those critical functions, but instead to shift other budgeted funds back to the classroom,” he said of a small victory of perspective. “I was proud that our team accomplished that change in attitude. I met some truly brilliant and motivated district staff and teachers. I also was stunned to learn that I was the only non-SUSD employee on that committee.”

But once activism sprouts within the psyche it’s hard to shake, Mr. Norton explains.

“Once I got involved in the budget that year, I found that I had a hard time dropping the issue and walking away,” he said. “One of the functions I played was being able to speak out during the committee meetings without the risk of losing my job.”

It was within that committee the idea of the Respect Our Scottsdale Students Facebook fanpage was born, according to Mr. Norton.

“Six of us met off-site through that year. We became the original editors of Respect Our Scottsdale Students,” he said.

“Our purpose from day No. 1 was to put education issues ahead of personalities while providing a safehaven for those who wanted to speak out and be able to do so without fear of retribution. The other five ROSS editors were the heroes of that effort. Certainly not me. I remain in awe of their commitments to this day.”

Mr. Norton contends the “ROSS page,” which is the preferred local nomenclature, was created to corral the tenuous inner-workings of the local school district and its Governing Board.

“Both teachers and parents are often reticent to criticize the district or call out its wrongdoings,” he said.

“The fear that a job will be at stake or that a child will be treated poorly frighten a lot of people into silence. We understood that fear. We also wanted to take the personalities out of the debate. No one wanted the effort to be focused on a person. We wanted the effort to be focused on the issues — both positive and negative.”

Mr. Norton contends both the NoDDC and ROSS efforts are not about personal accolades.

“No one at NoDDC ever hid from public attention. We stood in meetings to speak. We announced that we founded NoDDC. We are the registered officers of that nonprofit. We are the named parties in the lawsuit against the city of Scottsdale seeking to enforce our Charter-granted voting rights regarding the Preserve,” he said.

“Using NoDDC as a profile for posts is designed solely to focus on the issues instead of the personalities. By not making it a personal battle, a lot more people buy in. They know we have no personal agendas. We don’t want contracts with the city. We don’t plan to run for public office. We just want voter rights respected and the Preserve protected.”

A view of a recent NoDDC signature gathering event held at Windgate Ranch. (File photo)

A new approach to an old game

Two local political operatives — one, a bonafide Republican Party insider, the other a former journalist turned public relations executive — agree the birth of the digital nation has forever changed American politics.

Kyle Moyer

“The Digital Age has provided a voice and platform to a relative small, but vocal group of individuals that previously didn’t have a bully pulpit,” said Kyle Moyer of Kyle Moyer & Company, a Scottsdale-based public affairs, political consulting and government relations firm.

“I think the shift is that media in general and the press has been diluted. The pool is fuller than it ever was before. There isn’t just one mainstream outlet — now there are a dozen smaller outlets.”

Mr. Moyer has been a local political operative since high school he contends, as his first job was pounding signs and circulating petitions for beloved former Scottsdale Mayor Herb Drinkwater.

Mr. Moyer, in 2002, served as the political director of the Arizona Republican Party on the heels of serving as deputy director of the campaign to get George W. Bush re-elected to the White House.

Mr. Moyer hearkens to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th American President as a generational shift in how national politics is perceived by the electorate.

“It didn’t really become a fight for something, it became a fight against something,” he said of the visceral response the Republican Party had to President Obama. “I don’t think it is a black and white thing. I don’t think it is a racial thing, it is a social change — there are a couple of factors there. There has been a significant generational shift that has taken place over the last decade.”

As the Greatest Generation passes away and the Baby Boomers become the No. 1 voting bloc of the nation, Mr. Moyer speculates the strong distrust of both government and media is a product of a reawakening of citizen involvement.

“They grew up angry, hostile and distrusting of the government and the media,” he explained of a time when then-President Richard Nixon was assuring the general public he wasn’t a crook. “Many of these individuals are angry, but they don’t necessarily know what they are angry about therefore they latch on to a variety of issues.”

Bill Bertolino, who works with Phoenix-based Scutari & Cieslak Public Relations, agrees the internet has empowered the everyday citizen beyond anything legacy media could have imagined.

Bill Bertolino

“The birth of the digital age has empowered new voices to engage in the public process — and in some cases — the news-gathering and news-dissemination process. More people have a voice today because of technology, which is affordable, accessible and provides reach,” he said.

“Over the past decade, traditional media outlets, especially on the local and community levels, have undergone enormous change and face new competition. Massive cutbacks in newsrooms — in Arizona and across the country — have taken the hardest toll on local coverage.”

Mr. Bertolino is a longtime communications professional and former assistant editor of the East Valley Tribune and former managing editor of the Arizona Capitol Times.

“In 2012, I pursued a career in public relations,” he said. “Generally, I work at the intersection of business and public policy.”

The purveyors of influence are no longer limited to those with the dollars and cents to join the club, Mr. Bertolino explains.

“Today, a blog or a Facebook page can have more impact, reach or influence in a community than coverage by a traditional news outlet. The downside is that some of what is being ‘reported’ on these sites doesn’t necessarily have a traditional vetting process and can be biased and inaccurate.”

Mr. Bertolino says emerging sites sometimes don’t have the ambition to be accurate.

“In other words, there’s little incentive to at least try to report all sides,” he said. “It’s opinion, not fact. It’s incumbent on the consumer to educate themselves on the source. In some cases, whole communities and school districts are going uncovered.”

Mr. Bertolino says he has seen a significant shift in how local political fights unfold.

“As a reporter and editor, I covered a lot of hot-button issues in Scottsdale, from the Los Arcos Coyotes arena to eminent domain to height and density and desert development,” he said. “This is a passionate, civilly involved city. And that’s a good thing. But lately, it does seem like there’s a tendency to label people as enemies if they disagree with your world view.”

The local zeal of the political gadflies of Scottsdale has ascended to disruption of the established guidelines and that is having an impact far and wide, Mr. Bertolino contends.

“The hyper-partisanship and ‘my way or the highway’ zeal has hindered constructive dialogue and limited big picture ideas and long-overdue issues like investing in critically needed infrastructure,” he said.

“For example, the city of Scottsdale has struggled to pass a comprehensive bond measure for several years. Anonymous sources and information have always been a pillar of the news business as a means to discover the truth. It’s important and protected. Where we’ve gone astray is when groups can spread lies and rumors unchecked.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.