MESA, Arizona — Mayor John Giles was not born into a particularly politically-involved family. His father was a Mesa elementary school principle for three decades, while his mother dedicated much of her time to raising Giles and his four siblings. Nevertheless, he believes the values fostered in him throughout his upbringing shaped his outlook when it comes to life as a public servant.
Regarding his parents, he states, “I would say that they instilled in me a desire and an understanding of how to be involved in the community,” as well as what he describes as “the work ethic that there’s more to life than earning money, and that you ought to be engaged in something that’s good for your fellow man and the community.”
As for his career in politics, Mayor Giles credits his decision to become politically involved to the individuals he says inspired him shortly after graduating from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “When I was right out of law school,” he explains, “some of my mentors were lawyers that were involved in the community. I think, probably, some of those community-engaged people that I was exposed to early in my professional career made me see that [politics] was an appropriate thing to do professionally…”
Those mentors, combined with what he describes as his own “personal and faith beliefs,” are what he says first drew him to the calling of public service, he says, in addition to his “family heritage,” which he reiterates, consists of the notion that “It’s not just about taking care of yourself; everybody needs to play a role— whether it’s Little League coach or PTO Vice President or whatever— you need to be involved in the community.”
As a young lawyer, Giles served on several city committees, ultimately leading to a successful run for the Mesa City Council, on which he served a single four-year term from 1996 to 2000. However, while he enjoyed his time with the council, he indicates there were other pressing priorities. “I also had a young family, and it was kind of a very busy time professionally for me in that stage of my career … I knew I enjoyed it but it wasn’t the right time of life for me to really pursue it,” he says, noting, “When I left, I had no intention of serving again.”
In the intervening years, Giles continued to focus on his fledgling law practice, building a prominent firm in the heart of Downtown Mesa. It wasn’t until former Mayor Scott Smith announced his gubernatorial bid and subsequent resignation as mayor in January of 2014 that Giles decided to re-enter the political sphere.
After a successful campaign, John Giles was sworn in as the city’s 40th mayor on September 18, 2014. Because Mayor Smith’s resignation came in the middle of his term, Giles knew he had roughly two years to implement his vision for Mesa’s future.
One way the mayor has sought to do that is through economic growth.
In an era where the vox populi seems to be split on whether rapid and widespread growth is an omen of welcome progress or a harbinger for unwanted gentrification, Giles appears to align with the former. Asked about the burgeoning development that has taken place of late, he says, “I’ve noticed a lot of changes. I think change is good,” adding, “I think we need to embrace it … a lot of the change that I’ve witnessed over my lifetime has been positive change.”
Ultimately, Mayor Giles feels, “…that’s the responsibility of the mayor and city government; to realize that change is going to happen, but to do our best to make sure that it is positive change. Growth brings opportunities, and being a big city brings resources and the ability to do big things so that makes Mesa a better place to live.”
Given the drastic transformation that Downtown Mesa has undergone over the past several decades, it is not difficult to understand the mayor’s sentiment. “When I was a kid,” he states, “Main Street and Downtown Mesa was the economic capital of the east valley— people from Chandler and Tempe came here to shop; Downtown Mesa was it.”
Over the years, after the construction of the Tri-City and Fiesta Malls, the US 60, and the Loop 202, Giles says the once-booming economy dropped off. “One reason after another, the lifeblood of Downtown Mesa just kind of got sucked away and we were left with kind of a ghost town.”
Years later, in an effort to revitalize the area, the city built the Mesa Arts Center, and, as Giles puts it, “that’s been a wonderful investment.” In addition to the Arts Center, the mayor attributes another component to the rebirth of the Downtown corridor. “To our credit, he says, “we had the foresight to say ‘yes’ to the light rail coming into Downtown Mesa, bringing it right down the middle of Main Street.”
To hear him tell it, one might visualize the light rail tracks as a newly-forged river, diverting water into a once barren wasteland and causing the new channel’s banks to flourish. “Since that has happened,” he says, “we’ve seen a lot of interest in economic redevelopment in downtown. There’s been a great culture of business people— an arts-oriented, independent business culture— that has developed along Main Street.”
It’s precisely that kind of growth that has recently garnered the attention of organizations like Arizona State University, which has expressed a desire to expand in the area, according Giles. “Since the arrival of the light rail, there’s been a lot more interest … If we hadn’t built the light rail, ASU would have no reason discussing a downtown mesa campus here,” he says.
Another notable way in which the city has grown is through the addition of companies like Apple, who have taken up residence in Mesa’s outer parameters. “That was attracted by the growth of the [Phoenix-Mesa] Gateway airport,” says Giles.
On the effort to maintain and improve that area, the mayor states “The City of Mesa inherited this great opportunity, but also this tremendous, expensive challenge of developing and keeping that airport alive, of preserving it so that it could be the next place for economic development.” Giles gives credit to the city government of the past 30 years “for preserving that [area] and having the foresight to say ‘there’s going to be thousands of jobs out here if we don’t screw this up.’”
“So now,” he says, “with the arrival of the freeway, with ASU-Poly, with the development of the former GM proving grounds, we’ve got beautiful master plan communities— Eastmark and Cadence, everything is coming together— lots of really great businesses have located there, and that set the stage for the city then extending the utility line out … and approving this huge building that later attracted Apple.”
In addition to growth, one of Mayor Gile’s biggest priorities has been education. In January of 2015, the mayor announced the assembly of an Early Childhood Education Task Force, which was aimed at assessing and identifying some of the key challenges in providing Pre-K and early childhood education to more individuals in Mesa.
“Education,” he says, “is one of the core values of Mesa; it’s what distinguishes us from other places— a commitment to education. I think it’s important that we retain that as a character of our community in spite of the inevitable changes that come with growth.” Otherwise, he says, “we just become another set of stoplights in the Phoenix Metropolitan area.”
As for the contentious battle over education that has been waging in the state legislature, Mayor Giles discloses that he was a proponent of the recently-passed Proposition 123.
However, when asked how he would respond to the critique that the proposition only applies a short-term remedy to a long-term problem, while letting state legislators off the hook on their existing obligation, the mayor acquiesces: “I would say they’re 100 percent right; I don’t disagree with them at all. But i think the reality of the situation is … with this legislature, with the political realities that we all have to deal with, we need to take what we can get, and then we need to move on and continue to make progress.”
The mayor continues his reasoning for voting yes, saying, “If we say no to 123, we’re just delaying the resolution, [which is] making any progress when it comes to education funding. So all of the pro-education people that are anti-123, I get it; I don’t disagree with you. But I think it’s short-sighted.”
Pressing further, the mayor states, “If we can get 70 cents on the dollar and settle the lawsuit, and then ride a groundswell of public sentiment to help the legislature understand that we’re not satisfied with being 49th in the country when it comes to education funding, that that’s bad for our economy— we need to continue working on it. But, in the meantime, to just turn down all of this money that we need so desperately right now, to me, is just not smart.”
Currently seeking his second term— his first full term— Mayor Giles says that his aim will remain focused on continuing to fortify the improvements he has worked to bring to the city thus far. “We have some challenges still when it comes to education. I think there’s an important role for the city government to play in that, because this is workforce development. For our city to continue to attract talent and bring in good paying jobs, our stock— what we provide— is a talented workforce, so there are selfish reasons to make sure that our education system is the best.”
Another goal, he says, “…is the basic service that we’ve got to have from city government … public safety. We have big funding needs for public safety.” In a second term, Giles states that he will renew efforts to ensure “that we continue to be a safe city— a city that has good public safety infrastructure and firefighters and police officers so our response times are where they need to be.”
Both of those goals, he insists, “feed into the other goal of economic development.”
Beyond the office of mayor, Giles states that he has no other political aspirations. “I have no intention of doing anything but being the mayor of Mesa; that’s my dream job. I hope to do this job for as long as they’ll let me do it.”
The mayoral election in Mesa will be held on August 30, 2016. Visit the city’s Election Information page for more information.