As normal life returns and Americans look back at the past year with clear eyes, it’s almost difficult to believe the actions that some local officials took to undermine their constituents’ recovery efforts.
Bill de Blasio at the gym. Muriel Bowser at a Delaware campaign event. Eric Garcetti’s threat to shut off water to families who invite private guests into their own homes. We remember these names. Throughout the country, though, local mayors outside of the spotlight followed similar paths, privately dismissing the gravity of COVID-19 while publicly leveraging ‘pandemic porn’ in order to advance political goals—and nowhere was that mismanagement (and personal exploitation) more prevalent, or less covered, than in the U.S.’s fifth-largest city.
There is a reason Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who presided over a coronavirus hotspot in 2020, glossed over the pandemic during her second inaugural speech last Monday.
Gallego—née Widland, prior to her marriage to her now ex-husband, Congressman Ruben Gallego—always had her eyes on this prize. After working for the state party in her 20s, the Democrat’s career followed the trajectory of Peter’s Principle, by which people inadvertently are promoted to their level of incompetence. Gallego’s allies ushered her into various political positions for which she was little-qualified until finding a sweet spot: a safe-blue district on the Phoenix City Council, set to the backdrop of a low-turnout, odd-numbered-year election.
Finally occupying a safe Democratic seat, Gallego became the outspoken pet-project of the progressive left, a coalition of liberal activists and public-sector labor unions that soon would push her to campaign in a special election for mayor, an unexpected turn of events only made possible by the dominos of then-Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema running for the U.S. Senate, at which point Phoenix’s then-mayor, Greg Stanton, resigned in order to run for Sinema’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, thereby vacating his own at City Hall.
In 2019, despite failing to garner even 45 percent in the first round of voting, Gallego took advantage of the anti-Trump sentiment in Phoenix’s dense Democratic downtown, squeaked through the special election’s run-off, and was sworn-in as mayor.
But a once-in-a-generation pandemic was brewing around the corner—and, the city’s residents suddenly realized that Gallego, like the dog that caught the car, wasn’t sure what to do once the prize was in her hands.
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It was clear early on that Arizona would be impacted by this virus. Our state health agency confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Maricopa County, encompassing the city of Phoenix, on January 26, 2020, and immediately activated the Health Emergency Operations Center. The White House formed its Coronavirus Task Force two days after that, at which point the administration was providing ongoing briefings to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey—for whom I have worked, as a disclosure—and other officials.
Gallego herself was late to the game.
For months, the mayor continued to lobby the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to host an in-person presidential primary debate in Phoenix. She hosted promotional events with DNC Chairman Tom Perez and urged tourists to purchase tickets and travel, and her office insisted as late as mid-March that “the debate is moving forward as planned,” dismissing concerns from health experts. (Despite her pleas, the DNC canceled the debate.)
The Democrat spent the rest of the month haplessly attending crowded events with celebrities like rapper Pitbull, oblivious to the pandemic’s growing intensity (and the actions of other officials) around her. Then, without warning on March 17, perhaps realizing the optics of her neglect amid rising case numbers, Gallego decided to overcorrect by issuing a “Great Emergency” declaration—a vast and unchecked executive authority (compared to a “Local Emergency”) that would have allowed the mayor to unilaterally place Phoenix in a state of perpetual lockdown with little to no input.
The problem for her was: No one trusted Gallego’s judgment, especially not the Phoenix City Council. They never did—and the fact that she even attempted to grant herself such a broad power confirmed everything that the council members felt about her in the first place.
Councilman Sal DiCiccio, an outspoken conservative on the Democrat-heavy council, said that granting Gallego “unlimited power” for “however so long she chooses, with no recourse” for accountability was “nothing short of martial law.” And it wasn’t just conservatives who felt that way. The local alt-weekly wrote that the proposal would “represent an unprecedented step” for municipal government, and four liberal members of the council issued a joint statement deeming her “irresponsible to not consider the consequences to working people.”
Her proposal had been dead on arrival, and now it was formally so.
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Incensed about the limits placed on her power, Gallego joined an informal coalition colloquially known as the “Lockdown Lobby”—comprised of Democratic politicians, liberal activist groups, and their subservient allies in the local media—which waged a relentless public relations campaign in the months that ensued with the singular goal of pressuring Republican officials to clamp down on Arizonans’ livelihoods, no matter the cost. Their coalition embraced the concept of overwhelming intimidation.
The mayor—whose oft-used motto itself was a false choice: “Lives over livelihoods”—bragged about the virtue of excessive shutdowns and argued that imposing restrictions that were “too drastic” was “a sign of success.” Her spokeswoman threatened those whose actions presented a risk: “…I will track you down, torture and end you. Will hunt you—you will suffer more than you could ever imagine.”
And, when Steve Chucri, the president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Restaurant Association, sent a private letter to Gallego in July asking for clarification about her call to revert restaurants to take-out-only (after they had already safely re-opened), he didn’t receive a response from her; instead, Congressman Greg Stanton—Gallego’s mayoral predecessor and one of her closest allies—got ahold of it and quietly responded with a letter of his own, which contained a subtle threat that Chucri’s dual role on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors may not be working out.
This intimidation went on throughout the year, as the Lockdown Lobby worked to quash all dissent to its efforts to jam through far-reaching progressive political goals.
The mayor was named co-chair of a liberal group focused on leveraging “the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic” to impose “systemic policy changes.” She signed a letter salivating over how the pandemic provided Democrats “one of the greatest opportunities … our generation has ever seen” to impose strict climate regulations—“and we have to seize it.” She called for subsidies for more “inclusive housing” so that “we don’t simply return to the pre-COVID status quo” and filed a legal brief seeking to undermine the integrity of the state’s ballot proposition process, again using the pandemic as justification.
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What power Gallego lacked to unilaterally make those “systemic policy changes,” though, she made up for by catering to special-interest groups with her power of the purse.
One beneficiary of her budgetary gimmicks: The champagne fundraising circuit.
Gallego had been invited to give the coveted toast at the Annual Art d’Core Gala on March 19, 2020, but the gala was canceled right before the mayor’s “Great Emergency” declaration. On the day of its cancellation, the City of Phoenix cut a $5,000 “sponsorship” check to the host organization. Later that spring, Gallego would re-direct $2.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds to the “arts and cultural” industry, a special program that she bragged on a Center for American Progress conference call was “one of the largest… in the country.” The city ultimately directed more than $35,000, including almost $17,000 in special “emergency assistance,” to the gala’s host throughout the year.
Another beneficiary? The anti-police movement.
One month earlier, vocal “Defund the Police” activists had pressured the Phoenix City Council to establish a highly controversial “civilian oversight” board that they hoped would hamstring the Phoenix Police Department. It almost didn’t pass. But Gallego shut down questions about the council’s confounding priorities amid an increase in COVID-19 cases, including questions from Councilman Jim Waring, who warned that the board would become “another bureaucracy that’s going to cost millions of dollars to the city” in the middle of an impending economic downturn.
Her silenced critics were right. Less than four months after the mayor cast the deciding vote to establish that oversight board, the activists demanded more funding. Gallego then re-directed $2.5 million in funding (on top of the previous $400,000) to the anti-police board. Where did this tax revenue magically come from? When pressed, Gallego’s vice mayor eventually admitted that it was obtained “by using expended COVID-19 related savings.” In other words: A shell game, in order to avoid an ethics probe. “I just don’t believe it is legal,” Councilman DiCiccio said at the time.
The revelation of this shell game made it clear why Gallego had spent so much time pressuring the federal government for “flexibility” in the CARES Act so that municipal governments could “backfill lost revenue.” Much like her ally in southern Arizona, Mayor Regina Romero—who famously complained that the CARES Act “only allows the City of Tucson to use it for COVID-related expenses”—the mayor of Phoenix was bending the law.
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That is because, while others saw pandemic, Gallego saw opportunity—not just for those “systemic policy changes” that progressives wanted to see. Opportunity for herself.
After all, it’s accepted as fact throughout Phoenix city government that Gallego won’t finish her term. Her predecessor resigned mid-term in order to run for Congress, and, with redistricting on the way, her political aspirations have been no secret. And the little-known mayor realized that—with her power now limited by multiple branches of government—she was in the coveted role of ‘backseat driver,’ free to signal how ‘seriously’ she was taking this virus without actually having to bear any responsibility for the consequences of the perpetual lockdown for which she advocated (but could not impose) from her bully pulpit.
The mayor just needed to find a bigger spotlight to capture her signaling. And where better than the fluorescent glow of national television?
As COVID-19 case numbers rose, Gallego’s shadow congressional campaign embarked on a network media blitz to boost her name identification outside of Arizona. Over a six-month period, the mayor managed to sit down for at least 28 national media interviews alone. She appeared on MSNBC, CNN, CBS News, ABC News, and other outlets for softball interviews during which she bragged about her response to the pandemic. Those interviews spanned a jaw-dropping two-and-a-half total hours.
Although Gallego appeared on-air in her ‘official’ government capacity, the videos of her interviews were being quietly uploaded to a YouTube account that, although nondescript on its face, can now be traced back to one of her campaign vendors. In the background, the videos were being funneled into fundraising materials. The underhanded scheme delivered: Gallego—whose authority does not extend beyond the borders of one city within one state—raked in more than $150,000 in out-of-state campaign contributions during the year of the pandemic.
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Gallego, always eager to show up on-set with bewildered eyes and a panicked voice, gave the networks the ‘pandemic porn’ they craved. Ever-thirsty television anchors demanded darker rhetoric and doomier-and-gloomier predictions from guests in order keep up the drumbeat of inevitable apocalypse, and Gallego was happy to crank things up a notch.
Her initial commentary quickly devolved into misleading rants and, by July, had devolved again into a constant stream of bad-faith, flat-out lies that threw the state’s health care workers into chaos.
Early that month, Gallego told anchors on ABC News and MSNBC that Phoenix had entered into a worrisome cloud of helplessness after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decided to abandon Arizona. In reality, not only was the agency actively assisting the state, the White House, baffled, reached out to the mayor within hours of watching her interviews and offered her another follow-up meeting with FEMA the following day. Despite the meetings, she then repeated her initial claims to a third media outlet.
Dr. Brett Giroir, the four-star admiral helping to oversee the White House Coronavirus Task Force, became so incensed with the mayor’s attempt to undermine the pandemic response that he criticized her by name from the briefing room. The admiral added toward the end of his remarks: “…it really pains me when somebody says the federal government isn’t doing anything when we have 41 federal sites there.”
Two days later, the mayor had moved on to another lie.
Appearing again on MSNBC, Gallego begged Chuck Todd and Katy Tur for help. She claimed that she had just found out Maricopa County was “getting refrigerated trucks because the Abrazo health care system has run out of morgue beds.” “It is very scary out here,” she added in her practiced, breathless voice, before repeating the theatrics on two other television networks. The falsehoods became too much even for Abrazo Health, which felt the need to correct the record in order to stop her induced citywide panic: There was, in fact, “adequate morgue space,” and refrigerated trucks were “not needed,” its spokesman said. A spokeswoman for county issued an additional statement to clarify that the data showed “a situation that occurs almost every summer.”
Two more days later—despite health care systems, government entities, and others speaking out—the mayor appeared on ‘Face the Nation’ and told viewers in the starkest of terms about the “very difficult situation” in Arizona regarding morgue capacity, as if the public rebukes had never happened.
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Gallego knew that she would never be taken to task for what she had said and done. After all, the mayor had a (D) after her name, and the media companies whose job it was to hold her accountable profited off of the constant panic that she, herself, was inducing. The conflict of interest enabled this leader of the Lockdown Lobby to do as she pleased, both publicly and privately, no questions asked.
The Phoenix City Council had only given her an inch, but Gallego was intent on stretching it into a mile, with aggressive lockdown tactics that went further than common-sense health restrictions and bordered on flagrant civil liberties violations.
First, she attempted to shut down golf courses and hiking trails. Then she locked families out of parks on Easter and urged strangers to track down and “report large gatherings” over the Christian holiday to the police department. (Even the American Civil Liberties Union criticized that one.) Asked during the summer if she was “in favor of a total state shutdown again,” she responded that she was “ready to act.” Her spokeswoman warned that her lockdown measures would have “teeth” and advised Arizonans to “fall in line.” The mayor would later complain that it was “not going to be possible to have enforcement actions at people’s homes if they are having big Thanksgivings in their dining rooms.”
It went on like this.
Privately, though, out of the spotlight, Gallego dismissed the gravity of the pandemic, winking-and-nodding at her political allies that, whatever they wanted to do, not to worry about the consequences.
She pressured President Trump cancel his upcoming rally in the city, despite lobbying DNC to bring an in-person Democratic debate to Phoenix. Despite telling Republicans that it was not “appropriate” for them to attend events, she rolled her eyes at the notion that Democrat-allied protests would spread the virus. (Asked if “protesters should be being a better example of distancing”—a reference to the Black Lives Matter and “Antifa” riots sweeping across the state—she responded timidly: “It really is up to us as individuals. We each make our own safety decisions.”)
Gallego backed the teachers’ union’s call to keep schools locked down but attended a large event in support of “virtual-only learning” … in-person, without a mask. In fact, despite criticizing Republican “elected officials who are not wearing masks” for “not modeling good behavior” and “confusing our residents,” the mayor frequently was seen at crowded Democratic campaign events—standing next to Kamala Harris, America Ferrera, Jessica Alba, and other celebrities—without wearing one.
But there were never any questions posed to her about this hypocrisy in real time. During one notable exchange about masks, Gallego was able to effortlessly deflect by telling the anchor: “You should see my email.” The mayor (over)shared how she recently saw “porn videos where people are wearing face masks” and added: “I don’t think they were sending it to me as a compliment of my good decision-making …” The two giggled and moved on.
Such remained her relationship with the media throughout the pandemic.
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It has now been more than one year since Gallego issued her “Great Emergency” declaration. More than one year since she attempted a power grab allowing her to place Phoenix in a state of perpetual lockdown.
More than one year since she locked Arizonans out of their own parks on Easter Sunday, while promising distraught Christian families that, although she was prohibiting them from enjoying their usual “Easter tradition” in the parks in 2020, they could “look forward to next year,” when they would finally be allowed to get “back to these great traditions.” So, on March 7, 2021, after Gallego was spotted at a crowded Democratic campaign event at a park, many were optimistic that she would follow through on her promise from one year earlier. On Easter Sunday, though, those Christian families woke up to city parks with closed-down lots and locked-up barbecue grills.
The little-known mayor of the U.S.’s fifth-largest city had done it again.
To this day, Gallego has not been held accountable, by the media or otherwise, for the harm she caused. Her inaction was forgotten, her lies were dismissed, and her hypocrisy was ignored. But the long-term damage she inflicted on this beautiful city has not gone unnoticed—and, hopefully, will never be forgotten—by those of us who are proud to live underneath Arizona’s resilient desert skies.
Brian Anderson is the founder of the Saguaro Group, an Arizona-based research firm.
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