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Meet our episode 40 guest Mayor Kate Gallego

To build the economy of the future, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego manages one of our nation’s youngest and fastest growing cities with a long-term focus, a healthy investment in public transit, and the support of key community partners.

Public transportation plays a significant role in economic development, but did you know it has health benefits as well? Check out this blog post to learn more!

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Gallego: Kate Gallego

Cohen: Phoenix is home to not only great food, urban parks, and museums but also home to Mayor Kate Gallego who recently and convincingly turned back a challenge to the city’s investment in light rail. You’ll hear how she did it coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Mayor Kate Gallego of our nation’s fifth most populous city, Phoenix, Arizona. Prior to her election earlier this year, Mayor Gallego served on the Phoenix City Council from 2013 to 2018 as well as in strategy and economic-development roles for the Salt River Project, the local electric and water utility. Welcome to The Movement, Mayor Gallego.

Gallego: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Cohen: Well, let’s start with what was a great beginning to your term of mayor, which was that voters rejected a ballot proposition that would have halted the investments the Phoenix area has made in light rail. So tell me about that.

Gallego: Thank you so much. So while I was running for mayor some activist groups put a ballot initiative on that would have ended our light rail expansion. The light rail system is personally important to me. I first got involved with the City of Phoenix through serving on the Environmental Quality Commission, advocating for a more sustainable Phoenix. I believe strongly that we need to provide transportation options to our community, that we need a great bus system; we need to have a walkable city; we need to have a strong rail system. My first citywide initiative as a councilwoman actually was an effort to triple the right rail. So it was a little bit of a surprise that my first major effort as mayor was to come right back and work on that.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gallego: When we’d expanded light rail citywide it was on the ballot with investments in our bus system, sidewalks, and streets. This election was only focused on whether we wanted to see our light rail. I’m very proud that in every single one of our council districts voters supported our light rail system. It actually won by more than when we had the Complete Street package on the ballot.

Cohen: Wow.

Gallego: So it was a great message, I think, from the Phoenix voters to elected officials that they do want to see our light rail system. It won in the most conservative Republican districts and the most progressive Democratic districts. I also hope that sends a great message to the rest of the country, that we are a community that cares very much about transportation options and sustainability.

Cohen: Yeah. And so you mentioned that it passed throughout the city. Do you have a sense on what about that message and light rail itself has allowed for that? Is it that the folks have been able to integrate that into their lives and it’s been able to help people have access to those jobs? Which I know economic development is a big part of your platform as mayor and your background. Do you have a sense on, like, what some of the stories are that you’ve heard from those voters that led them to say, “Yes. Of course, we need to keep investing in this”?

Gallego: We did hear from our voters that there were a wide variety of reasons they supported it, but one was how much it’s done for our education system. We have a large number of particularly high schools and colleges along our system. And our voters want our educators to have as much money to put in the classroom. So if we can have a great transportation system for our students and don’t have to spend dollars on school busses or parking garages, that seemed to be a win for our whole community. People have also really appreciated the growth and investment along the light rail. When we hear from large employers, they often ask us, “What sites do you have available?” along our light rail system, “Our employees want to be able to use it.” So it has been a powerful economic development tool.

Cohen: Sure.

Gallego: And then we had an amazing ally in our groups representing older adults such as AARP. They want their members to be able to age in place, be able to stay in their home even if driving is not a solution any longer. And so they were very powerful supporters.

Cohen: I think that’s definitely important. And I think we’re seeing that quite a bit around the country with folks looking to retire and great climates and with access to a lot of the region, which obviously light rail and buses and so forth allow for. So I want to maybe transition a little bit to your governing Phoenix now. It’s obviously such an attractive place to live. You know, we just talked about that, and it’s seen a ton of growth over the past few years. And obviously, as you know—and you were in council during this time—with that growth also comes challenges—right—affordable housing, homelessness, environmental issues. So how do you ensure that the city tackles these issues in a systematic way or systemic way rather and not in silos?

Gallego: That’s something that requires constant attention, but we’ve had some great partnerships across our city. One that we’re working on is related to our largest affordable housing project, one that we call the Edison-Eastlake project. And we are building more than a thousand units as part of that project.

Cohen: Wow.

Gallego: Some of the units are for people who’ve experienced homelessness, but we’re also trying to do income-mixed-use community, which we believe are the healthiest and most successful types of community.

Cohen: Sure.

Gallego: We have a great partnership on that project to address heat related issues with Arizona State University. So they’re looking at our building materials, our design of our communities, even pathways to transit as we address heat. And we’re hoping to really create some innovative solutions in built communities that are responsible and help us adapt to heat-related challenges. So I hope that as we address one challenge we also try to solve others as opposed to ignoring them.

Cohen: Is there anything that you kind of do as mayor to help make sure that some of those issues get tackled in that way? I mean, do you have to kind of, like, help guide some of those conversations to really ensure that we don’t just solve a problem, which is obviously an important problem, but do it in a way that maybe has some unintended consequences that maybe have some negative externalities that we hadn’t thought about?

Gallego: We have wonderful city employees who are very solution oriented. Part of my job is making sure they have the resources to lift up great ideas and that we have people in positions that can work across department boundaries. One of the things I did early on was support the creation of a—we’ve been calling the person a housing czar, but I’m told that we have to maybe transition to more government speak, affordable housing program manager—

Cohen: Okay.

Gallego: —but a person who can work across departments so that as the airport is managing their land, if they have land that makes sense for housing, can we move that forward?

Cohen: Yeah.

Gallego: Or as Environmental Programs is managing their programs, can we also think about the other challenges facing our community? So I hope that I’m putting systems in place that will help great ideas rise to the top.

Cohen: So I know a theme of your candidacy was building a city that works for everyone and the importance of long-term planning and outlooks. And you’ve even alluded in prior conversations that this was influenced by your role as a mother of a two-year-old son. So I know this long-term planning requires tough choices. I think you’ve opposed funding for some professional sports facilities. What can our audience learn about how you make those tough choices about where you make investments and what you make investments in?

Gallego: We have limited resources in local government, and so we have to prioritize. We have to think about where we can invest that will try to build the economy of the future and the city of the future. So from my perspective big investments in professional sports facilities for enormously profitable enterprises isn’t as essential as bringing in educational opportunity.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gallego: For example, Phoenix was once fairly recently the largest city in the country without a medical school. The city has been very involved in growing medical education in our community, often being the landlord, helping build the buildings. People who live in Phoenix who are listening should not worry. We are not actually educating the doctors, but we are creating the space and political support for that type of important innovation. And that’s the type of city I want to build, where we have knowledge-based economy and where we can provide the best medical care for our residents as well as supporting great entrepreneurial medical companies.

Cohen: You know, you’re focused on the long term—right—investing in things like education and so forth and long-term job growth. That doesn’t hit the newspaper sometimes in the same way that the local sports team would. So do you worry a little bit about that, that sometimes that message might not get through to the general public?

Gallego: There is a huge temptation in government, as I think for many businesses, to look for the next election or the next quarterly report. But I hope when I leave people will say, “She really thought long term about the city we leave behind for our children.” I understand I have to be able to communicate at the next election what I’ve accomplished, but I think that shouldn’t prevent you from thinking long term and taking on projects where you won’t have the final results until I am long gone. I hope to really be here at a critical time for the city and move us towards what will be a leading, American and I hope leading, global city.

Cohen: Yeah. No, and I know infrastructure is another area that I think you’ve put a lot of thought behind as far as how to continue to invest in the needed infrastructure, which is by its very nature a very long-term investment.

Gallego: Exactly. We really do have to think generationally. We are a great country in the United States because of investments that people who came before us—so the transit system in most of our major cities allows vibrancy. I have a different challenge in Phoenix. We are now the fastest-growing city in the country and a very, very young city.

Cohen: Sure.

Gallego: I get to make decisions that I think—or be part of decisions that will impact the city for generations. I feel like right now in the City of Phoenix we are building the city of the future, whereas so many American cities, their footprint is not likely to change as much as Phoenix’s. Our skyline is changing enormously. It’s a very exciting role to be in this particular city at this moment.

Cohen: Yeah, that is a good way to frame it. So I want to maybe transition to leadership, you know, maybe some specific leaders that have impacted you, ones that you look to and respect and maybe specifically what you’ve seen them do that helps them be successful. Because the fundamental premise of the work I’m trying to profile here on the podcast and the work I’m doing is really helping to profile and then build those next great leaders to build this equitable and green and accessible future that we all want to live in. So who are some of those leaders that really resonate with you, and what do they do that really makes them successful in what they do?

Gallego: We have had amazing mayors in the City of Phoenix, but one who comes to mind first to me is Terry Goddard. He was the mayor a few decades ago and really setup to invest in our downtown to build a vibrant, urban core. He also created so many of our modern institutions for the city, including several citizen-led committees that help us plan what our city looks like. He created the Environmental Quality Commission, which gave me my start, so really saying, “Citizens, we want you to have the structures and support for your great ideas to rise.” He was a great progressive leader ahead of his time on many issues. I am leading and working on things that he started, and in some cases he was way ahead of the voters who now completely understand why they make sense. He was a great advocate for transit, a great advocate for reinvesting in our key corridors along our river. And so it’s wonderful that he is still living in Phoenix and can be a partner as we move forward.

Cohen: Wow. And has he been a mentor to you, somebody you’ve been able to turn to especially as you’ve taken over the mayoral seat here in the last year?

Gallego: Yes, I speak with him fairly regularly, and we’ll have new challenges. He is often great about connecting with resources to understand how we addressed the challenge in the past. He’s also very civically engaged at the moment. He is leading an initiative to outlaw anonymous political contributions.

Cohen: Hmm.

Gallego: And that’s one I’m excited to see, I hope, on our statewide ballot. He helped us in the City of Phoenix with an initiative that past overwhelmingly to do the same at the city level.

Cohen: Sure.

Gallego: Unfortunately it was not implemented by the time we did our transportation campaign, and you did see anonymous political contributions, but we are optimistic that that was the last election in which that will be the case.

Cohen: Sure. Well, let’s maybe wrap up with this, which is for folks who haven’t been to Phoenix and who want to come visit, what would you recommend they do when they come visit?

Gallego: We have a city that really, really prioritizes our outdoors. We have two of the largest urban parks in the entire country, beautiful mountain parks. So I would certainly enjoy the great outdoors in the City of Phoenix. If you’re particularly in a community with a lot of gray skies and need the blue ones, we come about as close to a guarantee as you can get. We also have a great culinary scene with Southwestern influenced ingredients and beverages and certainly hope that you can enjoy that. We may be best known for our resorts and relaxation, but we have really great cultural institutions, including what I consider the best museum for Native American culture, the Heard Museum, as well as our Musical Instrument Museum which I think has one of the largest collections of instruments anywhere.

Cohen: Wow.

Gallego: So whatever you’re looking for, we hope you can find it in our fifth-largest city in the United States.

Cohen: That’s great. And if you come in via air, I know Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport—I know that’s one of the things you’ve been working on. There’s going to be a big expansion there as well. So I expect there will be some changes there over the next few years as well.

Gallego: And our airport is very close to our downtown. You can hop on light rail and start your vacation almost immediately.

Cohen: And on transit. [LAUGHS]

Gallego: Yes.

Cohen: Well, excellent. Well, thank you, Mayor Gallego. I appreciate you taking the time to share some of these lessons and influences on how you’re leading a very large and growing U.S. city, and wish you the best of luck in your term.

Gallego: Wonderful. Thank you to The Movement.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at


Public transportation plays a significant role in economic development, but did you know it has health benefits as well? Check out this blog post to learn more!