By Lee Shappell
Tempe, which prides itself on being a cutting-edge, progressive community, has long been a Valley leader on social issues.
Its downtown, where construction cranes continue to dot the skyline, paints the portrait of a young, wealthy, vibrant, urban hub – with the remnants of a flour mill in the middle of it all as a reminder of where it once was.
Corey Woods has lived in the city since moving to Arizona two decades ago. He served two terms on City Council, from 2008 to 2016, rising to vice mayor during the throes of the Great Recession. Now, after replacing two-term incumbent Mark Mitchell in March with 57 percent of the vote, Woods is the new mayor. He’s a dynamic young voice, a polished communicator, connected and energetic. At 41, he seems to be the perfect reflection of this thriving city and a good fit to lead it.
If only it were that easy. The COVID- 19 pandemic hit just before the election.
Among its victims was Woods, who learned shortly before his inauguration through an Arizona State University Biodesign Department-created saliva-based test that he had the virus.
His symptoms were mild but he was sworn in virtually from his kitchen table while in quarantine.
As with the Great Recession, the city now faces another fiscal challenge from the ravages of the pandemic. Woods also takes office amid national outcry over police brutality, especially toward Black citizens.
This hits particularly close to home for Woods, Tempe’s first African-American mayor.
Numerous challenges. Unprecedented times.
“I think what our city needs now more than ever is someone who can build a coalition of diverse people and bring them to the table in an open, honest way to discuss some of our toughest topics,” Woods said.
In an exclusive interview with Wrangler News, Woods addressed a wide range of issues facing the city as he assumes office.
Some responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: The first question is, how are you doing?
Answer: I’m great, actually, completely recovered, doing just fine, working as hard as ever. I got my negative test back from ASU Biodesign on July 16. I’d been basically working from home since March so nothing really has changed. Tempe City Hall is still closed to the public, so I’m spending more time (working at home) than I ever thought I would be. I’m “The Pandemic Mayor,” but it is what it is.
Q: How are you conducting Tempe’s business? Through video conferencing?
A: Absolutely. I’m on a lot of video conferences during the course of a day, with staff members to get up to speed on existing projects, with residents who have concerns on certain key issues; some are based on my policy agenda and the agenda of the Council. We are not just letting COVID shut down the work of the city. We are committed to furthering a robust policy agenda.
Q: What’s the first thing you did as mayor that made you want to fist pump in pride and say, “Yeah, I’m the mayor”?
A: I think for me, the evening of the swearing in was very personal. I remember for years talking to my parents about what I wanted to do. My mom passed away eight years ago from ovarian cancer. She really deeply believed in the path that I was taking on the public-service side, as does my father, still. Just getting to that point was
very emotional and a wonderful experience. Everything else has been one big thrill, quite honestly. I’ve had conversations with residents about traffic-calming issues, conversations about what we’re going to do to flatten the curve when it comes to COVID, what we’re going to do for the business community when it comes to COVID recovery, making sure that even though this is going on right now that we’re planning for the future. You have to have your plans ready to launch when this finally does go away. Then, I’m doing a whole bunch of things meeting our goals of increasing affordable housing, addressing issues with our homeless population. There’s a lot on my plate and on the city’s plate in general and I’m just excited to be here.
Q: Wrangler News has long been delivered to homes south of U.S. 60, and some of those residents have expressed feeling disenfranchised, that the emphasis of City Hall is on the city center, Mill Avenue and the ASU community. What do you say to residents in the southern part of the city who might feel left out?
A: I would say that this Council has people who live in every ZIP code in the city. I believe we now have three members who live south of the 60 and we care about every single inch of this 42-square-mile city. Part of it goes back to conversations years ago, the Character Area process. Residents outlined strengths and deficits of their community, and they’re looking for actions by the Council to fulfill those. In South Tempe, south of the 60, we hear people say they want more arts and culture. They don’t want to have to go north to Rio Salado. They want more things like Arts in the Park, nicer restaurants, wine bars, coffee shops like people who live downtown have, because they’d also like to be able to bike, or walk, or take a short car drive to them. We hear them say there are a lot of things coming that they didn’t ask for, but on things they did ask for, they don’t see any movement. That’s where the frustration becomes apparent. We are here to serve the public and all seven of us are committed to really listening to their concerns and doing the best we can to bring them the amenities they want.
Q: We see the numbers every day and you know as well as anyone the toll that COVID-19 is taking on people, but what about the financial hit that the city is taking from the pandemic? Do you have projections on the revenue shortfall because of it?
A: When I came in, I had a conversation with our deputy city manager, Ken Jones, and the number he quoted me was $14 million. It’s a hefty shortfall, but at the same time I will say that when I first came into office in 2008 as a Council member at 29 years old in the middle of the Great Recession, the shortfall was $34.5 million. So while this seems daunting, it’s actually $20 million less than when I started 12 years ago. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. I really worry about people who are under employed and unemployed and small-business people who are struggling. I bring up the 2008 times because while I’m definitely new at being mayor, I’m used to coming into situations where there is a lot of adversity where we’re not flush with cash. It’s something I understand; I’ve been through this before, and I’m going to try to bring those experiences to the table in my new role as mayor. I do believe that as a community, we’re going to be fine at the end of the day.
Q: Will Tempe have to cut back on services as a result of the pandemic?
A: A couple of things: We have a very healthy fund balance at the city of Tempe. I know that toward the end of the past fiscal year it was around $96 million in the bank savings as our “rainy-day fund.” So we are a fiscally healthy city. City management has done a very good job of streamlining and making sure we are being careful with our taxpayers’ money.
However, one of the things I learned early in my political career is that you have to be careful spending one-time money on recurring expenditures.
I think that we are going to have to take a hard look at our operating budget and figure out places where we might be able to get through the storm just by waiting things out, and some places where we might have to look at other efficiencies and say this is something we may not be able to continue in its current form.
One of the conversations I had with Ken Jones was (he said), “You know, Corey, in this situation, given how unprecedented it is, there are going to be lots of opportunity for this new Council to make mid-year adjustments to the budget.”
When folks were coming to us to express their concerns about police reform in May and June, the biggest thing I was trying to convey on social media and privately was that the Council has to pass a budget by statute, but that doesn’t mean that we’re done with this conversation and that we’re not going to revisit this issue and several others. There are likely going to have to be some tough calls made on a bunch of things. I’m studying the budget so I know where we really sit to make sure we make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions, to know where we want to go and to make sure we have the funds to get us to those points.
Q: So will you make cuts to the Police Department? Do you support defunding the police?
A: The challenge is that term means different things to different people. There are some people who read “defund the police” as a full dissolving of the Police Department.
There are some where all they’re talking about is reallocating certain kinds of resources. If there are resources at the Police Department, like social services or mental-health counseling that would be better suited in a Human Services Department, that would probably be a better way to go and we’d like to see some of those resources moved over there.
I can’t speak for everyone on the Council, but I think that’s where I’m at and I would think that’s where most of the Council is, as well.
I’m not a police officer, but I would think they didn’t get into the job because they wanted to be a mental-health counselor. There are people who are trained in that area and that is their special skill set,their expertise, and that is what they do on a daily basis. Those are opportunities to look at the Police Department’s budget. I think a lot of our officers might even welcome that change. They might say they didn’t get into this line of work to do that, they got into it to fight crime and protect people.
It’s all a matter of recognizing that we are living in times where people are beginning to examine all of these systems and beginning to say that just because we’ve done things a certain way over the years doesn’t mean that is how we should continue to do them. That applies to everything. Are we getting the results we want? If the answer is no, how do we go in and shore up those areas, or change staffing around, or change some responsibilities? What’s working and what isn’t? We have to be honest with one another, and we have to have some hard conversations. But as long as we’ve got that honesty and people willing to engage, you can chart a really good path into the future.
Q: What is your impression of the Tempe Police Department?
A: My overall view is we’ve got a great department. I have really enjoyed working with our chief (Sylvia Moir). I think she’s great. I know a lot of the men and women who are in the rank-and-file of the department and I have great relationships with them. They do a great job every day.
I do know, though, in conversations I’ve had with the chief and our union representatives and others I’ve heard, that we are doing things really well but we feel we can probably improve upon them by changing some things. We’re working on that internally on what would be considered a package of reforms that I think people will be very, very impressed with, while maintaining the high level of safety and service that we are known for and while also updating policies and procedures and training to make sure we continue to be effective. Those conversations include use of force, de-escalation and Citizen Review Board. When I’ve brought those items to Chief Moir, or anyone in her command staff, or our union representatives, none of those things have been off the table. Never has anyone said we’re not going there. So I’m very encouraged that we’re going to be able to work collaboratively moving into the future.
I’m encouraged by the performance of our department. We’ve done a lot right. I think the city of Tempe cannot only be a regional leader but also be a national leader when it comes to these issues.
Q: When should the police stand down and let demonstrators exercise their First Amendment rights and when should the police step into a violent situation and take command?
A: There is a clear difference. Organizing and protesting and trying to make a point about certain policy changes or certain actions you feel your government needs to take, I think that is totally fine. I think at the point where people begin destroying property or engaging in a physical confrontation with another person, that clearly isn’t going to be acceptable and someone has to step in and make sure that isn’t taking place. The point I would make is that this goes well beyond issues pertaining to policing. You have to be careful. People try to lump people who are organizing with people who are unruly. The overwhelming majority of people who are out talking about these issues because they’re important in these very pivotal times right now, I think their voices and opinions have to be respected.
Q: There are demonstrations from coast to coast, including Tempe, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement with regard to police brutality toward Black people. What is your opinion of the movement?
A: What I tell people all the time is we are living in times where there’s a lot of change. The community’s expectations are shifting. I think that’s why we’re seeing protests and demonstrations in the streets. People are basically saying that what might have been the models that we were OK with 20 or 30 years ago are not the models that we might want in the year 2020. I fully support people’s rights to organize and to speak to their government about the issues that are important to them, especially in a place like Tempe that’s a very progressive, forward-moving city.
In terms of my personal connection, I do recognize that with me being the first African-American mayor of the city there are a different set of expectations. Many times, folks who have been active in the police-reform movement have an expectation that I have a deep understanding of these issues as an African-American male who grew up on the East Coast. I know they are expecting me to deliver on some of those. I am definitely all for taking up that challenge and making sure that we are meeting the needs of all members of our community and balancing that with the need for people to feel safe in their homes, feel safe in their parks and everywhere else. The light may shine a little bit brighter on me in this moment. I have a father who worked for the National Urban League when I was growing up. My parents were very active in the civil rights movement. Those are the stories I grew up hearing. I’m very well steeped in those. At the same time, I also have police officers in my extended family. I’ve been touched by all the people I grew up with and that surrounded me, and so I think that I’ve got a good sense of a lot of the different perspectives on this issue, and I can bring some of those to the table.
Q: Do you see a glaring racial divide in Tempe?
A: Honestly, no. But in every community there are people who feel they’ve been left out of the economic prosperity of the city, feel they’re not getting all of the resources and the things they need. We can never turn a blind eye. We always have to make sure we are listening. We need to do everything we can to bring them in.
I was accepted into the city with open arms. The overwhelming number of people I’ve come into contact with in this city are honest, hard-working, good people who are just trying to provide for their families and do the best they can to be good citizens. Tempe is an incredible place and why it’s the only city I’ve lived in in Arizona. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Q: You easily unseated a two-term incumbent mayor who served the city for 20 years. Why do you think you received that overwhelming support? What do you bring to Tempe as mayor?
A: Mayor Mitchell and I are friends. We had several conversations during the transition. We have definitely maintained a good, positive relationship during all of this, and I appreciate that.
I would go back to a conversation that he and I had at one point. We basically said we’re going to put our respective platforms out there and the voters will make a decision.
I would hear concerns about the traffic and feeling they couldn’t move about the city in any kind of reasonable time period. I would hear concerns that if we’re going to really be a diverse, inclusive city, we have to make sure we have housing for people of all different backgrounds and demographics, and I’m concerned that were losing that. There was concern that, with emphasis on business, we don’t lose emphasis on small or intermediate-size business, the people who live here and put their money back into our community. Those were the things I campaigned on from April of 2019 up to Election Day. Those ideas and concepts about vision resonated with the people of Tempe. They connected with that and I think that’s why my campaign was successful.