Aspiring medical student. Snowmobile repairman. Sled-dog musher. Working with indigenous people in Canada. Man of the cloth. They’re all part of his life’s journey that shaped him and step by step brought Kevin Hartke to be mayor of Chandler.
He was lead pastor at Trinity Christian Fellowship from 1992 to 2018 and remains an associate pastor. He was appointed to fill a remaining term on Chandler City Council in 2008 and then elected to consecutive terms, serving 2011 to 2019. He has been mayor for two years.
wranglernews.com was granted an extensive interview with Hartke, which will be presented in two parts. In the first today, we get to know Hartke, 65, the person. In the next, we’ll look at Hartke the politician.
Question: Is it easier to deal with a City Council or a team of sled dogs?
Answer: Oh boy, there’s a lot more comparisons than you would think, but sled dogs. Definitely. What I found with sled dogs is once they know where they’re going and heading home, they’re all in agreement. Before then, not so much.
Q: Oldtimers will know this about you but Chandler is such a growing city that there probably are thousands who would be surprised to know that you are a pastor. A pastor who is in politics. That might seem incongruent. How do you make it work?
A: You know, the first election I was in, that became an issue that one of my opponents, in particular, brought up. His concern was that somehow I didn’t belong despite my efforts to remind him that one of our founding constitutional penners was Witherspoon (John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and was a member of the Continental Congress), who was a pastor as well as one of our early leaders of our Constitution. There’s always been a place for people of faith and passion to serve in leadership anywhere and everywhere. In Chandler, I’ll be honest with you, it’s kind of fun because the city in some ways is a larger parish that you have to listen to people, you solve problems and you build things for the greater community. There’s really a lot of similarities between the two.
Q: So you grew up in St. Louis, went to Missouri as a biochemistry undergrad. What were you going to do with that?
A: I was heading for med school. And I had applied for med school. I had a season of time (while waiting) so I moved up to northern Minnesota to work at a camp, kind of an Outward Bound wilderness camp in the middle of the boundary waters on the Canadian border. I was going to do it for a summer and I got involved in it and decided that I was going to linger for a while longer. And I lingered for a little while, moved across the street, proverbially, I met my wife and I spent the next five years living on Indian reserves in northern Canada serving Ojibway and Cree people.
Q: That’s where you encountered snowmobiles and sled dogs?
A: Exactly. There was so much snow. It’s not quite what you get in Alaska but several folks who had dogs up there were training for the Iditarod in Alaska. I was helping someone else who had dogs. I never had my own teams.
Q: So if I had an issue with my snowmobile could I call you to come fix it?
A: You know, I moved down here with two. I would do stuff with kids. In the winter we would go up north and we would ride them and I was pretty good at fixing them. I could tear apart a carburetor. I had a piece of cardboard so I didn’t lose things in the snow. That’s a skill I look back on fondly but I wouldn’t trust my abilities now.
“I’m a relational guy and I love helping people and I love staying in relationships to see how people are continuing to thrive.”
–Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke
Q: What did you learn managing sled dogs, being on the sled with them and developing a relationship with the animals?
A: They’re all individuals. There’s definitely a lead dog. At times, they squabble and you’ve got to break up fights. I still think one of my favorite memories was of a sunset on an icy road, in which you could see their puffs of steam and you could hear their feet clapping and the sliding of the rails. I have really fond memories of being able to do those things.
Q: Was it working with those indigenous people, helping them, that convinced you to go into the seminary?
A: I was involved with faith groups at the University of Mizzou for quite some time. When I moved up there, the wilderness organization was taking out treatment groups — alcohol groups, drug treatment or church groups — and taking them into the boundary waters. So it was decidedly faith-based. Then the organization I moved across the street with was definitely a Christian organization. We would fly up and stay in Anglican mission bases, these old log cabins up there. It was very interdenominational type of work. One of the villages was, at the time, the suicide capital of Manitoba. A lot of kids would soak their gloves in gasoline and just sniff. Certainly you could see some manifestations of heavy-metal deposits in brains and other tissue. So it was a pretty sad place. If you have 40-below-zero nights and you fall asleep outside either because you were intoxicated or under the influence of gasoline it’s pretty unforgiving.
Q: Was completing Fuller Theological Seminary the next step that brought you down here?
A: I actually started Fuller after I came down here. They have an extension campus here in Phoenix. I started Fuller thinking I just want to expand my education. I took a class on youth ministry. After about 2-3 years of that, I thought let’s just go finish my masters here. A good experience.
Q: So what was it that did bring you to Chandler?
A: Sometimes with nonprofits you have a strong, dynamic founder. When they start turning over because of their age or health to new leaders there can be a lot of upheaval in the organization. We saw that up in Manitoba. We wanted to open a second base for this mission organization up in Thompson, Manitoba, closer to where we were working with other Cree villages. The organization wasn’t ready for it. We were invited to stay but I just didn’t see a future with that particular organization. So we started looking elsewhere. At one point, I was looking at building houses up in Minnesota or moving to an organization in Dallas. In fact, when I got the call to come visit here I was in Dallas visiting some teams I had served on a medical mission. I got this call. When I went back and talked with my wife it was about 40 below zero up there and I thought Arizona sounds good.
Q: Had you ever been to Arizona before?
A: Never had. Never had been to the Grand Canyon or a lot of things.
Q: What did you think when you saw this place?
A: The first thing I noticed was no coat racks in buildings. So that was pretty interesting. I found myself taking pictures of saguaro cactus. Swimming pools in the winter were an unusual thought coming from there. In January it wasn’t that big of a deal to go jump in a pool. We were pretty awed by this, as most northerners are when they come down here. We love the people. We decided that if they asked us we would move down here.
Q: Can you share some of the memorable experiences in your work at Trinity Christian Fellowship?
A: They’re great people. I always feel I have something I can learn from someone. From there, I think I better learned how to be a leader. My lead pastor there, Tom Ewing, is still alive in his 90s. I learned a lot from him. I learned how to be a better father from some of the men in the church. They are very community oriented so it’s an extension of family. It’s still that way today. It’s been a support base. When I first was asked to consider running for Council I went to my family there and asked for them to pray and what they thought. That was a big decision for me and I really needed their input.
Q: Do you have a memory that you are proudest of helping people there?
A: I’ve led a lot of teams on mission trips into Mexico. Those have always been great to take children and youth out of our culture to better appreciate it and have a different perspective on life and seeing other communities. I’ve enjoyed doing that. One of the things I brought to Chandler, and we were among the first churches involved, was the I Help Program. We borrowed from Tempe, who borrowed from Modesto, California. I’m still heavily involved with that.
I’ve got several folks who have been homeless and are now my friends. Some of them go to our church, some of them don’t. One of the men a couple of years ago, whose first name was Fred, I had him do an oral history with our museum folks. He was a prize fighter in 1970 so he fought Cassius Clay before he was Muhammad Ali. He fought and knew Zora Folley (who lived in Chandler for many years). He was a good boxer. So here he is 1970 to 2019, nearly 50 years later, and Fred is homeless living in Chandler. He showed up at our church for I Help Night. I ended up sitting with him and having dinner. We just struck up a friendship. At one point, he’s telling me how healthy he is and says, “Go ahead, Mayor, punch me in the stomach, I’m in great shape.” So I look at what we call the headline test: “Mayor punches homeless guy.” I could only dream to be in as good of shape as he is. He’s now up in Washington. He still calls me. I’m a relational guy and I love helping people and I love staying in relationships to see how people are continuing to thrive.
Q: Against that background, what moved you to go into politics?
A: So I moved to Chandler in 1985 and I’ve been a pastor at Trinity Christian Fellowship, and I still am, although I am no longer the lead pastor. I’m on staff of a fine man that I brought here 25 years ago and now he’s got the helm of the church. I was fine the first several years just looking at the needs of the church. Then at some point, I saw that beyond just the well-being of a church and the parishioners and a growing church there was an entire community that has its own needs. Whether they are perceived spiritual needs or not, it’s the community in which I’ve been called to live and serve. So back in about 1990, I really embraced that simple little statement, “bloom where you’re planted.” I started volunteering at the city on alley cleanups, on Cesar Chavez Day and other kinds of things. I was asked to serve on a charter revision and then I chaired the first Chandler Human Relations Commission. So it was just getting involved and seeing how I could help. When there was an opening on Council, I had received several calls saying put your name in for it, so I did, and I was appointed.
Q: You’ve never lost an election?
A: That’s not true, I lost my first election. After I was appointed in 2008, I decided to run in 2009 and I think there was Matt Orlando, Rick Heumann, Jack Sellers and myself and a couple of others in there, and in the primary I came in fourth by 23 votes to Jack Sellers. Had I won that election, I would not have been appointed to the Planning and Zoning Commission to learn more about things in that. I would not have, probably, started my nonprofit, For Our City Chandler – and we just did a successful backpack drive and we’re doing a community-revitalization project in October. And a few other things. And it also kicked me back a cycle to where I was on the cycle to eventually run for mayor.
Q: So a happy accident that may have better prepared you?
A: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I think anyone who’s going to run for a political office, to be successful you really have to put your heart and soul into it. It’s a lot of work. It doesn’t seem like a happy accident when you lose, but as in most things, the older you get the more hindsight, and you can better interpret things and it becomes a little less traumatic when you go through hard times.
Read Part 2 of the wranglernews.com exclusive interview with Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke HERE!