Is Mesa’s Latter-day Saint mayor leaving the Republican Party — or leading it?
Mesa, Arizona Mayor John Giles has faced criticism in his pursuit of a pragmatism and pluralism that’s defined Mesa since its founding
It’s 50 degrees outside — polar by Mesa, Arizona, standards — and America’s most controversial conservative mayor, John Giles, is out for a hike clad in a gray ball cap and low-cut boots.
Framed by cacti and the scattered light of a crisp winter sun, Giles is surveying the eastern half of Arizona’s third largest city — the one he has led for the last eight years. His asymmetrical smile communicates “small-town farmer” more than “big-city mayor” — an observation reinforced by an aide who describes him as a man who “is never in a hurry.”
But as we work our way up the base of Pass Mountain, Giles sets a pace that makes it hard to keep up. “I feel like this job is kind of a calling,” Giles, the 20-time marathon runner, says, as we reach a point overlooking the Salt River Valley, the area early Mormon pioneers settled some 145 years before.
He smiles: “I love waking up knowing I’m working in a calling.”
As one of only five Republican mayors in America running a major city of over half a million residents, Giles has forged his own trail, walking a line between fiscal responsibility and ambitious public investment, all while navigating the needs of a diversifying and politically polarized population.
Giles has faced recent criticism for his willingness to cross party lines in support of local Democratic candidates as well as COVID-19 stimulus bills and an ordinance balancing LGBTQ rights and religious freedom protections. But Giles believes he’s disrupting traditional partisan strictures in pursuit of a pragmatism and pluralism that’s defined Mesa since its founding.
“I think it’s important to remind people that we need to prioritize the good of our state and our nation over partisan politics,” Giles says. Leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, Giles believes that’s what he did, publicly endorsing Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly and the Democratic nominee for Arizona governor, Katie Hobbs, over their Republican challengers.
As a result, Giles was censured by the Maricopa Republican Party, joining fellow Latter-day Saint Rusty Bowers, former speaker of the Arizona state House, who also represented Mesa. Bowers was censured by the Arizona GOP in July after testifying before the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee about his refusal to interfere with Arizona’s certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
In a statement announcing Giles’ censure, the chairwoman of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, Mickie Niland, said, “We do not see how Mayor Giles can support both Sen. Mark Kelly and our Republican principles. His endorsement makes it clear where he stands.”
But while some believe his actions suggest he’s leaving the Republican Party; others say he’s leading it.
An unexpected calling
Born in 1960 in Southside Hospital on Mesa’s Main Street, Giles remembers with fondness a childhood that revolved around the town’s public spaces — the library, swimming pool and school where his father was principal and where Giles hoped to someday take his place.
Though Giles never followed in his father’s professional footsteps, instead becoming a personal injury and accident attorney after studying political science at Brigham Young University and law at Arizona State University, much of his adult life was centered around community involvement in Mesa.
But it was at BYU, after serving a two-year proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea, that Giles’ political ambition began to take form. “He had bold ideas,” Dawn Giles, the mayor’s wife of 40 years, told me.
She recalled their first date with animated detail. In Giles’ yellow Chevrolet Chevette, they drove from Provo to Salt Lake City to see the Tabernacle Choir perform the “Messiah.” In the intervening hour, they talked about goals, plans and, in Giles’ case, a campaign.
Giles was already working in the finance office of BYU student government and as president of the BYU Arizona Club when he told Dawn about his intention to run for student body finance vice president. “I said, ‘Oh, you should do it,’” Dawn laughed. “I would’ve said anything to get the second date.”
The two kept dating, and together they worked on Giles’ campaign, which featured creative solutions to problems facing students, such as getting local movie theaters and ski resorts to sell discount tickets at the BYU bookstore. Giles won his election, and followed through on the discount tickets.
Looking back, Dawn says she should have seen Giles’ proclivity for politics wouldn’t end at graduation. “People say, ‘Did you know he was into politics?’ I’m like, ‘That’s kind of what we did together first.’ But I didn’t know it would carry on to the rest of our lives,” she said.
Over the subsequent decades, together the Giles raised five children in Mesa, three of whom still live in the area, with eight grandchildren between them.
Due to the flexibility afforded by owning his own law practice, Giles served on the Mesa City Council from 1996 to 2000 and as a member of dozens of local boards and committees, including the Mesa United Way and Arizona Interfaith Movement.
Ron Williams, who worked with Giles on several city-related initiatives, says Giles’ community involvement was less about making a name for himself and more about giving back to the town that gave him everything. “Mayor Giles has been steadfast and caring about Mesa residents,” Williams said. “And that’s why I love him.”
Mesa’s past and future momentum
As we travel back to town, Giles is acting simultaneously as my tour guide and interview subject, describing an old picture of the Latter-day Saint pioneers who came to Mesa in the late-1870s. He searches for the right words before landing on the phrase: “The kind of people that just don’t die.”
One of the bearded, stone-faced settlers described by Giles was Daniel W. Jones, the rugged leader of Brigham Young’s final expedition, who crossed the Salt River into what is now modern-day Mesa in March 1877. Jones had previously been tasked with translating the first sections of the Book of Mormon into Spanish and directing the first church missionary efforts to Arizona and Mexico from 1875 to 1876. Jones had been home only one month when Young told him to return and establish a settlement in the “far south.”
Despite some misgivings, his response was, “Yes, I will go.”
Upon arriving in the Salt River Valley, some of Jones’ bedraggled company of 84 Saints were disappointed by what they found. But the next day, Jones started work on an irrigation ditch and before long had hired Native Americans from the neighboring tribes to help.
Like Jones, Giles explains he was initially reluctant about being mayor. He thought his stint in local government was over after serving on the city council. But when Mesa Mayor Scott Smith resigned in 2014 to launch a gubernatorial campaign, Giles was approached repeatedly by various community leaders urging him to run.
“Once I opened my mind to it, I realized there’s nothing I would love to do more,” Giles said.
Giles’ desire to enter the world of city government was fueled in part by his enthusiasm for what Smith had accomplished during his time in office. Even as Mesa continued to be the most conservative large city in America, Smith had worked to elevate its reputation from a sprawling suburbia with little opportunity for new business growth to an attractive destination for large and small companies centered around a revamped downtown.
In his 2014 campaign, Giles pledged to build on this brand of big-city conservatism, what Politico called a “blend of fiscal pragmatism and no-nonsense competence” — an approach that turned out to be in high demand. Giles won his 2014 election 73% to 27% against the more economically conservative Danny Ray.
Over the subsequent eight years, Giles aimed to build on Smith’s accomplishments, overseeing the construction of data centers by Apple, Google and Meta, extending the city’s light rail system and securing the construction of ASU’s new film and media production school just behind city hall.
These and other successes played a role in the decision made by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reconstruct the blocks surrounding the historic Mesa Temple to include hundreds of new living spaces, according to Julie Spilsbury, the most recently elected member of the city council.
Giles said the church’s investment, in turn, led directly to the construction of hundreds of other high-density housing units by developers who saw the church’s investment as yet one more sign of the future viability of downtown Mesa. For Giles, each successful investment, whether it be public or private, is a falling domino that increases the likelihood another similar success will come. If a city wants to thrive, he reasons, it must invest in itself.
But the implementation of Giles’ vision has not been without controversy from both the left and the right.
The mayor’s business-friendly approach has earned the reproach of environmentalists and social conservatives alike, with Democratic members of the city council criticizing the mayor’s move to bring multiple data centers to Mesa which will use hundreds of millions of gallons of water each year, and community members worrying that the California tech-giants will have an outsized influence on the city’s policy agenda.
One of the mayor’s most controversial actions has been the approval of the ASU @ Mesa City Center campus, with its $63.5 million price tag and unusual source of funding. Critics said the mayor’s decision to move forward with the ASU campus showed disregard for the will of Mesa voters and the city’s financial health.
Over Giles’ tenure, the city’s operating expenditures have increased from $900 million to $1.7 billion, according to data provided by Mesa’s Office of Management & Budget. And the budgets proposed for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 were the city’s largest ever, coming in at $2.1 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively.
Giles and council members say these numbers are compatible with a large and growing city that has added more than 70,000 residents over the last decade. And Giles points to the increase in new private capital investment during that same time as evidence that the city’s policies are contributing to rapid economic growth.
Rex Hunt, a conservative who has lived in Mesa for years, thinks the mayor’s willingness to spend millions of public dollars on projects like the ASU campus, even if it does attract developers, is antithetical to the values the mayor should represent as a Republican.
“He sees himself as conservative, he’s not,” Hunt said. “If it takes government money to make business work, then they shouldn’t be in business.”
But Giles sees no fundamental tension between the spending of public funds and being a responsible fiscal steward.
“I’m all about spending money if it’s done right,” Giles said, explaining that to him tax funds are “almost sacred.” “I’m as offended by government waste as anyone, if not more.”
A majority of Mesa voters seem supportive of Giles’ tax-and-spend conservatism at the city level. Giles won his 2020 reelection campaign against Verl Farnsworth, a vocal conservative activist and critic of the council, 67% to 33%, and much of the city’s increased spending was approved by voters in the form of bond measures.
“An emphasis on equality and celebrating diversity and inclusion I think is something that I’m very proud of,” Giles said.
This emphasis was on display in a nondiscrimination ordinance approved by the city council in March 2021. The ordinance prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation based on characteristics like race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity while also providing religious freedom protections for religious organizations and schools.
Though similar ordinances had been passed in cities like Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, Mesa was the first Republican-led city in Arizona to approve a nondiscrimination ordinance.
The ordinance was met with significant opposition, with some city residents and council members feeling that the public had not been given sufficient opportunity to weigh in and that the ordinance would be taken advantage of at the cost of people’s privacy and safety. However, a referendum effort seeking to put the ordinance on the ballot was dropped when a legal challenge arose questioning the validity of its signatures.
Leaving or leading?
“I have no desire to lock Mesa into what it was when I grew up here,” Giles said. Now in his office, lined with memorabilia, mahogany red furniture and large windows overlooking the new ASU campus, he adds that pluralism “is not just being tolerant of other societies and people with other points of view but relishing it, celebrating it.”
But Giles admits that these issues aren’t easy. Thinking back to the approval of the nondiscrimination ordinance, he says, “It was difficult,” raising his hand to a face filled with emotion. “I remember when we decided to do it, I thought, ‘I’m gonna be filled with arrows before I can turn around.’”
The arrows did come, in the form of hostile city council meetings, threatening emails and a public opposition campaign. But for Giles, the division temporarily caused by the ordinance has been greatly outweighed by the satisfaction of doing what he thought was best to foster cooperation within the community.
“It’s a moral victory for people that have been marginalized and have been told that there’s something wrong with them and that have felt out of place and not welcomed in society,” Giles said. “So there’s nothing more meaningful to them than having a public acknowledgement that that’s all garbage.”
Michael Soto, a Mesa native and the chief advocacy officer of ONE Community, an Arizona-based LGBTQ rights organization involved with the Mesa ordinance, agreed.
“There are a lot of us that grew up and were born and raised in Mesa and that left because an ordinance like this didn’t exist,” Soto said. “It has had a unifying effect and I think it’s made Mesa a much stronger city because of that.”
In addition to making Mesa a more welcoming place, Giles affirms that the nondiscrimination ordinance aligns with his conservative values in support of religious freedom. When Mesa’s ordinance was challenged, Elder Dale Willis, an Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, signed an open letter, along with Arizona’s then-Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, in support of the city’s policy.
“We respectfully urge all Arizona residents to join in support of public policy that provides protections for LGBTQ persons as well as people and institutions of faith,” the letter read.
Giles believes the nondiscrimination ordinance is consistent with his general approach to governance, an approach which he said became crystal clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when he realized that a large portion of his “stewardship” was in dire need of basic services and attention, and that pragmatic problem solving would need to take precedence over any one ideological viewpoint.
And to the surprise, and anger, of local partisans, Giles also finds no conflict between being a conservative and voting for Democrats.
Identifying as “a Republican in the spirit of Ronald Reagan,” Giles says the Republican Party has left him — not the other way around — and that he feels compelled to vote for the best candidate, the one most willing to tackle tough problems and make needed compromises, regardless of the “D” or “R” standing by their name.
But according to Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, Giles’ endorsements are irreconcilable with the conservative values he purports to hold.
“It’s not compromise to support pro-abortion candidates and to support measures that don’t protect religious freedom,” she said. “Mayor Giles’ actions do not align with conservative pro-life, pro-family, pro-religious freedom values.”
Republican Councilmember Spilsbury can’t help but see Giles’ approach in a different light.
“The things that make him unpopular with a lot of people in our party are the things that I love about him and the things that I admire about him — that he cares deeply for people and he really, really wants to make sure our city is as inclusive as it can possibly be, and not just for LGBTQ, but for any group, any marginalized group,” Spilsbury said.
A place of gathering
With a nostalgic chuckle, Giles recalls a Christmas family tradition from his youth. Each year, his family, and what seemed like every family in town, would drive up and down Mesa Main Street, looking at the Christmas decorations that adorned the light poles.
It’s those kinds of memories he’s sought to bring back to downtown Mesa.
“I feel a responsibility to create places and events where families can have memories like that,” Giles tells me. He explains that the city has a unique “place-making role” to create spaces for the community to flourish, maybe especially for those without a faith community to support them.
On a recent December night, Giles and his wife, Dawn, exited the Mesa Arts Center and looked across the street to see the newly completed city plaza bustling with ice skaters, food trucks and local vendors, and, directly behind it all, the ASU campus lit up with the words “Merry Main Street.”
Dawn looked at her husband, “You did this,” she said, her mind going back to those BYU years when Giles was busy campaigning on, and realizing, his “crazy ideas.”
“He had the idea for ASU, he had the idea for ‘Merry Main Street’ and an ice skating rink and a revitalization of downtown,” Dawn said. “And he did it, just like he did back then.”
Despite the discord and disagreement that are part and parcel of local government, Giles is thankful to serve the desert city he has always called home, and he hopes to continue contributing to Mesa’s legacy as a place of flourishing industry and pluralism. A place where a Republican and Democrat can disagree and still be neighbors, working toward common aims.
To kick off his final two years in office, the mayor will be the concluding speaker at the Jan. 5 inauguration of Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs. His remarks will be entitled “An Arizona for Everyone.”