Census Talk with an Arizona Mayor

Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariz., speaks during The Atlantic's Bold Bets: Fast Forward to the Connected City event underwritten by Siemens on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariz., speaks during The Atlantic's Bold Bets: Fast Forward to the Connected City event underwritten by Siemens on Thursday, May 21, 2015 at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. Associated Press

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Mesa Mayor John Giles is an active participant in his city's census preparation and was an outspoken critic of a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 survey.

The 2020 census begins April 1, 2020, a massive, once-per-decade undertaking that some local governments have been preparing for for two years. In Mesa, Arizona—a fast-growing city in the Phoenix metro area with a high number of foreign-born and Latino residents—that process is especially important. We asked Mesa Mayor John Giles about the challenges of census prep and what he and his team have learned along the way.

Giles, a Republican, has held the nonpartisan office of mayor since 2014. Prior to being elected mayor, he served on the Mesa City Council, including a two-year stint as vice mayor. He is an attorney with a law firm in downtown Mesa and has also served as a missionary in Korea.

Route Fifty: You weren’t in office for the last census, in 2010. How do you prepare for this massive undertaking, and what specifically has your city done that you think will be particularly helpful?

Mayor John Giles: I wasn’t mayor, but I was, coincidentally, on our Complete Count Committee in Mesa for the last census. You really can’t overstate the importance of the census to cities everywhere, but particularly to fast-growing cities like Mesa. The big challenge we face is keeping up with the pace of growth. We’re one of the parts of the country, and one of the cities, that’s really at the hub of growth, so that’s why it’s particularly important to do a good job of avoiding an undercount and to be very inclusive, particularly in reaching out to the groups in our city that are traditionally undercounted.

We do have a Complete County Committee in Mesa, and they’re working very hard to collaborate with faith groups and immigrant groups to encourage participation and to dispel any type of suspicion that might have a chilling effect on the count. We’re also part of the Phoenix metropolitan region, a group of cities that are all facing the same challenges, so we’re investing funds in advertising campaigns and working collaboratively with other groups to do all the same things that we’re doing as a city.

R50: One of things you’ve implemented is the Mesa Pledge, an online commitment from residents that they will participate in the census and encourage others to do so as well. Has that been successful for you, and does it provide an additional way to track participation?

JG: The Census Bureau is trying to take full advantage of technology this time. There are still going to be the old-fashioned door-knocking enumerators who try to find people, but the bigger emphasis is on using technology, so we’re anxious to gather data—not to be stored or pass on to anyone, but just so that when the critical dates come for counting people we have their contact information and can use it to target our emails and social media campaigns.

R50: What are some things you’ve done to encourage participation among groups that are often underrepresented in the census, particularly immigrants and Hispanic populations? Have you had to clear up any misconceptions about the census?

JG: In terms of misconceptions, we were all relieved when the citizenship question was taken off the agenda by the courts. We were afraid that was going to have a chilling effect on our large Hispanic population in Mesa in particular. 

We are doing what we can to target the traditionally undercounted folks. Going back to the Hispanic population, we are specifically engaging in Spanish-language advertising campaigns. We’re working closely with the Spanish-language media outlets, making sure they understand there’s no reason to be intimidated or to feel like that they are being undervalued in our community. It’s critically important for immigrant groups and people that are traditionally undercounted to step up and make their presence known in the community.

R50: You felt very strongly that the citizenship question should not be added to the 2020 census. Can you explain why you were so against that and what it was like being a Republican who wasn’t in favor of it?

JG: Everyone I know, Republican or Democrat, is anxious for us to honor the mandate of the United States constitution. The reason we do the census every 10 years is not because it's a good idea, it’s because it's a constitutional mandate, and the constitution is clear. It doesn’t say, ‘thou shalt count citizens,’ it says, ‘every 10 years we’re going to count all the people.’ If anyone is confused as to the legality of who ought to be counted, I would refer them to please read the United States constitution. 

R50: It’s pretty late in the game to start preparing for the census at this point, but if cities are underprepared, is there anything they can do now to catch up?

JG: Panic and start working really hard, would be my advice. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the census. We figure in Mesa for every person that is undercounted that’s about a $3,000 hit to our community—and not just to city government. The census is used over and over again by businesses, by state and local governments, by the federal government, by real estate developers, by the education systems. That is the benchmark that gets referred to over and over and over again for 10 years, so there are dire financial consequences to an undercount. In some cities that may not be critical but in other cities, like Mesa, where people are showing up in droves, and we have to hire new police officers, and fire fighters, and teachers, it’s crucial.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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