Jim Pederson’s home in north central Phoenix is spacious enough, but it’s not the mansion that might be expected of someone of his wealth. The place has a lived-in feel and is filled with an odd assortment of seven mixed-breed pound dogs, five cats and a parrot.
The house also is lined with antiques, particularly vintage clocks that tick and chime from nearly every angle.
Pederson, who met his wife in a scuba-diving class, founded a real-estate development firm and rebuilt the state Democratic Party, figures he has time for one more great adventure in his life.
The multimillionaire is running for the U.S. Senate, challenging two-term incumbent Jon Kyl, one of the most respected Republicans in Washington and a candidate who hasn’t faced any real competition since Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House.
Pederson, 63, carries himself with the confidence and authority of a football coach. He admits that he’s still trying to figure out the finer aspects of how to appear, speak and act like a politician. Honestly though, that part of his last great adventure may be a lost cause.
His own political consultants can’t mask their concern when he speaks.
Pederson sometimes monotones through his applause lines and rambles too long on too many topics. And he has a quirky habit of starting a thought, abandoning it midway through a sentence, then restarting in a slightly different direction.
His passion is evident, though. He feels deeply that the country is heading in the wrong direction and that he can be an agent of change.
Pederson is more than willing to put his money behind his beliefs. He’s contributed $8.3 million of his personal fortune to his campaign so far. Plus, he’s plenty willing to upset the status quo.
He initially cut the path along the campaign trail, staking out positions on leadership, immigration, energy and medical research, among other issues. Kyl followed his opponent’s lead on nearly every issue and bristled at Pederson’s ungentle treatment of him for months before the incumbent steered the race toward issues that suited him, such as victims’ rights, national security and water.
Pederson felt compelled to run for Senate because of a strong sense of service he learned from his parents, Ed and Lilian, he said.
His father landed in Casa Grande, then a small agricultural town, in the 1930s as a sewing machine salesman. When World War II began, Singer Sewing Co. cut back on sewing machine production, so his father sought a new job. He ended up as the city clerk, which led to the position as city manager, a post he held for 25 years until he retired in the late 1960s.
Pederson, the oldest of six sons, tagged along with his father frequently. He went with his father on house calls to fix sewing machines he had sold years earlier. Ed Pederson never accepted payment for the repairs.
“He was the guy,” Pederson said. “We kind of grew up with that — your neighbors are your responsibility and you have to give people a helping hand if you have the ability. That’s the kind of culture and kind of town I grew up in.”
Ed Pederson only had a high school education, but excelled in the public sector because he knew how to get along with everyone.
Pederson recalled that years ago, Casa Grande officials wanted to widen Main Street. The job of securing the cooperation of property owners fell to the city manager. Pederson tagged along again as his father visited each property owner.
“He’d say, ‘Bob, we need two feet off your property here. I want you to give it to the city because we need to widen the street. It’s going to be good for the city and it’s going to be good for your business.’ Invariably, he got everyone to go along. Can you imagine that happening today?”
Pederson later headed to the University of Arizona to study political science and public administration.
The kid from Casa Grande quickly earned the nickname “Jerry Lewis” because he was tall, gangly and clumsy like the famous comedian, said Lee Hanley, a roommate at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.
Pederson, though, stood firm on political issues. “He was the only Democrat I think we ever knew. And we used to have these political debates in which we had no idea what we were talking about,” Hanley recalled. “But even back then, he had just a different view.”
Pederson and Hanley have since become friendly business rivals. Hanley is chairman of Vestar Development Co., a Phoenix-based shopping center development firm. Pederson is chairman of The Pederson Group, another Phoenix-based shopping center development firm.
Pederson and Kyl never met at UA, though they were on campus at the same time. After graduation, Pederson moved to Phoenix in the late 1960s to work as an aide for Mayor Milton Graham. When Graham lost office, Pederson joined the political campaign of real estate developer Sam Grossman, who was trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Paul Fannin in 1970.
Grossman lost but asked Pederson to join his development firm in 1971. Pederson enjoyed the business and started his own firm in 1983.
He first developed grocery store-anchored neighborhood strip malls, then moved on to larger power centers anchored by warehouses.
The real estate depression in the late 1980s and early 1990s crippled the business and Pederson declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991.
“I had to go through the entire decade of the ’90s with that on my record, which was not a nice thing, probably the darkest moment of my life,” he said.
He slowly rebuilt the business, working with the same financiers, architects and builders he had teamed with before the bankruptcy.
His company has developed more than two dozen shopping centers, including the Scottsdale Promenade, which features a 125-foot tall, glowin-the-dark bright blue spire designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in a high-income section of north Scottsdale; and Legacy Village, which features gardens and a wide array of national retailers in a low-income section of south Phoenix.
He also brought the first In-N-Out Burger restaurant to Arizona, a sensation at the Scottsdale Promenade that required off-duty police officers to direct traffic for weeks after it opened in November 2000.
“Jim is a great visionary,” said younger brother Gary Pederson, who serves as president of The Pederson Group. “So many issues these days are cluttered up with details and tangents and what have you. Jim has the vision to be able to cut through the smoke screen.”
It’s all worked out quite well. Jim Pederson listed his financial holdings on federal election disclosure forms at between $28 million and $139 million.
Pederson made his second venture into politics in 2001 when Janet Napolitano, who was the state attorney general at the time, invited him to lunch. Napolitano and Rep. Ed Pastor, D.-Ariz., sat on either side of him at a booth at Durant’s restaurant in Phoenix.
Napolitano told him she was thinking about running for governor, but she needed the support of a strong state Democratic Party. She asked Pederson to run for chairman of the party.
He told her he needed some time to think about it. “No. I want you to give me a decision right now,” Napolitano replied.
He told her that at a minimum he would need to discuss the idea with his wife Roberta. “No. I’m sure Roberta will understand. You need to give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ right now,” Napolitano said.
He agreed. Roberta understood.
Pederson organized and expanded the party staff and helped Napolitano, a moderate Democrat, beat former Rep. Matt Salmon, a conservative Republican, in a Republicanleaning state.
While Pederson’s official title was party chairman, his unofficial and arguably more important title was party piggy bank. He personally contributed $6 million to the party he ran.
Pederson’s contributions clearly influenced the race, Salmon said. “Let’s face it — politics is a lot like selling Coke and Pepsi. It’s about marketing in a lot of ways. It’s about campaign ads and getting your message out.”
Pederson got his message out, all right. The day after the 2002 primary, the Democratic Party launched a $1 million TV campaign that savaged Salmon on Medicare. Salmon said he was never able to recover.
That was just the beginning. Pederson resigned as party chairman last summer to run for Senate. He turned over day-to-day operation of his company to his brother a few months later to devote his full attention to the political campaign.
He’s taken the fight straight to Kyl and has used language that’s unusual for a U.S. Senate race in Arizona. His news releases have described Kyl and his campaign as “offensive,” “disgusting,” “clueless,” “sleazy” and “dishonest,” among other things.
While speaking during a town hall meeting in Tucson on May 26, Pederson tossed off Time magazine’s ranking of Kyl as one of the country’s 10 best senators.
“A couple of years ago, as you recall, Time magazine designated Osama bin Laden as Man of the Year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a good guy,” Pederson said.
Kyl has been a rubber stamp for President Bush’s mistaken policies on the Iraq War, energy and health care, Pederson contends. As a result, he said, schools, neighborhoods and small businesses all have suffered. Pederson believes he can improve matters.
“I look at that situation and say, ‘Well, somebody has to stand up and do something about this,’ ” he said. “I’ve got one more adventure in my life and I’m going to take a crack.”
Jim Pederson in his own words
About his brothers: “It was a close-knit family and all six of us have been very successful and there hasn’t been a hint of divorce. All good families with good kids. I was trying to think back to what my parents did that kept us in line. They marched all of us down to UA and we all got our degrees.”
About getting results: “In my world, results count. Talk doesn’t count. Talk does not count. Excuses don’t count. I’ll live with one excuse and I’ll live with two excuses. By the time you get to the third excuse, there better be a bottom-line result or else we’re going to make a change. We’re going to have a change of direction, we’re going to have a change of personnel, whatever.”
About his education: “I was a product of the public education system. Back then, if you could afford $110 and a couple of pairs of Levi’s, you could go to UA for one semester.”
About developer-turned-governor-turned-chef Fife Symington: “Fife and I have different styles. We go about things in different ways. I consider him to be a friend of mine. . . . Our political philosophies couldn’t be more opposite.”
About contributing $8.3 million to his campaign: “It’s either you do that or you don’t run. It’s a sad fact of life — campaigns are very expensive. You know, it amuses me that the other side is claiming I’m buying this election. OK, you can point to almost any election we’ve had in the past 20 years. You know, the Republicans have outspent the Democrats by massive amounts. And you get what you pay for.”
About his sudden celebrity: “I used to be able to go out in my boxer shorts out in the front yard to pick up my paper. I can’t do that anymore.”
About Jon Kyl: “Do you really think that just because you’ve had 20 years back in Washington, D.C., that qualifies you to be elected to one of highest posts in the country? I don’t.”