A pragmatic Republican who likes to work across the aisle, Smith is considering making a run for governor next year. The field is wide open because Gov. Jan Brewer (R) will be leaving office because of term limits. Smith spoke to TPM while he was in New York for a series of meetings in his capacity as mayor and as head of the conference. His itinerary included a sit-down with Bloomberg on Monday afternoon that Smith described as a "courtesy meeting" as the New York City mayor enters his final months in office.
"Mayor Bloomberg has been very involved in the conference of mayors and, with him leaving, I wanted to go by in my role as president," said Smith.
Smith said he had no plans to talk about his potential gubernatorial run at the meeting. Instead, he said he was eager to talk with Bloomberg about the billionaire mayor's philanthropic endeavors and "seeing how we can work with him as a conference even after he leaves office in moving those initiatives and expanding those initiatives."
"I'm assuming that those will continue. I can't see him walking away from that," Smith explained. "There's a lot of good things ... that we would love to see him continue."
But as many issues as the two mayors may work together on, there's at least one in which they won't: guns. Smith hasn't participated in Bloomberg's gun control advocacy, nor does he plan to. He said he doesn't believe Mayors Against Illegal Guns can be an effective part of the conversation about gun control in his home turf, the decidedly red state of Arizona.
"Frankly, and I told (Bloomberg's group) this, messaging is so important when you're talking about gun control, and I want to be part of the discussion. And, if you're in Mesa, Ariz., the reality is that, if I'm formally associated with a group like that, I'm not in the conversation any more," said Smith. "I told them, I know you say it's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, my constituents believe you're saying you're against guns. As it turns out, some of the things that they did do, they just frankly don't sell well in Arizona. ... I just didn't think it was in my best interest to be part of that group."
For his part, Smith describes himself as "very much pro-Second Amendment," but said he thinks "we need to have a more honest discussion on how we keep guns out of the wrong hands, mainly those that are mentally ill." However, he doesn't believe the solution should include the kind of expanded background checks that Bloomberg's group and other gun control advocates have pushed for.
"I think the problem with background checks is everyone overreached," Smith said. "I remember talking to one of my Democratic mayors and they said, 'Why can't you support background checks?' ... I said I believe it leads to a registry and in no way can I support any kind of registry."
When TPM pointed out that the U.S. Senate bill that would have expanded background checks included a provision that banned a gun registry, Smith said he was still skeptical.
"Just like the NSA banned snooping on emails?" Smith said. "You know, I don't like that kind of information in the hands of certain government officials. I don't trust them."
Along with heading the United States Conference of Mayors, Smith said that in July he helped found a group called Community Leaders of America. The group is still in its early stages, but it is dedicated to supporting "Republicans at the local level," much in the way the Republican Governors Association does at the state level. Smith said the group was partially motivated by a feeling that they were unable to get the national GOP "interested in mayoral races."
"When we get together in bipartisan (groups) such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities, the Democrats have side meetings with all the Democratic mayors on how to be political. The Republicans get together for cocktails and we socialize," said Smith.
Smith believes mayors speak a "common language" and that this perspective is valuable because, as executives responsible for keeping cities running, mayors know you can't kick problems down the road. In recent years, Smith said he has seen Democrats win mayoral elections by adopting Republican strategies and he worries the GOP will suffer in an increasingly urbanized environment if it does not put an increased focused into winning more mayoral races in big cities.
"One of the things that I've really enjoyed seeing my Democratic counterparts find religion on is, during the recession ... a lot of mayors who weren't believers before recognized that if you're business community is struggling in your city, your city's struggling," Smith said.
While he has no shortage of praise for his fellow local leaders, Smith said mayors from both parties are "frustrated" and "disappointed" with the gridlock in Washington.
"I guess you could call it bipartisan disgust with the way business is not done in Washington," said Smith. "But we forge ahead and I think that's what you've seen from mayors."
After the government shutdown earlier this month and with more brinkmanship on the way in the coming months, Smith said he's "lost track" of the financial crises in Congress.
"I've long proposed that we start naming our financial crises like we do hurricanes so we can keep track," he said. "We need to name them. This one we can name 'Shutdown Ted.' We can name the last one 'Nancy' or, you know, pick a leader and figure out what we're going to call it."
Though he's clearly invested in mayoral politics, Smith has met with consultants in and is mulling a run for governor in Arizona next year.
"I'm talking to people on all areas to try and figure out if that's something I want to do," said Smith of a potential gubernatorial bid.
If he runs for governor, Smith said he would have to resign as mayor of Mesa by the end of May. His term as president of the conference of mayors ends in June. Because of this, Smith said the "timing isn't that great" for him if he wants to launch a gubernatorial campaign.
"I'd have to resign as mayor to run for governor. Being president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors has opened opportunities," explained Smith. "If I run for governor, that goes by. I step into a very partisan primary. I'm not ready to make that step."
Nevertheless, Smith said he plans to make a decision about the governor's race "within the next couple of months" or at the latest by "early" next year. Smith even said he would "love to hear" Bloomberg's advice on his gubernatorial ambitions.
"I would ask anyone for advice, agree or disagree, doesn't matter how I feel about him politically. ... Anyone who's been a mayor ... mayors from around the world we speak a very, very common language," Smith said. "I would love to hear what Mayor Bloomberg has to say."