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By Stephen Lemons
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". . . Many members, I guess, expected me to stay in my office quietly, and don't understand why I would come out publicly and oppose this ridiculous legislation. But when you attack my family and you steal my freedoms, I will not sit quietly in my office. And that's exactly what this is. It's an attack on my family, an attack on my freedom. This legislature takes my gay tax dollars, and my gay tax dollars spend the same as your straight tax dollars. If you're not going to treat me fairly, stop taking my tax dollars."
May zeroed in on Johnson's own behavior. She is a Mormon who is in her fifth marriage.
". . . I don't think divorce is good," May said. "Why don't we stop people from getting divorced for the fourth and fifth times? Why isn't that a part of the problem? I'm not asking for the right to marry, but I'd like to ask this legislature to leave my family alone. . . . You cannot make me break up with my partner, whom I love. You can't change what we do in our private lives. But you can take away my ability to care for the people that I love.
"I challenge you, Mrs. Johnson, to come up with some real facts, instead of the lies that you just gave the committee," May concluded. "I'm just appalled! I am appalled and offended with the members of this body. I don't know what else to say. But I guess I should start planning my funeral, since I'm going to die in 12 years."
Despite May's oration, the committee approved HB2524. The Johnson/May exchange made headlines, abetted by the emergence of Representative Barbara Blewster's e-mail, which likened homosexuality to cannibalism.
After a few icy days, life at the Legislature returned to normal. May went back to explaining complex bills to Blewster and kibitzing with Johnson--and often voting with both of them. Incredible as it may seem, philosophically, the three do share some common ground.
Reaction to May's February 3 outburst was mixed. Strangers approach him on the street to congratulate him. Ironically, he says, he has felt closer to hard-liners in the House since that day.
"The funny thing is, it brought me closer to the conservatives," May says. "The moderates treated me like a leper. I think the conservatives were like, 'Okay, now we know where he stands. He doesn't have a secret hidden agenda.'"
Representative Sue Gerard, the matriarch of the moderates, disagrees with May's assessment--although she worried that May's outburst would hurt his political future.
"Obviously, the time they have the best shot of kicking you out is your first round [at reelection]," she says. "And so from that perspective, having it used against you and having that kind of stuff that can be taken out of context and quoted in hit pieces, I think people who told him he should tone it down were looking at it from that point of view."
Even May's partner, Paul Quinn, was ambivalent.
"I was surprised at how childish the whole thing was," Quinn says. "I was proud of him for sticking up for himself and sticking up for people in general, but I thought the behavior of both of them was just absolutely inappropriate. I told him that. I said, 'You know, I'm glad you did that, but both of you were totally out of line.' I'm not going to say that he wasn't, because he was just as bad."
Members of both the gay and straight communities think May might have gone too far.
"As a political operative here, I'm seeing that maybe Steve is doing too much" on gay issues, says Bill Lewis, who sits on the board of the Arizona Human Rights Fund and the Victory Fund, a national gay political organization.
Was May too vocal?
"Absolutely, 100 percent," says Mark Steele, chairman of the Republican party in May's district, 26.
"The fact is he did go after Karen Johnson--rightly or wrongly--and the fact is, Karen Johnson is going to be reelected in her district, plain and simple. Steve got this thing out in front of people and I think in a bad light made it seem like the Republicans are hatemongers, and I told him so," says Steele.
"And his response to me was that 'my rights are being violated,' and [he] compared homosexuality to slavery, and of course in my view the difference between slavery and homosexuality is the slaves had no choice, but even if they do, homosexuality in my book just isn't right. . . . If he has a disagreement with any legislator, I think it should be behind closed doors. It's like drawing battle lines from Republican to Republican, and I think that's wrong. I don't think he should slam any legislator, and I don't think one should slam him.
". . . I told Steve I thought it was going to hurt his chance for reelection."
Steele says he also talked to Johnson about her behavior. "I told her I didn't think it was appropriate," he says.
Steve May grew up in central Phoenix, the third of six children. His father, Jim, a Mormon bishop, has a family tree whose roots go back to church founder Joseph Smith.