By New Times Staff
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Chris Packham
By Robrt L. Pela
By Claire Lawton
By New Times Staff
By Claire Lawton
It's probably true that behind every great man stands a great woman. And if you're Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, that woman is most likely wearing a rhinestone tiara. And clutching a stopwatch. And laughing a whole lot. Because Phoenix First Lady Christa Severns finds humor in pretty much everything -- Indian gaming, Kitty Dukakis, the length of her husband's speeches. The former political consultant isn't above dishing her famous hubby (he has a short attention span and likes Cheetos), and cops to a passion for reality TV and bargain shopping. During a break from her jobs as mommy and public information officer for the Arizona Department of Gaming, she shared secrets about her father the lounge singer, the joys of mounting a stallion and why politics is like American Idol.
New Times: You grew up in Las Vegas.
Christa Severns: Yes, and it was everything you can imagine. My father was a lounge singer-slash-lawyer. He was the lead guitarist and back-up singer in a band called the Summer Winds. I am not kidding. They had twin back-up singers, Betty and Barbara, who looked like Barbie dolls -- peroxide blond hair that flipped up. I was about 4 at the time, and my sister and I idolized these women, which drove my mother crazy. But they fired my father because the band wanted a younger look. He was 30. So he fell back on his law degree.
NT: It's nice that he had that option.
Severns: Well, he was never that great a singer. I hope he doesn't read this, but he was always a little off. And he still sings. He's in a steel drum band that plays conventions for the Democratic party. I have a picture of him playing his guitar for Al Gore.
NT: Can we draw a line from your childhood in Vegas to your current job with the Department of Gaming?
Severns: It was an accident, but I did grow up in the Vegas of the 1970s, and it taught me this very important lesson: Phoenix doesn't ever want to be the Las Vegas of the 1970s.
NT: Tell me about your job. Do you wear a skimpy little outfit and hand out poker chips?
Severns: Hardly. I'm the public information officer, which means I talk to the public about why they're not winning on slot machines. Mostly I translate the legal gobbledygook that goes on, because there are so many levels to Indian gaming -- tribal law and state law and of course there's a lack of law, because it's a new industry. My job is to take all of that and put it into layman's terms.
NT: You used to be a political consultant and campaign scheduler.
Severns: That's how I met Phil -- I was doing Terry Goddard's scheduling on his gubernatorial race.
NT: So you were the person telling the politician, "Go here, go there, keep moving . . ." Now you're on the other side of the story, the wife of the politician who wants him home at night.
Severns: Well, it's important to bring balance to the schedule. So I've been working with Phil's office a lot on that. Because he'll just work 80 hours a week or more if you let him. So I work a lot with the staff, who are really behind me because they're afraid of me. (Laughs.) No, I mean, really, nobody likes a cranky First Lady. If we can make the home life happy, the down time restful, everything else will be fine.
NT: So you're not down at the Mayor's Office, bossing people around.
Severns: God, no! [His staffers are] the most important people in my life. And they have to put up with Phil a lot more than I do. So bless them! I like to try to help them understand Phil, because he's not a linear person. He doesn't start with Topic A and move coherently along. Sometimes I have no idea what he's talking about, and I'll have to go, "Whoa! Stop! What?" And I think for a staff person, that must be very intimidating. I try to let them know it's okay to tell him, "I don't understand a word of what you're saying." Because as we saw with his State of the City address, he's got a big agenda, and we're only letting him work 65 hours a week now, so he's got to talk fast.
NT: Your old job gives you a special insight into how politics works. That must come in handy.
Severns: Well, when Phil first told me he wanted to run for office, I was pretty much done with politics. And I was dismayed by his career choice, because I had seen how politics can chew up very nice people and spit them out. How it can be a blood sport. I was very worried about protecting him, and myself, and the family. I was scared for us, because when you run for office, there's a sudden focus on your whole family. We all take our privacy for granted, and all of a sudden your husband takes a job where things are being said about you that you never said. Luckily, I had some understanding of how to manage those kinds of things.