It's been weeks since the last clump of mistletoe was yanked from Gilbert's doorways, but the town is still ringing with Christmas jeers. That's because, like a hunk of holiday fruitcake, the memory of Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman's Christmas card lingers with townsfolk, who are still grumbling about his cheeky holiday greeting: "I wish each of you, your families, alternative household, or social or non-social group, life partners, pre-adults and of course your companion animals a Yuletide Season filled with festive and inclusionary merry-making."
The cocktail waiter at 1912 Lounge tried to get me to sell him my copy of Berman's card, but the good mayor swears it's a collectible. I'm keeping mine, at least until I can figure out which section of eBay to post it on.
New Times: What were you thinking?
Steve Berman: Well, I wanted to do something for Gilbert employees. There are about 800 of them, and they work hard. They're not underpaid by any means. We do an annual survey, and we get high marks on how people are treated by town employees. I mean, we have a jerk here or there, but overall we have good city employees. So I wanted to give them a gift, but I didn't want to pick out 800 different gifts. I don't even know some of their names. So I thought, I'll make them a card. A Christmas card is kind of a gift.
NT: Kind of.
Berman: And a card like this is a real collector's item. You can't buy one. I thought it would be fun to make a kind of a collector's item that I could give to everybody. So a friend of mine whose son is an artist, he drew me sitting in a hot air balloon. My campaign logo is a hot air balloon.
NT: I'll bet you get kidded a lot about being full of hot air.
Berman: Everyone always thinks they're being so funny when they say that. That they're real knee-slappers, and they should be writing for the Leno show. Anyway, I started to write the copy for the inside of the card, and I thought, "I better write something that's not going to offend a single person." Then I just started to get goofy.
NT: I'll say! (Reading from card:) "If this card displays any sexist, racist, culturalist, nationalist, intellectualist, ethnocentrist, religionist, heteropatriarchalist or other types (sic) of bias, I profoundly apologize." Heteropatriarchal? I'll bet your spell-checker kicked that one out.
Berman: I didn't run a spell check on the card. I think it means male father figure.
NT: So you sent out this card, and some members of the Gilbert Human Relations Commission got their noses out of joint?
Berman: Keep in mind that I'm in politics, and politics is a contact sport. The first person to complain was a school principal. He called the newspapers and said, "Our mayor doesn't know how to spell!" He thought I'd misspelled the word "merry," because the front of the card reads, "Mayor-ry Christmas." You can't get nothing past those principals, can you?
NT: So it wasn't just the Human Relations Commission who wigged out?
Berman: Supposedly one of the members of the Human Relations Commission put my Christmas card on the agenda for their next meeting. He thought I was making fun of the work that the Human Relations Commission was doing.
NT: It does seem like you were mocking the promotion of diversity.
Berman: Well, I went down to their next meeting to talk about the card. I mean, the card was very well received, but it's not beyond me to be insensitive or to miss something, so I figured I'd better go see what their thoughts were. The first person who spoke said, "I don't know why this is on the agenda. I thought the card was funny, and I think talking about it here tonight makes us all look small and stupid."
NT: But doesn't the card make Gilbertians look small and stupid?
Berman: No. And my feelings were kind of hurt that people were questioning it. I mean, I spent more money on these cards than I did on my kids' Christmas gifts.
NT: It seems like the Human Relations Commission would have better things to do.
Berman: Yeah. They're supposed to be promoting tolerance. Their attitude seems a little intolerant. I think on next year's card I'll put a warning label: "Caution: Opening this card may be hazardous to your sense of self-righteousness."
NT: So what's their problem?
Berman: I couldn't figure out what their problem was. They thought I was making fun of their attempts to bring political correctness to Gilbert. I didn't see it like that. It's like they said about Ev Mecham: If I was seen walking on water, they'd complain that I didn't know how to swim.
NT: Someone should tell the Commission about post-PC.
Berman: I didn't make fun of any group, and that was the whole joke. I think people take political correctness way too far. You can't hardly say a word anymore without being corrected. You don't dare refer to someone's son being short. It's, "You mean my vertically challenged male heir." Well, whatever.
NT: The Human Relations Commission is not the PC Police.
Berman: We've had some issues in Gilbert. We're known for our legendary white supremacist gang, the Devil Dogs. Like most gang members, they never did get the rules about how to be a white supremacist gang straight, because one of their members was black, and all they ever beat up was white people. One guy they beat up was Mormon!
NT: And people here are concerned that your Christmas card will make them look backwards!
Berman: I think it did just the opposite. After our being stigmatized by things like our racist reputation and our white supremacist gangs, I think my Christmas card makes us look more progressive.
NT: There's a note on the back of the card that explains that it wasn't paid for with tax dollars.
Berman: Well, when you win an election, you beat people. Some people are gracious about losing, and others wait to get back at you. There are some people in this town who don't like me. In politics, friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. It's not unheard of here for people to use tax dollars for personal gain, so I just wanted to make sure people understood that I paid for this project myself.
NT: Do you think there'll be a recall?
Berman: We just had a survey of how well public service employees are doing their jobs, and only 8 percent didn't care for my views. That's not too bad.
NT: This drawing of you on the front of the card isn't a very good likeness.
Berman: Well, he was working from a photograph. It's a caricature. I went to the State Fair trying to get a drawing of me done, but it ended up looking more like Jerry Colangelo than me. What are you gonna do? He was working for free.
NT: What's the mayor of Gilbert doing selling cell phones?
Berman: I've been in cellular since 1984. The mayor's job pays only about $25,000 a year, and that's the good news. Most of the mayors in Arizona have day jobs. And an awful lot of mayors tend to be very stiff. The mayor before last never smiled!
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NT: It must have been all the confused white supremacists running around.
Berman: Sheriff Joe asked me if I needed some help getting rid of the Devil Dogs, but I told him no. I said, "We'll just get some of our cowboys together and have us a gang roundup and neutering festival."
NT: Well, that sounds like fun. So what about next year's card?
Berman: I'll try to top this one. I've thought about having people sign a release before they open the card. You know, a lot of people have seen us in the past as a stern, sterile little town. I'd like for Gilbert to be thought of as more lighthearted. I tend to be more colorful than the other mayors, and I have a goofy sense of humor. One thing I'd like to do is show that we can laugh at ourselves, that we don't take ourselves quite so seriously.