Neil, We Hardly Knew Ye
He has been, for the past 10 years, the mayor of Tempe -- a man who, like the best politicians, has been both respected and reviled. Neil Giuliano is a man who built a town lake, a man who helped revitalize a sagging downtown, a man who was reelected three times, once with 70 percent of the vote in an election where he ran as an openly gay Republican. And perhaps more than anything, he's a man who knows, in his heart of hearts, that if you rearrange them slightly, the letters in "Mayor" spell "O, Mary!"
New Times:Ten years as mayor! Should I genuflect?
Neil Giuliano: You should. Ten years seems like such a long time ago.
NT: I'm guessing you were on student council in high school.
Giuliano: No. I lost everything I ever ran for in high school: student body vice president, senior class vice president, junior class vice president. I didn't get elected to anything outside of the Key Club.
NT: You've sort of made up for it, though: Four years on the Tempe City Council; vice mayor; mayor; president of the Kiwanis Club. Yet your Web site opens with a Moody Blues lyric. What's that about?
Giuliano: It's a great message: "Hand in hand/Together we'll stand/On the threshold of a dream." When I ran for mayor, there were things that the community hadn't done that were still just dreams. The bus program, the light rail, redoing the dry river bottom into something other than a garbage dump. A downtown where people could work and live. And we were on the threshold of making those dreams happen. You know, that Moody Blues lyric is the only thing on my Web site that has never changed in 10 years. Every time the Web page gets updated, the staff will come in and say, "We need a new quote." And I always say, "No, that's the quote."
NT: All right. Let's talk about what you accomplished while in office. You initiated a sales-tax increase to build a performing arts facility . . .
Giuliano: The voters did that. You can only raise the sales tax by a vote of the people. The center will be done in 2006, a $65 million performing arts center with a gallery and three performance spaces.
NT: You launched initiatives advancing neighborhood revitalization, economic improvement, and youth development. And you pissed off the Boy Scouts, for which I think you should be given a special medal.
Giuliano: To be honest with you, I don't think the Boy Scouts themselves really care. I think the kids who are Boy Scouts today will grow up with a more tolerant attitude than the advisers and the people who run the organization. Those are the people I pissed off. We challenged their notion of equality and tolerance and what kind of example we should set for our young people. Their example was, "People are different, and these different people we don't like, and these other people are okay, so these okay people can be members of our group." I thought that was a bad message. Time will bear that out.
NT: And in 1996, you came out of the closet -- proving that doing so doesn't end a political career.
Giuliano: In fact, the religious right sort of forced me out of the closet. They thought it would end my career, and all it did was help me live a more honest life. And no matter where you are in the political spectrum, people respect honesty.
NT: Do you think public officials should be asked about their sexual orientation?
Giuliano: No, they shouldn't be asked. But if they are, they should be honest and forthcoming. And if a public official is taking a policy stance that's in direct contrast to the way they're leading their own life, I don't have any problem with that being exposed.
NT: I know there was some behind-the-scenes stuff during your various political campaigns -- death threats; your phone being bugged -- that you've never really talked about.
Giuliano: Right. That happened in the 1994 campaign when I was still in the closet. There was an attempt by the Far Right to force me out of the race by sending mail and having people make anonymous phone calls saying, "We know about your lifestyle, you really shouldn't be running for mayor." It caused a lot of sleepless nights during that campaign. They threatened a lot, but they never turned up.
NT: Not until the Citizens to Recall Neil Giuliano Committee.
Giuliano: Also known as A.J. LaFaro's Self-Aggrandizing Ego Trip. I don't know what I ever did to that man to make him feel so violently negative about me, but he doesn't like me very much. They organized after the Boy Scout incident, and said I made myself politically vulnerable to an attack. They got enough signatures to force a recall election. I spent 10 months battling the recall election, which we won on September 11, 2001.
NT: You don't recall officials for holding an opinion on a public policy issue.
Giuliano: You're right -- it's supposed to be for malfeasance or criminal wrongdoing in office. I had an opinion about a public policy issue, and they tried to say it was about the lake, the buses, downtown Tempe. It was about the fact that I was a gay elected official speaking out about a gay issue. My colleagues on the city council didn't like that I was [speaking out against the Boy Scouts' gay discrimination policies], and I had to tell them, "You're saying I shouldn't speak out about something that affects me. You have kids, so I guess you can't speak out about any issues involving our schools." Which they understood.
NT: Good for you. Hey, I understand you had a song written about you while in office, called "Sexy Single White Man," sung to the tune of "Stand By Your Man."
Giuliano: You Googled that, huh? Yeah, there's a certain newspaper columnist in town who's never liked me. He was making an issue of the fact that a buddy of mine put a photo of me in a bathing suit on his "Visit Gay Amsterdam" Web site. I said, "Go ahead, just don't put my last name or my title." Which was probably a stupid thing to do.
NT: Gay Amsterdam? That's pretty embarrassing. But Tempe Town Lake is very cool. Still, what happened to Mill Avenue? It's like a colossal strip mall now.
Giuliano: What happened is it changed to fit the marketplace. And while everyone moans, "Where did the mom-and-pop stores go?", the reality is that 73 percent of the businesses there are mom-and-pop stores. Just because there's a corporate presence doesn't mean that a mom and pop hasn't bought that franchise. You need to walk up and down Mill and see what's happening.
NT: Man. You are such a politician!
Giuliano: It's the truth, though. Go talk to the people who own those franchises. They're struggling! We should be encouraging people to come to downtown Tempe, and not lamenting the fact that it's too crowded. Downtown Tempe has evolved from the dump that it was to a successful entertainment district.
NT: What are you going to do now that you're leaving office?
Giuliano: I'm going to continue to work full-time as community relations director at ASU. And I'm one of the organizers for the presidential debate at Gammage in October.
NT: Tell me about your farewell Caribbean cruise.
Giuliano: It was in March. Sixty-seven of my friends went. It was great. I told you, you should have gone.
NT: And I told you: I'd rather choke to death on my own vomit than be trapped on a boat with 67 other homosexuals. But tell me about your memoirs.
Giuliano: It's going well. I'm calling it "The Campaign Within." It's a political and personal memoir about the triumphs and challenges of going from deep in the closet to being public, dealing with policy issues.
NT: One last question: How many gay Republicans does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Giuliano: I probably should have some great response for that, huh? I'm guessing you know the answer, since you asked.
NT: It takes 12 gay Republicans to screw in a light bulb. One to screw in the light bulb, and 11 to scream, "Fabulous!"
Giuliano: Oh. That's really funny. Thank you for telling me that.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.