First Lady Christa Severns is no political pawn.
First Lady Christa Severns is no political pawn.
Emily Piraino

Tiara Time

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.

NT: Still, you do wind up as political pawns, held up as "the perfect little family."

Severns: I know, but I've just been talking about the downside. Politics is really cool. It's a great place to meet people of similar interests.

NT: You're living proof of that.

Severns: Yes, I met Phil in politics. But the perfect family thing? We just decided we were going to be ourselves, privately and in public, and when you do that, the whole risk of lost privacy is diminished.

NT: It helps that you're not a traditional First Lady. We tend to think of politicians' wives as sort of bland and maybe uptight. You're a hoot.

Severns: You know, I guess that's because of my familiarity with politics. I've watched other politicians deal with the limelight, and their wives -- poor Kitty Dukakis! -- and it became a matter of, "What about me? What can I do for myself so that my life isn't eclipsed by the whole office of the mayor thing?"

NT: What did you do?

Severns: I took up horseback riding again. Everybody needs a passion. Phil is obsessed with working for the City of Phoenix, and he lives and breathes it. I wanted to feel that way about something.

NT: Like horseback riding.

Severns: Yes! I'd done it when I was a kid, I guess because [my parents] thought it's a great way to keep teenaged girls from becoming pregnant. It's also a great way to teach responsibility -- a very nurturing thing. I found out I still had a love for it, and I ended up buying a horse. So if it's 10 a.m., I'm the public information office for Indian gaming. If it's noon, I'm First Lady. At 5, I'm Mommy. But at 6:30, I'm on the horse and I'm Christa and I'm riding.

NT: Who are you at 7:30?

Severns: Someone cleaning manure out of a stall. I really needed to find something for myself, and my horse was that thing.

NT: You could have become an alcoholic.

Severns: Or a shopaholic. But instead I have my horse, and all my friends now are 14-year-old girls, because that's who has horses.

NT: Your husband is very photogenic. My favorite picture of him is the one where he's wearing a big felt porkpie hat and reading to a bunch of fifth-graders.

Severns: He is who he is, which is rare these days among politicians. He's sometimes a 5-year-old in a 53-year-old's body, which is one of the things I like most about him. He sits down at the little plastic table and eats Cheetos, which is great, because there's a 4-year-old in our house who wants that. But I promise, he put that funny hat on not thinking about the photo-op, but because he knew the fifth-graders would respond to it.

NT: Now, come on.

Severns: No, really. You have politicians and you have public servants, and the difference is public servants do the work because it's in their heart to, and politicians do it to replace something not present in their heart. Or they do it to augment their egos or something. Not every politician is able to be a public servant.

NT: And very few politicians behave like real people.

Severns: Some do. My husband loves being a public servant. And because he loves it, I'm going to get behind him. Plus I get a horse out of it.

NT: Speaking of getting things from Phil, I read about the Front Porch Bench Initiative. I understand that Phil gave away 1,000 benches to people, just for living downtown. I live downtown! Where's my fucking bench?

Severns: Well, what have you done for your neighborhood? Good things?

NT: I mind my own business. That's a good thing.

Severns: Go buy your own bench, then. Phil is giving out benches to people who've done something for their neighborhood. He wants to promote the idea of people sitting out on their front porches, aware of what's going on in their neighborhood.

NT: I don't want people sitting on their porch, staring at me from across the street.

Severns: It fosters a more neighborly community. One where each family is aware of what's happening on their street. It used to be the norm, in the old days. Now nobody does it anymore.

NT: There's a reason for that: Back then, there was nothing else to do but sit on your front porch and stare.

Severns: Oh, come on. There were things to do back then. Of course, nothing that compares to watching American Idol.

NT: Oh, no.

Severns: I love that show! What's appealing about watching the people on American Idol is the same thing that's appealing about watching people run for public office: All of them think, "I can do this!" Some of them are great, and some of them need to stick with their day job.

NT: Phil has weighed in on Homeland Security, and he's really hot on the whole "emergency preparedness" thing. It's all so "Duck and cover"!

Severns: No. "Duck and cover" was a response from the 1950s that was completely unrealistic, and hopefully we've learned from that. Times have changed and, after 9/11, we don't know what the future holds. We need to be prepared, and need to know how not to be victims if we're attacked.

NT: We could sit on our front porches and stare at our neighbors.

Severns: (Laughing.) Stop!

NT: Sorry. Hey, I saw you in Arizona Woman magazine. I'll bet you have a hit out on that photographer.

Severns: (Laughs hysterically.) This is what I learned: If a photographer comes to your house, make sure he takes more than six photos if the story is going to have six photos [in it]. I just looked silly. But, oh well. So there's a goofy photo of me out there. Whatever. If you were ever a teenager, there's a bad picture of you somewhere in the world.

NT: Speaking of teenagers, tell me about the First Responder Academy. It's kind of a trade school for high schoolers who want to be firemen when they grow up?

Severns: I have a stepson who was never really very goal-oriented in high school. He never really learned how to study, he just kind of got through school. Later he wanted to be a firefighter, but he discovered that to be in public safety, you have to take tests. And he didn't know how to do that. It became clear to Phil that there are probably a lot of people out there who would make good firefighters and policemen who didn't get the kind of attention they needed in high school. But if they had a direction, when they were younger, that would be a motivation to have a goal in life. So the First Responder project was born out of that. That stepson, by the way, is now 25 and just passed his marshal's test. My sweet stepson who used to get brought home by the cops is now going into law enforcement.

NT: Then there's Phil's plan to establish intranet connections and security cameras in residential neighborhoods -- sort of reestablishing the old local grapevine with high technology. Which seems very Orwellian and kind of weird to me.

Severns: Not really, because it's like the old-fashioned telephone tree, where people are looking out for their neighbors. Again, it's an idea that's not quite formed. Because Phil thinks, "Let's throw some ideas out there and see what comes back."

NT: Right. Like the one about bulldozing Patriots Park and replacing it with a "signature landmark," whatever that means.

Severns: (Laughs.) Okay, but do you like Patriots Park? The grass is dead, and there are no lasers. That was the whole point of those big pointy things; they were going to have lasers shoot out of them. Can we come up with something better? Patriots Park is just weird. Come on, when you have visitors from out of town, do you ever drive them by and show them Patriots Park?

NT: Do you really drive guests around and show them the sights?

Severns: Yes! There's Bank One Ballpark, and City Hall -- I like that little crown thing on the front of it. I wish First Ladies got a crown like that one. Can't you imagine me walking around the grocery store in my crown?

NT: Well, maybe more like a tiara.

Severns: I have a tiara! My co-workers gave it to me. I wear it when I'm making photocopies. I've always wanted to be Queen of Phoenix.

NT: Me, too.

Severns: I know. I've got a lot of competition out there.

NT: If Phil is so keen on bulldozing something, how about Sunnyslope?

Severns: The Slope? It has some very cool parts to it. Have you been to the bus transfer station? Great public art. Sunnyslope is a work in progress. There are some cool spots there. And they have a great hospital.

NT: I like Phil's proposal about building a new county hospital downtown. But the Maricopa County Health Board hasn't even been formed yet.

Severns: There'll be a board soon. Phil likes to throw a lot of ideas out there, like I said. Put it into the mix, and get people talking about it. It's the energy of government and the private sector working together. Put the idea out there, and see what comes back. It's like a public policy boomerang!

NT: Phil made a crack during his Future of the City address last month that suggested you hate his speeches.

Severns: (Laughing.) It's not that I don't enjoy them. The longer I'm married to Phil, the more I realize he has a very short attention span.

NT: Is that something you want people to know?

Severns: I want people to know that if they want him to understand things, just tell him straight. That's why he accomplishes so much -- he catches things really fast. He's really smart about most everything about the city of Phoenix, so he doesn't need a lot of background -- he knows it already. But what I was saying is that being married to someone who has a short attention span, I've begun to develop some of that. So I have a limited interest in things that go on for a long time.

NT: Like sarcastic interviews?

Severns: I know, but I still think Abraham Lincoln had the right idea. The Gettysburg Address should be every politician's goal: Be eloquent, get your point across quickly, and get back on the train.

NT: But look what happened to Lincoln!

Severns: True. But Phil brought me his speech, and it was 40 minutes long. I said, "No, my God, you've got to cut it back!" He said, "I want a long speech." I figured, "He's the mayor, and he has good intuition." I said, "You're right. Go for it, honey."

NT: Probably people wouldn't love a four-minute State of the City address.

Severns: He knew that. That's why he's mayor, and why I wear a tiara to make photocopies.

NT: He proposed to you at Clinton's first inauguration.

Severns: Oh, my God! Who told you that? Actually, it was the night before the inauguration. In front of 40 people. He and [former mayor] Paul Johnson cooked it up together. Halfway through his little speech, I figured out what he was building up to, and I thought, "How can I turn this situation on its head?" So when he asked me, I said, "Well, where's the ring?" And he didn't have one. I said, "I already have a job and health benefits, why should I marry you?" I figure, I have an audience, so why not play to them?

NT: You should have your own talk show.

Severns: I've always wanted to have one. I'd call it Christa Talk.

NT: Hey, if Tom Simplot can do it, you can, too. You could have a cooking segment. You could wear your tiara!

Severns: I could, couldn't I? But I'd want to be funny, and some television producer would tell me to shut up and get serious. Which I can't imagine doing. I just can't.



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