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.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela