Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Sun-Roof Over His Head

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Steve May made waves as a brash Arizona lawmaker. Now the pseudo-homeless pol’s a vagabond advocate for minority groups.

When former Arizona congressman Steve May announced on Facebook last September that he was shuffling off his possessions and calling his Cadillac Escalade home, many of his 4,700-plus friends freaked out, offering their couches, carports and condolences.
But May says the plan – dubbed “DWNSIZE,” after the vanity plate on his Escalade – was entirely by design. “I did DWNSIZE for many reasons, none of them out of necessity,” May says. “It has been a learning experience for me.”

It’s also been a learning experience for those around May, who know him as one of the Valley’s most brash and contradictory personalities. For starters, he doesn’t look like a homeless guy; he’s almost always clean-shaven, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a big, toothpaste-ad-worthy smile. He was raised in a devout Mormon family, but later defected from the church, proudly hanging his excommunication letters on his refrigerator. In 1998, he became the first openly gay Republican elected to the Arizona Legislature. He once nurtured a successful business with his parents but now says the only contact he has with them is via lawsuits. Over the years, he’s made millions on investments and businesses but has gone from bank to broke and halfway back since 2007. The only constant in his life has been his 15-year-old shepherd mutt, Jack.

After losing his bid for re-election by 58 votes in 2002, May says he “swore off running for office” to focus on business interests and political advocacy. He also had to deal with a drinking problem that landed him in jail in 2009. Today, having kicked his vices, May is once again putting his charisma and smarts to good use, doing advocacy work both locally (for the homeless in Tempe) and nationally (for gay military veterans in Washington, D.C.). In short, he’s as happy as any guy with a four-wheeled ZIP code could be.

In classic May fashion, his Escalade/home is parked five floors down from the $1.3-million condo he owns and sub-leases on Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, but he admits he hasn’t slept there recently.

In January, he returned from a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where his sister Shannon May is helping launch a network of low-cost, for-profit primary schools. He spends much of his time in D.C. hotels,  and when he’s back in the Valley, he stays with friends.

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May, 40, is perhaps most notable for two things he did while representing Arizona’s District 26 – which at that time encompassed Paradise Valley, the Biltmore/Arcadia area, south Scottsdale, and north Tempe: He battled the United States Army in court over attempts to discharge him for violation of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and he helped repeal Arizona’s archaic sodomy law in 2001.

“I love telling people, ‘I legalized oral sex in Arizona. You’re welcome!’ And that’s true,” May says. “It wasn’t just gay sex that was illegal in Arizona, it was all kinds of sex – straight, gay, married, single and everything in-between. The ‘Infamous Crime Against Nature’ and ‘Lewd and Lascivious Acts’ and the anti-cohabitation provision affected everyone except the most boring and repressed among us.”

In 1999, facing legislation to prohibit domestic partner benefits, May – a former officer in the United States Army and then still a member of the Army Reserve – loudly protested in both the legislature and the media. And though May had been publicly “out” since first running for office in 1996, he says his battle with Arizona’s proposed anti-benefits bills “elevated the knowledge of my homosexuality to a whole new level” – one that triggered discharge proceedings from the Army. May fought in court to remain in service, and ultimately received an honorable discharge at the end of his service term in 2001.

In the meantime, he’d become the reluctant poster boy for the repeal of DADT.  “Deep down inside I was incredibly hurt,” May says. “The Army, which for so long had been my family of choice, was kicking me out – not unlike my biological family had done when they discovered the same about me.”

May made his initial fortune by partnering with his parents in a Valley-based company called Wisdom Natural Brands, which markets its own brand of the natural sweetener stevia. He left the company to start his own company, called Sweet People, in 2007, and his parents sued him for, among other things, breach of contract and violation of non-disclosure agreements. May says he lost millions of dollars battling that lawsuit, which led to him signing a 30-month non-compete agreement as part of an undisclosed settlement (the court records are sealed).

“I was completely broke by the end of 2007 and didn’t see a way out,” May says. “During that ugly process, my struggles with [alcohol] addiction reappeared with brute force, and I just about lost all hope for life itself. My friends rescued me from bankruptcy and death just in time. If not for the intervention of my friends, employees and my sister Shannon, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

In 2009, May pleaded guilty to DUI, received three years probation and served ten days in jail. “Jail sucks. I do not recommend it for anyone,” he says. “Unfortunately for me, it was an experience I earned all on my own and a painful lesson I needed at the time.”

After several see-saw years, May’s found a balance. Following the repeal of DADT in 2011, he’s been working with the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C. to help obtain benefits for gay veterans. May says his task force, which includes people from the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, have identified “key issues that the VA needs to work on in order to fulfill its mission in regards to serving all veterans, about four percent of whom are gay.”

May is also acting as a liaison with Tempe police officers for the homeless on Mill Avenue. And though May’s DWNSIZE poverty is largely farce – he admits he’s not poor – he values its lessons of simplicity. “I’ve learned to be grateful for whatever it is I have,” he says. “I don’t need a car, though I have two and used to have three. I don’t need a house, though I used to have some pretty incredible ones. I don’t need a permanent address… I do need food and water. But I don’t even need good food – I was in the army. Just give me Tabasco sauce and anything will be fine.”

 

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