America’s first openly gay big-city mayor comes home to helm an elite business network.
Neil Giuliano gazes up at the giant styrofoam snowflakes hanging from the rafters in the large open kitchen/living room space of his Tempe home and rolls his eyes, deflecting a compliment about getting his holiday decorating done early.
“Those are actually still up from last Christmas,” he says, with a laugh. “When February rolled around, I figured I’d just leave ‘em up.”
He’s also apologetic about the clutter left from the recent landscaping around the swimming pool, which, in keeping with the eclectic design of Tempe’s prized Shalimar neighborhood, is located in the front yard of the 47-year-old home, enclosed by a seven-foot wall. “That hasn’t been cleaned up yet,” he says. “It’s kind of a mess.”
Giuliano can be forgiven for falling a bit behind on his housekeeping. Since stepping down as four-term mayor of Tempe (1994-2004) – where he blazed a trail as the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. city with a population greater than 100,000 – Giuliano has lived primarily in San Francisco, where he served as president of GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) from 2005 to 2009. In 2010, he assumed CEO duties at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation – a title he held until resigning this past summer.
“I’ve always kept Tempe as my primary residence, traveling back here for long weekends and holidays,” says the single Giuliano, who turned 59 in October. “Off and on I’ve had different friends live here just to look after the place while I’ve been bouncing around.”
After leaving his post in San Francisco (“I just felt it was time to transition, do something new”), Giuliano moved back to Tempe “for good,” he says, taking a job as the new president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership (GPL), the 40-year-old organization formerly known as the Phoenix 40, which now includes CEOs from more than 120 Valley companies employing more than 250,000 residents. Acting upon a recommendation by Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton, Giuliano took the post in November, replacing the retiring Tom Franz, who held the job since 2008.
“For me, at this point in life, it’s about working with people I want to partner with to make good things happen,” says the man credited with guiding the construction of Tempe Town Lake and transitioning Mill Avenue into a durable entertainment district. “[Greater Phoenix Leadership] is designed to work at the intersection of corporate interests, government and politics, education and philanthropy. And I will be the person interacting in those sectors on behalf of the business community.”
Giuliano is excited to be returning to work in a community markedly different than the one that tried, unsuccessfully, to have him recalled as mayor in 2001. (Political opponents tried to oust the Republican politician after he voted to block city employees’ donations to the United Way because of the UWA-funded Boy Scouts ban on gays from becoming troop leaders.) In his intensely personal 2012 memoir The Campaign Within: A Mayor’s Private Journey to Public Leadership, Giuliano – who was closeted during his first term as Tempe’s mayor – detailed the inner turmoil leading to his coming out as gay at age 40. “As a young, moderate Republican in Arizona,” he wrote, “I would be like a piece of raw meat lowered into a shark tank.”
Giuliano switched party affiliations in 2008, becoming a Democrat the morning after friend John McCain’s loss in the presidential election. “Nowadays, it’s like, what’s the big deal?” he says. “Back when I came out in 1996, there were maybe 50 openly gay elected officials in the United States. Today, there are probably close to 600.”
Giuliano credits the sea change to the influence of popular culture, which he helped guide as president of GLAAD – often, Hollywood writers and producers would call him to review scripts dealing with LGBT storylines and advise them on how to accurately depict the community. It was Giuliano who called out Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington for homophobic slurs in 2007, pressuring creator Shonda Rhimes to fire the actor from the show. Recently, Giuliano was overjoyed to watch the second season premiere of Rhimes’ latest show, How To Get Away with Murder, where two gay male characters – one HIV-positive, the other negative – discussed (for the first time on TV) Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or “PrEP,” a daily pill taken to prevent HIV infection in an ongoing relationship with an HIV-infected partner. “Shonda’s come a long way,” Giuliano says, proudly.
“The reality is, culture leads, and media – television, film and so forth – overwhelmingly shapes culture. Politics, law and everything else follows. People say, ‘How is it possible the LGBT movement went from Stonewall in 1969 [site of the violent Greenwich Village police raids that led to riots by members of the gay community] to having gay marriage approved in 2014?’ It’s because the culture changed.”
Giuliano thinks the Valley can become a place where all people are “comfortable with whatever their authenticity is,” and intends to lead by example in his new role with GPL. “The potential exists,” he says. “But you need champions, you need people saying it’s okay to have those conversations.”
In the meantime, Giuliano has some work to do in his own house. A designer friend has told him his walls, colorfully painted in bright pastels, are about 10 years out of style and need to be repainted in muted grays and off-whites. Giuliano has acquiesced, but says he still prefers bold colors – particularly purple, which, in the color-coded political battle pitting Republicans against Democrats, strikes a neutral tone befitting both his moderate bipartisanship and the social climate of his chosen home base.
“Arizona’s a red state, but I always felt Tempe was more purple,” he says, smiling. “I think the rest of Arizona would do well to try to be a little more purple, too.”
The former Phoenix 40 has had its share of achievements – and critics – since its formation 40 years ago.
The Greater Phoenix Leadership began in 1975 as the Phoenix 40, with specialists from the city’s top financial, legal, real estate, media, and retail realms. Some of the power network’s accomplishments over the years:
• Leading special elections to approve construction of the SR-51 and I-10 freeways.
• Teaming with the Phoenix Police Department to establish the Silent Witness Program in 1979, which has provided tips leading to more than 5,000 arrests.
• Coordinating the move of the St. Louis Cardinals football team to Phoenix in 1988.
• Initiating key programs to improve K-12 Education in Arizona, including establishing the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, and Science Foundation Arizona.