May 17, 200608:13 AMThe Life
May 17, 2006 - 08:13 AMMayor Ronald Oden [click thumbnail photo for larger image] recently took some time out of his busy schedule for this chat:
In Norse mythology, Odin (spelled differently) was the King of Asgard, Father of the Gods, and the Lord of War, Death and Knowledge. Do you have anything in common with him?
Well, it seems like I'm in battle a lot! War and...?
...Death and Knowledge.
[Laughs.] I guess Death could be the traditional spiritual concept of "dying to self." And Knowledge... luckily, I have been blessed with a modicum of wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom can be very, very dangerous. And I think I gained some wisdom from my grandparents.
You were the first openly gay African-American man directly elected as the mayor of an American city. You've said that some people will exclaim, "I didn't know they had any black people in Palm Springs!" Many people didn't know they had any Democrats in Palm Springs...
...so how did you put together enough votes to win that election?
I love people, and I enjoy service. One of the things my grandfather said to me was: "As long as you have the gift of life, make the world a better place." And that's kind of my mantra. I think when you reach out to people, there are certain things that cease to matter. Political party doesn't matter, race doesn't matter, sexual orientation doesn't matter. And I think those are the ingredients that have helped me to create this positive mix here within the city of Palm Springs.
But don't you think voters make a choice based on one of those obvious characteristics: black, gay, Democrat?
For some people, yes. I'd be naïve to say no. But in this city, those things did not matter that much. I think people are moving to a point where they're saying, "Who is this person? What is this person about? Can I trust them? Are they believable? Will they do what's in my best interest? Are they going to improve my life? Will they make sure my child gets a good education? Are they interested in health care? Are they interested in our infrastructure?" Those are the things people are concerned about. The other stuff, yeah, they're issues... they're issues for some people. But not defining issues.
You've been quoted as saying that "Palm Springs today is probably the gayest city in the country." Is it really gayer than San Francisco?
By percentage, yes. About a third of our population identifies itself as same-gender loving people or same-sex households. That doesn't mean that every same-sex household is a same-gender loving couple. However, we're running at least 30%. The thing is, it appears to be more because we're a gay tourist destination. So I think in the community and on the streets, it appears that way. But the interesting thing about this city is its balance. And I think as long as we have that balance, we'll be fine. But if the pendulum swings too far in any direction, and we lose that sense of balance, then in terms of our tourism and our economy, it could flip. I don't think we want to be perceived as only a gay city. That would hurt us economically, because there are a lot of people who think that's inappropriate... even people who are open.
The Kevin Williamson TV pilot was recently shot here in Palm Springs. If that project is picked up [later: 8 eps], how do you think it will affect perceptions of this area?
Based on the script, and talking with the writer, I think it would be a very positive thing. But the most important consideration is how we're portrayed. Sometimes, you know, you have to be careful. Just because they say your name, it doesn't mean it's in a positive light. [Laughs.]
And who knows what they'll decide to do in the future...
You're an ordained minister. Is that a hindrance in a political career?
It is not for me, because I clearly recognize the distinction between Church and State. I put my hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, not the reverse. So my personal beliefs are my personal beliefs and I carry those into the things I do. And my experience as a pastor helps me tremendously in shepherding my flock, or my constituency. Absolutely.
So you see your constituency as a sort of flock?
Well, yes I do, because I feel that I have a responsibility to pull them together in a different way. My approach to service is different. So I don't fit the mold of the traditional politician.
Your ex-wife lived in New Orleans and was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Is it true that you invited her to stay with you?
Actually, I didn't invite her. I went and got her, and brought her here. My ex-wife is diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. And she was living in conditions which were just not wholesome, in a shelter. And she's the mother of my children. I could not allow that to happen. So I went and got her, against her will. But she's as happy as a lark, being here. Family is family. Especially if you have children. Those linkages, those bonds, those ties are never broken.
You seem to have an ethical approach to your life and your work...
Thank God! [We both laugh.] Thank God you can see it - I'd be very concerned if you didn't!
[Click link for sound recording.]