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Staying Power: A Democratic politico who's made a home in a red state

The Show series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow. 

The series Staying Power looks at people who have made Arizona their home — like longtime Arizona Democratic political operative Christa Severns.

Severns grew up in Las Vegas and thought she wanted to get as far away from it as possible. But, Phoenix is as far away as she ended up.

"I was 23, I thought I knew everything," she said." And I thought, what a cow-town, you can’t even get a latte in Phoenix, Arizona."

It was 1987, when Phoenix had about 3 million fewer people living here, but, she got a temporary job offer working on former Arizona governor Bruce Babbit’s presidential campaign here. So, she took it. 

"You know, it’s a short time, why not? It’ll be an adventure and it’s a presidential campaign," she said. "How fun could that be? So I moved here and I immediately felt at home."

It was like Las Vegas, she said, but prettier. The Show asked if even as a 23-year-old, she liked it.

"I liked it sort of on a temporary level," said Severns. "This is where I’m going to learn new stuff and that’s going to catapult me into sophistication somewhere else."

This is a common theme in Staying Power Interviews. And, for Severns, it never happened — even though she thought it would. 

"I kept thinking I was gonna leave but then I got good jobs," she said. "It was interesting stuff."

After all of that, she thought for sure she’d be out of here. 

"And then all of the sudden, I’m like, wow I actually have roots," said Severns. "I had moved like four times after high school — moving is very lonely — and so, I’m like, I’m kind of here. And now I have friends."

But it wasn’t all sunshine and cactuses. 

"But then you know I had that whole — it’s Phoenix," she said. 

Back then, she said, Phoenix looked very different. 

"It was pretty, it was hot in summer, there weren’t as many people and there were no freeways so it took you forever to go anywhere," said Severns. "Bell Road was dirt, and people who lived out I thought, you know, pack a lunch, that’s forever!"

The development she’s watched over the ensuing decades made it a lot easier to stay.

"Now you have all these little businesses, you have lots of restaurants," she said. "With all of the apartments that have come to the central core, the density has brought really exciting new things that you can’t get unless you have enough people to support it. Downtown has restaurants now! I mean when I moved here, it was before [Bank One Ballpark] even. Back then you just had nothing downtown. Really you had sagebrush."

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.