Berman: Relentless or ruthless power seeker? - East Valley Tribune: News

Berman: Relentless or ruthless power seeker?

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Posted: Saturday, August 16, 2008 9:49 pm | Updated: 10:49 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Steve Berman knocked on nearly every door in Gilbert, spoke with nearly every voter and bragged he'd worn out several pairs of shoes in the process. It was early 1987, and Berman was running for the Town Council as an unknown, a political outsider few of the town's insiders took seriously.

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He would quickly prove them wrong.

Those who remember the campaign said they never saw him coming. The young Berman, who had lived in town for three years, flatly outworked his rivals. He used his naturally hard-charging and pushy salesman ability to win votes and eventually the election.

With that victory, as unlikely as it was, the new kid in town, the man with no prior political experience, was closer to attaining his oft-stated goal - to become "the richest, most powerful man in Gilbert."

Over the next 20 years, Berman, now 60, would relentlessly and sometimes bitterly pursue that vision with the same dogged determination he showed in that first campaign. In doing so, he has racked up a long list of political enemies who have accused him of ruling Town Hall like a schoolyard bully.

Berman's volatile temper has gotten him into trouble in his personal and political lives. His drive to be mayor, say Berman's friends and foes, influences nearly every decision in his life, and he will go to nearly any lengths to retain his title.

"Being the mayor seems to be his sole purpose in life," said Jo Albright, who served with Berman on the council until she left in 1999. "In my opinion, he puts his self-interest first and everything else second to make sure of that."

That has meant the qualities that have made him a great politician haven't always made him easy to work with. There is story after story from those who have served with him that paint a picture of man obsessed with the office.

Then there are the much-publicized tales of him brazenly and unapologetically accepting free gifts such as an expensive suit from a local retailer and the free use of a pickup truck from a local auto dealer. And there are the wild and outlandish statements, such as proclaiming himself "mayor for life," or telling a group of homeowners living on county islands outside town limits that if they want fire protection from the city they need to "annex or burn."

Berman did not return repeated phone calls asking for comment on this story. However, he has denied making the "annex or burn" remark.

Berman's personal and political lives, say his friends, are so intertwined that it's nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. So when he lost his bid to become the town's first elected mayor years ago, it wasn't just a rejection of his candidacy. It was more personal than that, and it was so devastating that he nearly didn't recover.

"Steve was crushed by what he saw as a blatant betrayal by some," said Daryl Colvin, a longtime friend and one of his closest political allies. "He was just stunned. He was in as bad of shape as I've seen anyone and he pulled himself out."

After the defeat, Berman dropped out of the town's political scene for several years. Those who served in office and ran in Gilbert's political circles say they can't remember Berman showing up for anything during those years. Eventually, with the help of a friend, he found the temptation to run for mayor too great and stormed back on the scene with another unlikely victory. His opponent, Cynthia Dunham, still accuses him of running a dirty and ethically bankrupt campaign. Regardless, by the end of the 2001 mayoral race, Berman had resurrected his political fortunes and found himself in the seat he has frequently stated he intends to keep for life.

POLITICAL SALESMAN

By most accounts, Berman, a 1966 graduate of Maryvale High School in Phoenix and a former Army captain, is a great salesman. Whether it's computers, cell phones or even politics, he is the epitome of what those in the sales industry refer to as a closer.

Ron Rodgers, who served one term on the council from 1988 until 1991, worked with Berman a decade earlier at Xerox selling copy machines. It was 1977, and Rodgers, who changed his name from Rodriguez, says Berman was always one of the top salesmen in the company. Xerox, Rodgers says, was full of young, ambitious salesmen who knew the firm could jump-start a career. Most worked there for about three to five years and moved on to larger companies. Berman was no different. Rodgers says he moved on to sell computers at another firm, and lost contact until he joined Berman on the council in 1988. "It was nice to see a friendly face," he said.

Rodgers was appointed to fill a position that had been vacated. Serving on the council, he says, was never a strong ambition. So after completing the term in 1991, he did not seek re-election.

But it was a different story for Berman. "He wanted to be mayor really bad," Rodgers said. "I can't say why. It was just one of those things everyone knew."

So Berman pursued his goal with a vengeance, reaching it in 1990 when the council voted him in. At the time, Gilbert voters did not choose the mayor. The council did. But those characteristics that made him a tenacious campaigner and a top salesman didn't translate in to great leadership, according to those who served on the council with Berman.

TEMPERS FLARE

Soon, he found himself at odds with most of his colleagues on the council on a number of issues. While differences are expected in the world of politics, what most fellow council members didn't like was his tact - or lack of it. Those who served with Berman say that often, instead of attempting to find a consensus, he tried to rule through intimidation. "When he got mad, he could say or do anything," said Steve Chader, who served on the council in the early 1990s.

Berman's ruthless tactics reached a climax one night in April 1990, when he is accused of threatening a fellow councilman's children if he didn't vote the way Berman wanted. Berman was leading a closed-door meeting - an executive session - in which he was attempting to get a unanimous vote on an issue. The fact he was discussing a vote in an executive session is itself a violation of Arizona's Opening Meetings Law, which prohibits the practice.

Berman wanted a 7-0 vote. But two council members stood in his way - Jo Albright and Paul Beavin. Berman and Beavin had a long-simmering history of disagreements, according to several former council members. And that night was no different. Those in attendance say they were discussing the possibility of condemning a Salt River Project facility to run it as a town utility - similar to an arrangement Mesa now has.

What started as a discussion escalated into a nasty verbal brawl. The two were red-faced and screaming at each other, according to witnesses. When Beavin refused to go along with the deal, Berman said, "We can ensure a 7-0 vote. We will be watching his kids after school," police records show. Beavin, who could not be reached for comment, immediately called police and filed a report. No charges were filed.

Albright remembers the incident as an example of how Berman tried to run the town. It also highlighted the main reason the council would later appoint someone else mayor. In 1991, the council picked Albright for mayor, a move that further chilled their already cool relationship.

Albright would later step down amid her own political problems. She was facing a recall effort. And though she has no proof, she believes today that Berman was behind it.

BULLISH TACTICS

Berman's bullish tactics prompted many of those who had served with him on the council to take out a full page ad in a small-town newspaper, The Gilbert Independent, calling for Berman's ouster. Former Councilman Steve Chader, who now runs a real estate company in Mesa, said he was one of the people who signed the advertisement. "There was no question in my mind that the council felt Steve didn't have the temperament for the job," Chader says. "It was almost unanimous that the council wanted him out."

Again, Berman campaigned hard, practicing those retail politics that served him well in the past, and he survived. The reasons, according to Chader, were low voter turnout and deft political skills. Then as now, Gilbert holds its elections in odd number years and in the spring - a time that brings out between 5 and 10 percent of registered voters.

But most important, Berman, ever the politician and salesman, had figured out numerous ways to maximize exposure in a small town. Chader said one of his most politically successful programs involved the creation of a student citizenship award to be presented by the mayor every month during council meetings.

By handing out an award, Chader said, Berman would get the student's family out to the meeting where he could court them for votes while posing for pictures with the child. And the parents ate it up, Chader said.

But what Chader remembers most about serving with Berman is his ambition. "He once told me that he wanted to be 'the richest, most powerful man in Gilbert,'" Chader said, repeating a phrase others often attribute to Berman.

AMBITIONS DERAILED

Those ambitions were nearly ruined in 1993. Berman's political career was derailed when he was beaten by Wilburn Brown. It was a devastating defeat for a man whose sole focus was becoming mayor, according to those around him. Berman dropped out of the town's political circuit. He lost contact with most of his fellow council members and he wasn't seen anywhere around town anymore.

It was one of the darkest times in his life, said Daryl Colvin, one of Berman's closest friends. Those times got even darker about 1995 when his third wife, Dawn, left and took their daughter Elizabeth.

Berman and his ex-wife had fought over money, according to court records. Berman would later threaten Dawn and her new husband in 1999, according to an order of protection she filed against him.

"I think his faith saved him," Colvin says. "I had to drag him off to his Pentecostal church."

At the time, Colvin says, Berman was hibernating in his 10,000-square-foot home and didn't know what to do next.

Even today, Colvin says he himself is still bitter about the 1993 race. "They really stuck a knife in him," Colvin says of Berman. "They got away with things they'd never get away with today."

According to Colvin, Berman's opponent, Brown, had promised to stay out of the race. In a 1993 story published by the Tribune, Berman said he felt betrayed by Brown, whom he had helped get elected to the Town Council. This year, though, an August mayoral proclamation honors the legacy of Brown, who is currently struggling with lung cancer at age 75.

But in 1993, there was more to it than someone going back on any perceived promises. Berman's abrasive style was again coming back to hurt him. It served to galvanize political opposition to his mayoral campaign. At the time, there were several current and former council members, like Albright, who said they pushed Brown to run in order to keep Berman out of office.

Brown, a respected and well-known member of the community and a former high ranking member of the Mormon Church, crushed Berman, winning by a 2-to-1 margin. Colvin said the loss left an indelible scar on Berman's psyche that would take years to heal.

"It was like political post-traumatic stress," Colvin said. "I just don't know if he wanted to go through the political process and get beat again."

POLITICAL RESURRECTION

In the end, Berman did overcome his political aversions when in 2001 Colvin persuaded him to run against then-Mayor Cynthia Dunham.

Dunham had been hurt politically by several issues - issues that highlight just how small the town still was at the time. Most notably, she had drawn fire over the question of whether to add fluoride to the town's drinking water, as well as a proclamation declaring "Bible Week" in Gilbert.

Still, it looked like Dunham would be running with no opposition. That is, until Berman filed the necessary paperwork with the town clerk just hours before the deadline. What followed was a typical bare-knuckled Berman campaign. He tirelessly went after Dunham, she said, adding that Berman would say and do anything to get elected. "I think he wants this more than anything," Dunham said. "He will make promises he knows he can't keep."

Regardless, in the end Berman scored another unlikely victory, and placed his vision back on track. He was back where he always wanted to be and was beyond ecstatic, Colvin said. Berman would go on to defeat Dunham again in four years.

Since his re-election in 2001, Berman has not been shy in taking on anyone who threatens his hold on power. In some cases, it has cost him personal friendships. Most recently, he found himself at odds with his former friend, state Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, over the issue of providing fire service to homeowners living just outside Gilbert town limits. Berman didn't want to use town resources and was heard by many people to say "annex or burn." However, Verschoor pushed for an arrangement that ensured thousands of homeowners without fire service would be protected.

Berman later recruited a candidate, Joe Bedgood, who ran unsuccessfully against Verschoor for the state Senate in 2006. Verschoor, Berman's one-time campaign chairman, refused to comment about the mayor.

Now, Berman faces another threat to his hold on power, and it may be the gravest since his re-election. His wife has filed for divorce and has taken out an order of protection after accusing him of physically and verbally abusing her for years. Berman overcame similar allegations of domestic abuse leveled by his second wife before he entered politics.

Berman is up for re-election in March. This time, few friends are willing to defend him.

"Why so many enemies?" said Colvin, the man who helped Berman resurrect his political career. "He's got a temper. He's absolutely very direct behind closed doors and needs a little more politician in him, and a little less Army captain."

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