Eighteen-Year-Old Mayor-Elect Settles In
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Residents of a small town in southern Michigan have turned their government decisions over to a very unusual candidate. Michael Sessions will be sworn in as mayor later today. His victory follows a recent electoral defeat. He lost a race for student council. The new mayor of Hillsdale, Michigan, is only 18 years old. Erin Toner reports from member station WKAR in East Lansing.
ERIN TONER reporting:
Just days before he's sworn in as mayor, Michael Sessions is taking part in a city goal-setting meeting. A good-looking kid with curly brown hair and round glasses, he's wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt at this meeting trying not to look or act like the mayor quite yet. He doesn't want to do an interview inside city hall where people could see us, like he's afraid to be showing off. But Sessions says he's fully aware that very soon what he does and says will be a matter of public record.
Mayor-Elect MICHAEL SESSIONS (Hillsdale, Michigan): It's going to be tough, but, you know, I think I can accomplish that. I think I can put myself--I'll put myself in the right places.
TONER: Sessions says he got into the mayor's race because the 51-year-old incumbent was running unopposed. He was too young to get on the ballot in the spring, so a day after he turned 18 in September, he registered to vote and launched a one-month campaign as a write-in candidate. Using $700 from a summer job, he plastered the city with yard signs and went door to door talking to people about the town's biggest problem: unemployment. Sessions says Hillsdale has lost several manufacturing companies. Even his father lost his job.
Mayor-Elect SESSIONS: We've got to make people stay here. We've got to retain people here in the city of Hillsdale.
TONER: Hillsdale is a small town of about 8,000 and is very conservative. Hillsdale County has elected only Republicans to the state Legislature and Congress for decades, and every single countywide elected official, including the entire county commission, is Republican. Mickey Craig is a political science professor at Hillsdale College. He says the city's conservative voters elected an 18-year-old in part because he out-campaigned his opponent.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Professor MICKEY CRAIG (Political Science, Hillsdale College): The incumbent mayor has offended a lot of people. I don't know exactly what he did to do it. But, I mean, I've been surprised that people around town I've talked to, they just say, no, it was time for a change.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Woman: Oh, no hitting.
TONER: At Hillsdale High School, Michael Sessions meets up with his friend, Katie Shyman(ph), an 18-year-old senior who voted for him on November 8th.
Ms. KATIE SHYMAN (18-Year-Old): Mike had these great ideas and he was so excited about it. And just his enthusiasm made everything--he was just sparkling. Like he knows the government and he's so excited about the government and that's like his thing.
TONER: Sessions got nearly 700 votes in the election, some from fellow students old enough to vote, but hundreds from others who thought enough of him to remember his name and write it on the ballot. One of those is Kevin Pauken, the city's deputy fire chief who endorsed Sessions because he promised to hire another firefighter.
Mr. KEVIN PAUKEN (Deputy Fire Chief, Hillsdale): We had not been getting that support from city hall, and Mike had talked to us that he felt that was an important issue.
TONER: Hillsdale's current mayor, Doug Ingles, says while he understands concerns over the loss of jobs, he defends his administration's record. But he says incoming Mayor Michael Sessions will have great support.
Mayor DOUG INGLES (Hillsdale): Including from Doug Ingles. I think that everything we can do to help make our community a better place is what the support system of Michael Sessions will try to do.
TONER: Many Hillsdale residents say they're excited by the publicity the election sparked, though some say they're concerned that such a young mayor, someone who has never owned a home or raised a family, is taking over at a time when the city appears to be at an economic crossroads. For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
That publicity surrounding Michael Sessions' election has meant the city's been overrun by reporters from all over the world. On his Web site, Hillsdale's outgoing mayor says they expect TV crews from as far away as Russia and Japan at tonight's swearing-in ceremony. When The Detroit News came calling, Michael Sessions told it that he joined the race because he was tired of hearing complaints that city government was stale because the same old leaders kept being re-elected.
The new mayor hopes to attend Hillsdale College next year to study political science. First, he'll have to finish high school. The city's youngest ever mayor-elect told MSNBC that he'll be a student from 7:50 AM to 2:30 PM and mayor from 3 to 6.
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