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Mike Hirsch, Huston-Tillotson University
Photo credit: Fayette Democrat-Leader photo/Jim Steele
In 1998 I was elected to the first of three terms as Mayor of Fayette, MO. My election followed two terms as a member of the Fayette City Council. I spent 11 years as a resident of Fayette, where I had come to join the faculty of Central Methodist College. While in Fayette—a town of fewer than 3,000 residents and a total area of 2.26 square miles—I served a little over nine years as an elected official.
Central hired me with an endowed chair in sociology. They attached three conditions to the position. I was to teach Sociology of Aging, live in the community, and be active in betterment efforts.
Early in my first year, I recognized that neither Fayette nor Central possessed funds for public relations. To bring attention to both, I instituted straw polls at local festivals, which provided students training in survey design and data analysis. Release of the results generated regional press coverage for Fayette and Central. More scientific polls followed. Various organizations (e.g., Howard County Mental Health Services) also began soliciting polls to assess community support for a range of initiatives.
With my rising public stature came invitations to join boards of directors (e.g., Fayette Senior Center) and organizations (e.g., Society for a Better Fayette Community). My wife Carol and I hosted annual fundraising events to benefit the community trust, which, among others, endowed my chair at Central.
In the spring of 1994 I ran unopposed for a seat on the Fayette City Council. In less than two years I became a public figure in Fayette through my wide range of activities and affiliations.
Looking to raise the profile of the city and college, in February 1995, I asked Fayette to join CityVote, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Mayors designed to draw the attention of presidential candidates to the plight of cities. We held a non-binding and non-partisan presidential primary months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and a year before the general election.
Regional publicity convinced CityVote executives that I should run national polling efforts and oversee election night returns. These activities and visits by lesser known presidential candidates (e.g., Harry Browne and Lyndon LaRouche) brought state and national attention to Fayette and to Central. The New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, Nation’s Cities Weekly, NPR, and the CBS Radio Network all mentioned us in their coverage.
All communities experience tragedies. The mishandling of a tragedy can transform it into a calamity.
In the summer of 1996, the murder of a young black man by a young white man (they had been lifelong friends) became racially charged by the seeming insensitivity of the county prosecutor. Witnessing the polarization of the community along racial lines, I wrote a letter to the editor questioning the prosecutor’s methods that was published in the Fayette Democratic-Leader.
While my letter provoked retaliation from the prosecutor and his allies, it also provided an opening for community healing. I also served on a biracial team that sought the assistance of outside agencies to investigate the prosecutor’s action. While no such assistance forth came, the existence and actions of our group calmed community tensions.
After two terms and four years as a member of the Fayette City Council, I decided to run for mayor. I drew together a coalition of supporters, announced my candidacy, and started a door-to-door campaign. I ran on two major themes: economic development and utility rate reform. I was elected mayor in April 1998. My sociological knowledge and skills helped me fulfill the mayoral obligations over the next five years and three months.
After assuming office, my administration aggressively removed blight from our neighborhoods and worked to improve the infrastructure of the downtown business district. A resurrected Parks Board improved our recreational facilities. A newly created Tree Board reforested our parks and helped us manage our urban forest. We annexed properties into the city with the inducement of city services.
We upgraded street department facilities and replaced faded street signs. Think dramaturgically. By improving the looks of the town the stage was set for a more prosperous community. One developer stopped to visit. He told us he did so specifically because of the activity he witnessed driving through town. Our investment in ourselves suggested to him it was time to invest in Fayette.
Drawing on my research skills, I oversaw a survey to garner labor market information for prospective employers. My administration also conducted a consumer survey and then worked to fill holes in the economy highlighted by the results (e.g., a variety store, an assisted living facility). Data collection and data analysis were regular features of my job as mayor.
To deliver on utility rate reform, I drew on my knowledge of statistics. Budgeting is about projecting revenues and expenditures, and statistics helps with both. Fayette owns its utilities and draws upon its electrical utility to cover non-electrical utility related costs. By examining the budget for waste, acting upon suggestions from department heads, and instituting novel ways to increase revenues, we lowered electrical rates by 3 percent at a time when the entire nation experienced spikes in electrical rates, natural gas costs, and gasoline prices.
I resigned from my office of mayor in July 2003 to take a position at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, TX, and live closer to my daughter. To this day my work in Fayette continues to influence my teaching, my research, and my community engagement. I believe my experience as mayor made me a better sociologist. And clearly, my experience as a sociologist allowed me to be a better mayor.
Mike Hirsch is Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Adult Degree program at Huston-Tillotson University. More information on Mike Hirsch as sociologist and mayor can be found in “Sociology: My Love Story” published in the Journal of Applied Social Science (6:1) and in “Sociologist as Mayor: Coalition Building, Survey Research, and Demographic Analysis in a Small City” published in Social Insight: Knowledge at Work (9:1).