Meet the Mayor

Touring the world of small-town mayors.
June 2009
Christopher Swope
By Christopher Swope  |  Former Editor
Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.

Ed Morris first became interested in mayors while looking for a place to sleep in Monroeville, Indiana. It was 1998, and Morris was bicycling 3,600 miles across the country with his brother. A guidebook noted that Monroeville encouraged cyclists to camp in its park and use its shower and bathroom facilities. To gain entry, the directions said, just go to the mayor's house and ask for the key. "The idea of knocking on the mayor's door to stay the night seemed hilarious in a way," Morris recalls. "But it was incredible, too--the hospitality and the generosity to do that."

Two years later, Morris rode cross-country again, on a photography project aimed at capturing some of that small-town charm on film. He took pictures of every mayor he could get on camera in the towns he pedaled through. When he and his riding pal rolled into a new town, they'd ask the first person they saw how they might find the mayor. Their search led them to an Exxon station, a Costco and other places where part-time mayors worked; to the diners where mayors always seemed to be hanging out; to the homes where the mayors lived; and occasionally, even to city hall. In this way, Morris tracked down 84 mayors and two tribal chiefs to chat with them and take their portraits.

This month, Morris, now a commercial photographer in California, is publishing the results in a book called Mayors Across America . It's a nice-looking, if somewhat dated, look at the kinds of people who run the towns, villages and a few big cities between Seattle and Washington, D.C. I was drawn to it because I biked cross-country once myself, passing through some of the same places Morris did. But anyone with an interest in civic life will enjoy seeing American mayors the way Morris does--as cheerful ambassadors whose smiles hide the difficult work of guiding their communities through crises that range from urban crime and underperforming city schools to rural population loss, economic decline and seemingly endless shortages of water.

For example, there's Phyllis Leonard of Havre, Montana, grinning in front of the town's antique locomotive while confiding that her constituents fear change. There's Steven Whitman of Collum, Illinois, who became mayor of the 563-person town because nobody else wanted the job (Morris shows him shrugging his shoulders). And there's John Medinger of La Crosse, Wisconsin, wearing a top hat straight out of Tammany Hall. "It may be just for show," Morris says, "but probably not just for me."

Morris' pictures lack the bite of other road-worn chroniclers of Americana, such as Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. But they're a worthy reminder of what the job of mayor means in most communities in the United States. "For those of us who live in bigger cities, we don't think of the mayor as someone who's approachable, but in a great many towns and cities, they're volunteers who are paid not much, if anything," Morris says. "The job is such that it's always somebody who's truly interested in seeing their community prevail."