A mayor's experience is priceless

Staff WriterSeptember 6, 2008 

Watching Sarah Palin this week put me of a mind to ring up Clayton's mayor, Jody McLeod.

A few years ago, Gov. Palin was mayor of a fast-growing Alaskan town called Wasilla, not far from Anchorage. Like Wasilla, Clayton has turned into a commuter suburb. It now sprawls all over the western border of Johnston County.

McLeod is my mayor. I have enjoyed living in Clayton for more than a dozen years. It is a very easy place to live. The town is well-run. Problems get fixed.

I should disclaim that I am routinely mocked in the newsroom here for my Clayton boosterism, such as the enthusiasm I displayed when we got our Wal-Mart. And have you tried our new bypass?

I thought of McLeod as I heard people dissing Palin's experience, like being mayor was a piece of cake compared to being, say, a U.S. senator. That's rich. Anyone who thinks that has never spent time talking to a mayor.

I caught up with hizzoner while he was dividing his time between his mayoral duties and his business -- which is running Annie V's Florist, a venerable flower shop that he acquired in 1990.

The 42-year-old McLeod, now in his second term, grew up in Clayton. One of his first jobs was making deliveries for the florist. He went to East Carolina like so many from Clayton do, graduated with a business degree and stayed in his hometown.

McLeod became mayor in 2003, a year after Palin completed her tenure in Wasilla. What did he think, I asked him, about seeing someone so recently a small-town mayor running for vice president?

Well, first, McLeod wanted to make clear, he's a Democrat and is supporting Barack Obama. That said, he allowed that he's pleased that someone with a background in local government is running for such a high office.

Being a mayor means you're connected to constituents on a daily basis, he said. You see them at the post office and the food store. You don't have to guess what they want, because they get up in your grille and tell you. They'll tell you about the neighbor's yard, which is a mess, and can't the town do something about it? They'll tell you they don't care for the color that a business owner has painted a building. And if they don't see you, they'll e-mail you, which is why he has a Blackberry on his hip.

"The mayor is no longer a ribbon-cutting person," said McLeod.

The mayor, even in a council-manager form of government, is someone the citizens expect to lead the charge to help bring jobs, services and retail to town. That's why McLeod gets excited about the new medical center going up off N.C. 42 on the west side of town, and the prospect of big box stores. That's why he wants the town to look good, so the residents feel like their dollars are being well-spent.

"It's all about tangible results," he said.

There are thousands of Jody McLeods around the country, more of them running small towns than big cities. They have a substantial day-to-day impact on their residents. I'd swap 535 of them chosen at random for the incumbents in Congress and expect results that wouldn't be worse and might be better.

The pundits are having fainting spells about Sarah Palin's resume, but mayors do learn how to listen to the people and get stuff done.

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