What Is A “Mayor” Anyway?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 4, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            It’s hard to believe that East Bernard, Texas, was incorporated twenty years ago! Of course, that would not impress a resident of Wharton, Texas, as their town (small city) was incorporated 118 years ago. I never had any interest in nor understanding of municipal government until our town was incorporated in 2000. When my wife and I moved to East Bernard in the 1970’s, I suppose the nearest thing we had to government was a Chamber of Commerce. In Dime Box, where I grew up, I don’t think we even had that.

            What I learned when East Bernard was incorporated is that a town or city is considered a municipality when it obtains a state charter through incorporation, and that means they can have officially elected city officials, which would include a mayor. Although there are two types of mayor systems, apparently most U. S. cities have a strong-mayor system, no doubt giving the city council less clout. In the strong-mayor system, the mayor oversees the main departments of the city, such as the police department who report to the mayor. While this is true of cities, I’m not sure it is true of towns.

            Having taught the literature of England, and knowing its history, I remember many references to the Mayor of London, a position that dates back to the 13th century. When the United States became an independent country, we apparently followed to some extent the municipal systems of England. In the U. S., we have seen mayors run for governor and even for president of the United States. The United Kingdom’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson, elected prime pinister in July 2019, served as mayor of London from 2008 until 2016.

            Johnson’s election and South Bend, Indiana’s mayor, Pete Buttigieg’s running for the U. S. Democrat Party presidential nominee revived my interest in the office of mayor. Since three U. S. presidents had served as mayors before they became president, this was not totally unusual. But Calvin Coolidge, who had been mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, also served as governor and vice-president before being elected to the highest office. And President Grover Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo, New York, had also served as governor before elected president. Before his presidency, Andrew Jackson served as governor and senator after being mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee. So in the history of our country, no one went directly from being a mayor to being elected president. From governor to president, but not from mayor to president.

            It does appear though in 2020 that we saw mayors of major cities on the world stage more frequently during the difficulties involving COVID 19 and also during the many protests and riots plaguing major cities. Mayors and governors working together would become essential.

            Houston is our nearest big city, where we have had a chance to watch mayors in operation for many years. Like other large city mayors, the mayor of Houston oversees many offices, and the one of great interest to me is the office of cultural affairs. I don’t think that the success of this entity of Houston municipal government can be attributed to any one mayor over the years, but it has been exemplary. Not only does Houston have the largest rodeo in the world, but it also has the highest attended youth museum for its size in the country, and the largest “free of charge” proscenium outdoor theatre program in the country. The first ward has the highest concentration of artist studios in Texas, second only to Hollywood. Many factors contribute to these successes, but there is no doubt that the mayors of Houston would need to be given some credit, and not just one mayor, but many over the years.

            Big city mayors have had to play an important role in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps bringing the importance of their office to the forefront. The United States Conference of Mayors works closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as with other government agencies, and especially with state governors. I’m finally beginning to understand what the role of “mayor” is about.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of two books, Open Prairies and It Must Be the Noodles.

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