Chatting with a Small-Town Mayor

In the best of small-town politics, “Politics” really don’t even enter the picture all that much. In effective small-town government, elected leaders set their egos and personal ambitions aside and do what’s right for the community—solutions are for people and community first rather than for some political party. That’s the way it is in my hometown anyway…that’s the way it is in Lewes, Delaware.

To be sure, small-town governments are usually modest, on a scale with the population and needs of the residents. There actually is no need for a political party in this kind of government environment because elected officials know their community and the community usually knows their elected officials. Party politics would only add a barrier between the community and the elected leaders and add very little value, if any, to the community.

While there are small-town politics (small “p”) here in Lewes, they’re not the kind of Politics (big “P”) we find in Congress where people won’t even dare to cooperate with each other because of rigid political ideals. A lot of the success and freedom from party politics Lewes has enjoyed for the last decade, though, is because one man—the mayor—wouldn’t allow it. Fortunately, Lewes has also had a City Council that agrees with that perspective.

James L. Ford, III, known to most Lewes residents as Jim, served as the Mayor of Lewes 10 years before retiring this month. Prior to that, Jim served Lewes on the City Council for 12 years and five years on the Lewes Planning Commission. As is the case in many small towns, these positions are unpaid and offer opportunities to serve from the best of motivations: care and concern for one’s community. Jim stepped down at the “top of his game” as they say about sports figures, and judging from the turnout for “Mayor Jim Ford Appreciation Day” last weekend, almost everyone in Lewes will miss him.

Former Lewes Mayor Jim Ford (center) leads the "Zumba Break" with Kelly Serpico, Lewes Zumba and fitness guru (left) during "Mayor Jim Ford Appreciation Day, 5/18/2014, in Lewes, DE.

Former Lewes Mayor Jim Ford (center) leads the “Zumba Break” with Kelly Serpico, Lewes Zumba and fitness guru (left) during “Mayor Jim Ford Appreciation Day, 5/18/2014, in Lewes, DE.

“Mayor Jim Ford Appreciation Day!” When’s the last time you’ve seen that kind of event in your hometown? Lewes is just that kind of community as most who visit here will confirm. Those who live here aren’t surprised in the least because that’s why they live here: that’s the sort of town Lewes is! That’s what good “little p” politics can achieve. “Little p” politics is about people, or as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to quip “all politics is local.” Judging from the turnout at his “Appreciation Day,” Jim Ford got that right, along with most everything else a small town needs to thrive. Jim even showed he could lead a mass Zumba event!

Jim and I had lunch this week after his retirement and I asked him about a number of things that related to his experiences, but two important issues emerged that are relevant to Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age: overcoming barriers between political parties, people and good government; and transforming production and consumption in America, the topic of an essay Chuck and I are writing for the FAPTICA website.

Speaking of barriers to good governance, Jim emphasized a thought that I discussed in an earlier blog post that quoted Delaware Senator Chris Coons. Jim said the “biggest barrier now seems to be the party structure that is composed of so many factions, and the influence of lobbyists,” a point also made by Senator Coons. In debates that took place in Lewes City Council meetings “we always asked ‘what’s right for Lewes’” before taking votes and setting ordinances or policy. Jim and the Lewes City Council worked hard to eliminate barriers.

That’s missing in Congress these days, Jim pointed out, as debates seem more about preserving party ties and influence than about asking what’s best for America first. It should be about the nation first and the state or local community next long before considering lobbies or contributors, Jim agreed. Lewes succeeds, Jim said, “because we always had a balanced call for action” and Council activities were open and inclusive of the entire community. Jim and I agreed that it might be difficult to scale from local governmental effectiveness to national leadership, but we really need to examine what must happen to make that work.

Jim also had an interesting insight about the essay Chuck and I are doing on America taking the lead in transforming production and consumption. We want to preserve the great spirit of innovation and discovery the United States promotes, Jim said, but we do need to lead in developing “values-based consumption that is based less on marketing and more on personal values.” The idea of better incorporating personal values in the marketplace rather than relying on the production and marketing components of American commerce is a concept worth pursuing. We’ll explore that in our coming essay.

It was personally satisfying to break bread with Jim Ford and be the beneficiary of his great insights about governance at the local level and how important it is to keep searching for ways to scale good “little p politics” to good “Big P Politics” at the national level. After all, that is a major part of how we can move forward in Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age!”

Originally posted by Carl Hunt, 5/25/2014.

2 thoughts on “Chatting with a Small-Town Mayor

  1. Carl,

    Great idea to tap Mayor Ford’s insights, based on his deep understanding of local government, and to think about how to broaden their applicability.

    Keep up the good work; you make a real contribution.


    • Thanks for the insight, Rob…and thanks for the kudos!

      Note to Readers: Lewes Councilman Rob Morgan is part of the team that helps keep Lewes balanced and thoughtfully oriented towards action on behalf of a great home town. Kudos to the Lewes City government!

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