Mayor Vince Williams likes to joke that he’s also the pastor of Union City, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb of 22,399 people. And in a way, he’s right.
Williams works full time as associate pastor of a Christian church and part time as the city’s mayor. On a typical day, Williams, now entering his third term in office, holds meetings at city hall with city officials, then pivots to conducting online, premarital counseling sessions with one or two couples from his church. When he’s out and about at the grocery store, gas station and dry cleaner, it’s not uncommon for people to stop him to talk about what’s going on in the city and their lives.
“I look at being mayor as very close to being a pastor because you are so intertwined into people’s lives,” said Williams, also president of the National League of Cities. “Because as a mayor and as a pastor, you’re charged to bring some type of hope to people who feel like they have no hope, bring opportunity to those who don’t know where to find it and also, hopefully bring a sense of finding oneself.”
Federalism: Shared power
The U.S. relies on a system called federalism — powers that aren’t granted to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. Local government is an important part of American life because citizens interact with it the most. In local government, it’s not uncommon for mayors to hold down a full-time job beyond their part-time elected position. Mayors who do this typically serve municipalities under the council-manager system, one of the most common forms of local government in the United States.
This council-manager system comes with fewer day-to-day responsibilities for mayors and lets them maintain a day job. At city hall, mayors act as policymakers and chair council meetings.
Within this framework, the city council, which includes the mayor, oversees the general administration, makes policy and sets the budget. The council hires a city manager to oversee and execute the city’s administrative operations. City managers serve at the pleasure of the council.
“They are essentially small CEOs,” said Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
This system, usually found in places with more than 10,000 people, encourages a more grassroots approach because it gives mayoral candidates the freedom to focus more on neighborhood and community issues, rather than those tied to a political party, said James Brooks, director for infrastructure, transportation and solutions for the National League of Cities.
Mayors aren’t the only American government officials who work part time in their elected positions while maintaining full-time jobs. Some state lawmakers do as well.
Variety of professions
Overall, American mayors come from a variety of professions. Pat Horcher, mayor of Wheeling, Illinois, is a greenhouse manager and florist on the farm that’s been in his family for 173 years.
Mayors are also professors, stockbrokers, jewelers, retired teachers, ride-share drivers, billionaire entrepreneurs, contractors, auto body shop owners, attorneys, store managers and more.
“The number of professions of mayors is as varied as the number of mayors that there are in office,” Brooks said. He estimates the U.S. has 20,000 mayors. “Government is by and for and of the people and … the average citizen is perfectly capable of deciding the issues relevant to the community and making good policy.”
That American mayors come from every walk of life is commendable, said Tonantzin Carmona, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“That anyone can run I think says a lot about the American dream and what’s possible,” Carmona said. “But also, I think a lot about how people think of what government can do and often, it’s this idea that everybody, no matter where they come from, they have the ability to live out their full potential. And this may be another example of a person living out their full potential — through service.”