Backstory: Kid Mayor

The Justin Timberlake of the High school civics set.

Being a high school senior is never easy. There's prom. There's graduation. There's the excitement and anxiety about moving on to the next stage in life. But for Michael Sessions there's so much more. There are the constituent e-mails. The city council meetings. The discussions with local business owners. And, on top of all that there are the appearances, like a recent speech in the state capital and, of course, a meet with Montel - as in TV talk-show host Montel Williams.

Such is the life of the 18-year-old who became mayor of Hillsdale, Mich., (population 8,200) last November when he beat the incumbent mayor by two votes in a write-in campaign. If it's not meeting with the governor or giving Rotary speeches, it's interviews with Montel or Letterman. In the past five months, Mr. Sessions has gone from unknown high school student to international curiosity. His election drew film offers. His swearing-in brought more than 20 camera crews from as far away as Japan and Russia. A March city council meeting brought a Shanghai TV crew.

About 80 percent of his time in office has been spent handling media requests, the mayor estimates. "But it's OK," he says. "It's good for Hillsdale. And I like staying busy because it keeps you goal-oriented and ... out of trouble."

* * *

There isn't anything particularly mayoral about Sessions, a standard affable high school senior with short sandy-brown hair and an awkward smile, especially in public. Not exactly the grip-and-grin type, he's often reticent with a what's-all-the-fuss-about demeanor. But to his followers - and there are more than you'd think - he is larger than life, a Justin Timberlake for the high school civics set.

At a recent Michigan Municipal League conference in Lansing, a meeting of more than 500 mayors and municipal employees, Sessions spoke to a student group and a clutch of 14- or 15-year-old girls crowded near the front. "This is so exciting," one said giddily.

But Sessions - packaged in shirt and tie and sitting on a panel next to a young suburban-Detroit councilman - seemed distracted. He spoke haltingly, as he preached to attendees: "Once my election happened, we were bombarded by media requests from all over the world ... [I asked a Japanese reporter] 'Why are you interested in me? Why are you in Hillsdale?' And he said, 'Age equals wisdom.' "

"That's the thing about America," Sessions continues in a more confident voice, "we don't necessarily believe that age equals wisdom. We think youth can make a difference."

The audience asks questions. What are his political ambitions? He offers a quiet, "We'll have to wait and see."

A girl in the front starts in: "When you were in high school..."

"I still am in high school," he interrupts. "Really? Cool," she replies.

Afterward, he was surrounded by students who all wanted their picture taken with the star. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Sessions. He's spoken several times with Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and met with her Republican opponent, Dick DeVos. He couldn't have an uninterrupted conversation at the recent National League of Cities Conference in Charlotte, N.C., because attendees kept asking for a snapshot with "the 18-year-old mayor."

One-on-one, Sessions is engaging and easy-going, but no lightweight. As his high school assistant principal, Peter Beck, observes: "He's not our smartest kid. He's not our best athlete. He's just an ordinary kid with some big goals. He's a closer. He gets the job done."

Indeed, Sessions has definite plans for Hillsdale. His campaign promise to add another fireman to the department is a work in progress. But his larger goal is to regionalize, combining resources of several area communities, particularly on education. And he wants to turn this area near the Indiana border into an artist community.

A typical day, Sessions says, starts with a 7 a.m. alarm, and leads to a day at Hillsdale High School, which begins at 7:50 and ends at 2:30.

Then his business day starts and, when there isn't a speech or interview scheduled, he does what any good politician does: He meets with constituents and business owners. "It's a lesson the mayor of Charlotte passed on to me," he says. "I never want to call a business and find out they're leaving because the city wasn't listening."

The day usually ends around midnight for the mayor. "I get e-mails from him at 1 in the morning," says Hillsdale city manager Tim Vagle, who says he also gets e-mails from Sessions during the school day. "I mean, when does he sleep?"

Hard work runs in the family. Sessions's mother, Lorri, is a housekeeper at a local sorority. His father, Scott, became a medical technician when the plant he worked at for 26 years headed to Mexico in 2003.

* * *

Hillsdale may be a small community, but it's not without problems. A mill town that became a rail town then a small manufacturing town, it's going through hard times. There are more than a few empty storefronts downtown and there seems to be at least one home for sale on almost every street. The January unemployment rate for the county stood at 7.6 percent (it was 4.6 percent nationally). So one might imagine the townspeople would want a more experienced hand at the helm. But there are a couple of reasons Sessions was (barely) the choice of the 1,300 who voted in November.

First, despite the fame, accolades, and hefty $3,600 annual salary - "I could make as much flipping burgers at McDonald's," he says - the mayor of Hillsdale doesn't run the day-to-day operations of the city. That is the province of the city manager. Sessions runs the city council meetings and sets the town's policy agenda, but like many cities in Michigan, the mayor is just another vote on the council. He doesn't even have an office in the antique brick pentagon-shaped city hall.

Second, as Sessions himself told the students, youth isn't always an obstacle. At the Coffee Cup Diner in the center of town, no one argues Sessions is too young. "He's a smart kid," says Richard Lambright, who recently lost his job at Hillsdale Tool. "He's got a job to do and he's as capable as anyone else."

Sessions, says Mr. Vagle, who has been Hillsdale's manager for almost a decade, seems to have "tapped into something in our community that brought a spark of hope. And he spends more time meeting with the public than the other two mayors I've worked with." Still, Vagle senses a different feeling at council meetings now that a teen presides over them. He says Doug Ingles, the defeated former mayor who runs Stadium Roller Rink, was better at encouraging dialogue. "But everybody's willing to give [Sessions] the benefit of the doubt."

And Vagle notes that there's been an uptick in public attendance at council meetings - an impressive outcome in any community - and generally more civic engagement.

As for Sessions's own future, he barely has time for the present. So, darling that he may be of the young maidens of student government conferences, his social life is on hold. Next year he plans to attend Hillsdale College, the private school that dominates this town, mainly because it's close to his job, and not because of its deeply conservative leanings - he considers himself a moderate. And a career in politics? He only smiles and laughs: "Let's see what happens."

When you're 18, why rush? There's time. Besides, the movie studios' offers are coming in. There's probably a journalist from Thailand knocking at the door. And Montel's on the line.

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