Thursday, November 10, 2005

BIG CHANGE IN A SMALL TOWN: Still in high school, teen is Hillsdale's new mayor

BY SHAWN WINDSOR
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
:
HILLSDALE -- Five days before the election, Hillsdale mayoral candidate Michael Sessions wound up in the emergency room with bronchitis. He'd spent too many nights knocking on doors in the cold, trying to convince residents to write his name on the ballot when they voted.
'I tried to tell him to wear his coat,' said his mother, Lorri Sessions. 'But he wouldn't.'
Michael Sessions won Tuesday's election anyway, and at 18, became Hillsdale's youngest mayor ever, sending a jolt through this rolling little college community.
Sessions beat the 51-year-old incumbent, Doug Ingles, 732-668. Ingles told the Hillsdale Daily News, 'I'll continue to work to make Hillsdale a better place.'

The buzz about Sessions' win funneled into Hillsdale High School, where he is a senior. All day Wednesday, he sat before television cameras, producers and reporters. The interim principal, Monty Bishop, was stunned and a bit amused at the national attention, but happy that his student did the unthinkable.


"This is a young man who thought out what he wants to do," Bishop said.


And what is that, exactly?


He wants to shake Hillsdale from its malaise.


"This town was too laid-back," said Sessions.


When he looked around last winter, thinking about running for mayor, he saw that his south-central Michigan community -- home to Hillsdale College and about 8,500 residents -- needed more jobs and needed to keep its college graduates from leaving.


"Not much has happened here," he said, "just a lack of motivation in the city."


So for the last several weeks, he raced home from school to finish his homework and then hit the streets.


The conversations usually began with the same incredulity.


Knock. Knock.


"My name is Michael Sessions. I'm running for mayor..."


"You're how old?"


"I'm 18, Ma'am."


"You work where?"


"I'm a high school senior."


When the residents got over the shock, Sessions pounced, using his teenage energy, his earnest outlook, his smile.


He'd talk to anyone. He'd talk for an hour. It didn't matter. He had saved $700 from his summer job to buy yard signs and business cards. That was his campaign. That, and knocking on doors.


But there was more to overcome. When Sessions called the clerk last winter to get on the ballot, he learned he couldn't. He was only 17.


So when he turned 18 on Sept. 22, he called back. He registered to vote. He had seven weeks until the election.


Chris Lambos said Sessions really made an impression. He sat in Lambos' kitchen for 30 minutes one night, discussing the future of the city.


"He's very intelligent," Lambos, 54, said. "He cares."


After that night, Lambos stuck three of Sessions' campaign signs in his yard.


The signs dotted most of the neighborhoods.


After school Wednesday, Sessions stood near his home, talking to another national TV crew.


Inside, his mother and father, Scott Sessions, answered the phone, which rang constantly. When he joined them, he took congratulatory calls. He slumped in the chair in front of his computer and yawned.


"I'm exhausted," he said.


He takes over the part-time position, which pays roughly $3,000, on Nov. 21. He said he plans to create an advisory team to help him navigate the egos and agendas of adult politicians and to work with the city manager, who runs the town's day-to-day operations.

Sessions wasn't the only teenager to be elected mayor Tuesday. Another 18-year-old in Linesville, Pa., received 144 votes -- twice as many as his opponent.

"The people of Linesville have spoken. ... They are able to trust their police and security to my generation," Christopher R. Seeley said of his win.

When he graduates next year, Sessions hopes to attend Hillsdale College.


Contact SHAWN WINDSOR at 313-222-6487 or windsor@freepress.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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