Democracy in Action I: Michael Sessions, the 18 Year Old Mayor

This is the first in a three-part series on stories of democracy in action. When you think there is everything wrong about politics but there’s nothing you can do about it, these stories are reminders that democracy is about empowering you to make a difference, if only you cared enough.

In the winter of 2005, Michael Sessions decided to run for the mayor of his hometown. The city of Hillsdale, located in the Southern part of the state of Michigan with a population of 8,200 and known for being the home of Hillsdale College, had been hit hard by the downturn of the automobile industry like many others in the economically struggling Midwest. Michael experienced the impact first hand when his father lost his job. He couldn’t hope for much change from local government, though, with most incumbent city officials winning re-election without opposition. He needed to do something himself if he wanted change.

Many people have a calling to politics. What made Michael’s calling unusual was that at the time he decided to run, he was 17 years old, still only a junior enrolled at a local high school.

Michael’s age wasn’t the only challenge his campaign faced. Earlier during the school year, he mounted a losing campaign for vice-president in his school’s council. Now in his run as the face of the city, he was facing Doug Ingles, a 51-year old incumbent and an operator of a roller skating rink. And his campaign chest consisted of only $700, money he saved up from a summer job.

But above all, he was running a write-in candidacy. Successful write-in candidacies are rare–there have only been two successful write-in campaigns for the United States Senate in history–because they require the voters to write in the name of the candidate rather than checking off a name that is already on the ballot. Michael was forced into the situation because at the time of the filing deadline in May 2005, he was too young to be eligible to run for office. So, on September 23, two days after his 18th birthday and a day after he registered to vote, he announced his write-in candidacy at the city clerk’s office.

From that day on, he was in full campaign mode. He would come home from school, finish his homework, and hit the streets. With the help of his friends, he would put up yard signs that read “Write in Michael Sessions for Mayor,” which he had printed using his savings. His campaigning consisted of traditional retail politics. He would go visit the residents door to door, asking to speak to anyone who would listen. Most people’s initial reaction would be incredulous, asking how old he was and what experience he had that made him qualified to be mayor.

He would persist, though, spending whatever time was necessary to share his vision for the future of the city, persuade the residents that he could provide a spark and convince the voters that his candidacy was legitimate. With the incumbent mayor hardly campaigning, Michael’s youth and vigor worked to his advantage, although the relentless campaigning in the cold Michigan fall, without a coat against the advice of his mother, did take a toll on Michael’s health; five days before election day, he had to run to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with bronchitis.

Any successful campaign requires a lot of hard work and a defining moment or two. Michael’s came a week before the election when the union of the local fire department voted to endorse Michael for mayor. A fire department with only three full time firemen may not have provided Michael with a lot of votes, but his campaign received a huge boost when this unusual endorsement of a write-in candidacy was announced in the local papers only a few days before the election.

On election day, November 8, 2005, Michael left his high school campus during lunch to cast his first ever ballot at a local library. He then returned to school to finish out his normal school day, then went back home to wait nervously for the results to come in.

Polls closed at 8:00 P.M. One hour later, his friend sent him a message over the Internet to tell him he had heard that he won the election. The preliminary results that night had Michael winning the election 732 votes to 682. The count was unofficial, though, and after 62 votes were disqualified, Michael still held the narrowest of leads, 684 to 682. Michael was thereafter awarded one disputed ballot which simply read “the 18 year old running for mayor.” Although Ingles, the incumbent mayor, hinted at a possible recount, he ultimate withdrew the request, clearing the way for Michael to be certified as the winner.

On November 21, 2005, Michael was sworn in as the youngest mayor in the history of Hillsdale.

After graduating from high school, Michael attended the local Hillsdale College as he served out his term.  In 2009, he did not run for re-election because he was not certain whether he would remain in Hillsdale after graduating from college.

The tale of this inspirational young mayor has a fascinating sequel. In this year’s November elections, Michael’s father, Scott, is running for a seat that his son was elected to eight years ago.

The above story was put together based on various reports on Michael Sessions available on the Internet, some of which can be found below:


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