Meet the Millennial Mayors Working to Save Philly’s Sleepy Suburbs
They’re young, they’re energetic, they pride themselves on their social media savvy, and they’re determined to bring their post-industrial towns back from the dead — whatever it takes.
The last place you’d ever expect to find Peter Urscheler is in Phoenixville — not that Phoenixville isn’t cool. And not that Urscheler isn’t cool, too. It’s just that his mom was a Filipino nurse and his dad was a Swiss pro soccer player, and they met each other in Australia and then moved to Florida, where they raised their only child. So the fact that he wound up in this Chester County borough of some 16,500 residents is odd. The fact that he’s currently its mayor is odder. And the fact that last Thanksgiving, he dressed up in a turkey suit to make a video of himself gobbling through the streets of his adopted hometown — well, that’s just Mayor Pete. (Yes, he’s aware there’s another. But not around here.)
The turkey-suit video, which also features Urscheler trotting in front of historical backdrops that include a Beatles concert and a rocket launch, as well as on the set of his food web series, the Mayor’s Kitchen, was a promo for Phoenixville’s Burn Off the Bird post-Thanksgiving 5K. If your memories of the mayor in your hometown are of some stuffy old guy waving from a convertible in the Fourth of July parade — or, more likely still, if you have no memories of your hometown’s mayor — then as Imagine Dragons sings, “Welcome to the New Age.” Check out the 36 new electric-vehicle charging stations Mayor Pete just finagled for Phoenixville. “Electric cars tell you where there are charging stations,” he explains — so the stations will attract visitors to town. “It’s not an instant charge; you have to park for an hour. While you’re waiting, why not check out our shops and breweries? It’s good for the environment and good for us economically.”
You might think Mayor Pete, who’s 36, is singular. He is, but only by order of magnitude. The suburbs hereabouts are crawling with millennial mayors who, like him, pride themselves on their social-media savvy and are determined to bring their sleepy post-industrial towns back from the dead by any means necessary — whether that entails revitalizing the waterfront (Mark Barbee, age 30, Bridgeport); snagging a new train station (Josh Maxwell, 36, Downingtown); having Santa Claus arrive in town via dragon boat (Stephanie Henrick, 37, Pottstown); setting up “Coffee with a Cop” get-togethers (Jenna Antoniewicz, 36, Royersford); or bringing in brewpubs and pop-up bars and ax-throwing joints and CBD dispensaries and co-working spaces (every last one of them, not to mention fellow millennial mayors Gregory Wesley-Lynch of West Conshohocken, Yaniv Aronson of Conshohocken, Chris Mulhall of Honey Brook, Matt Fetick of Kennett Square, Garry Herbert of Lansdale … )
The young mayors mostly happen to be Democrats, but if you ask, they’ll tell you they’re not into politics — at least, not politics that pit party against party in paroxysms of flag-waving. But helping each other manage life’s hurdles and obligations? That’s right up their alley. According to the Millennial Impact Report, a 10-year study by the Case Foundation of how the cohort engages with causes and social justice issues, “Millennials not only want to give and serve — they have a passionate desire to do so.” At her swearing-in, Mayor Jenna’s oath to her Royersford constituents was über-millennial: “I promise to be present and thoughtful about what it means to serve as a liaison between you and borough council. I promise to do my best to serve everyone in town, working with those who live, work and play here to promote an inclusive community for all.”
The young mayors mostly happen to be Democrats, but if you ask, they’ll tell you they’re not into politics.
Then there’s Mayor Pete. After graduating from college in Florida, he took a job with SEI, the financial services giant in Oaks. His parents would stop by every Christmas on their way to visit relatives in Switzerland. On one such visit, in 2012, his mom had a fall. Tests showed she had advanced cancer. She and Dad moved in with Mayor Pete, who eventually quit his SEI job to be her caregiver. He happened to live in Phoenixville at the time, and, being a highly voluble type, he made a lot of new friends once he quit traveling for work. He got involved with the Jaycees. His mom died; his dad stayed on. The town’s mayor announced he was retiring. A couple of Mayor Pete’s friends told him, “You should run.” He did, in 2017. He won.
Mayor Jenna’s story is similar. She and her husband moved to Royersford, a tiny borough of 4,700 people, in 2015, when he took a job at Widener University and she took one at Ursinus. Then she got pregnant with their first kid. “The decision for us was that one of us would stay home,” she explains at her dining room table, while said kid, Andrew, watches cartoons nearby. (Three-month-old Lucy is having a nap.) “I drew the straw.” She, too, is voluble. “And I was looking to do something.” Because clearly, just having a new baby in a new town wasn’t enough. She had fond small-town memories, not of where she grew up, in the exurbs of Upper Bucks, but of Selinsgrove, where she and her husband (“He was much cooler than me”) went to Susquehanna University. “The homecoming parade!” she enthuses. “The Christmas tree lighting!” She got to know some folks on borough council. Her new friends asked: Have you ever thought about running for mayor, Jenna? She didn’t really vote in local elections. “I didn’t realize how important local politics are,” she says now. “I never thought about it. I’ll never miss another election again.”
You could be excused for asking: What exactly does the mayor of a borough do? As it happens, the duties are plainly set out in state law. “You’re in charge of the police department,” says Mayor Mark, who was elected in 2017. “The chief of police runs it, but you have final say. And you break ties in council votes, or you can veto council bills. But I feel personally that my role is to be the town’s biggest cheerleader.” That often involves social media. “I make memes all the time,” Mayor Mark says excitedly. “I call myself the Mayor of Memes!”
Mayor Mark grew up in South Dakota, where his mom, a Norristown native, was stationed in the military. Fresh out of high school, he started handing out fliers at the polls. “It was just something to do,” he says. “But I met the candidates and got interested in their platforms.” He moved to Bridgeport, got a job at the courthouse in Norristown, got involved with the Little League. “I felt the town had so much potential,” he says. “Then the mayor” — a Republican — “announced he wouldn’t run again. And there was no one running for the Democrats.” Friends suggested he throw his hat in the ring. He started knocking on doors. “I couldn’t really see it as a real thing. But as time went on, I thought: I could win.”
It helped that the Republican who wasn’t running again endorsed him over his own party’s candidate. “I was very honored by that,” says Mayor Mark. “He looked beyond party politics because he wanted to see the town go in the right direction. I love that about Bridgeport. They really look at who you are.”
The millennial mayors are united about this. Their generation is confrontation-averse — text them, please; don’t phone — and they likely wouldn’t have run if party politics were a bigger deal. “Local politics are more temperate,” Mayor Josh explains. “You can build relationships more easily than on a national level.” Campaigns are more like runs for student government — bake sales, gimmicky fund-raisers — than high-stakes national contests. This might have something to do with the extremely small stakes, at least in terms of money. The mayors make less than $4,000 annually.
“It’s $131 a month,” says Mayor Jenna. “Most of that goes to eating out in town” — part of her cheerleader role, since her food photos do well on Instagram.
“I make $10.31 a day,” says Mayor Pete. “I do 250 events a year.”
The fact that more than one young mayor has gone to the trouble of prorating the salary might clue you in that the job isn’t just ribbon-cutting and baby-kissing. Small towns are — well, they’re small towns, right? They have a social hierarchy; there are right and wrong sides of the tracks. Folks don’t always cotton to strangers. Of the millennial mayors I met with, only Mayor Josh grew up in his borough. The rest are newcomers. Interlopers. Not from around here.
Mayor Stephanie, for example, is from California. No, it gets better — she was a debutante in California. White gloves, long gown, all that stuff. She did it for her mother: “It was very important to her. I thought it was antiquated — the whole idea of ‘coming out.’” To her surprise, debutantery was hard work. “There was a lot of volunteering. That’s how I got started serving the community.” She came East to go to Villanova, also for Mom. It was not a good fit. “In California,” she tells me as we sit in Pottstown’s newest brewpub, J.J. Ratigan’s, on a Saturday afternoon, “we’re vain and superficial. But take us out of that environment and we’re completely different.” She found Villanova girls vain and superficial wherever they were. “I was terribly homesick.” It didn’t help that she had to work to pay her way. “I cleaned houses. I waitressed. It wasn’t glamorous.” Not content with her student debt after graduation, she went on to law school and an LLM in taxation. “You hear about people in law school getting internships,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to do those.”
She met her boyfriend in the LLM program. She planned to head back to California, but one day he said, “Hey, do you want to buy a house and open up a firm together?” They stumbled onto Pottstown in their home search, checking out a handsome brick colonial. “People always say, ‘You’ll know,’” she says. “We knew! We walked in and said, ‘We don’t need to see the rest.’”
A friend was in Rotary in a nearby town, so Mayor Stephanie joined Pottstown’s. She went to all the events, made new friends … are you picking up a pattern here? When the then-mayor ignored three straight years of requests to show up for Rotary’s annual crowning of Pottstown’s Person of the Year, California Girl had had enough. She ran against the no-show. She won.
Now she’s part of what she calls “the Montgomery County Mayors Squad,” along with Mayor Mark and Mayor Yaniv, Mayor Jenna … They grandfathered in Mayor Pete, though he’s technically from Chester County, because he’s Mayor Pete. They get together for dinners and beers, tour each others’ towns, pick each others’ brains. “There’s not a handbook for being mayor,” Mayor Stephanie points out. “There’s not even a printout.” She sometimes gets jealous of stay-at-home mom Mayor Jenna: “Just returning the emails I get is a full-time job!”
Since her January 2018 swearing-in, Mayor Stephanie has encountered some misconceptions about small-town mayors. “People think I make the rules, fix the potholes, do the bike lanes, deal with code violations, plan events, round up volunteers, support new businesses … ” she says, before running out of breath.
“People say, ‘We pay your salary!’” Mayor Mark says ruefully. He left his job at the courthouse and now is a server at an Italian restaurant in the King of Prussia mall. Constituents who encounter him there are frequently confused. “They’ll ask, ‘Is this your part-time gig?’ I tell them, ‘Actually, it’s the other way around. I do a little mayoring on the side.’”
You might expect the old-timers in these little towns to resent the incursions of young people with newfangled ideas. And it hasn’t been all roses. Not long after Mayor Mark took office in 2018 as Bridgeport’s first black and first openly gay mayor — the borough is almost 80 percent white — he ran into some resistance. An antidiscrimination ordinance he proposed stirred up emotions. The police chief resigned amid some ugly allegations about racism. There were social media threats. Mayor Mark was worried. Then, he says, he remembered: “They elected me!” He’s pleased to report that borough council just signed a joint statement on inclusivity — in rainbow ink. It’s hanging in borough hall.
It helps temper any resentment that these very smart, very articulate young people are shunning bustling meccas of tech to live in their overlooked river towns. When you’ve watched your borough’s tax base erode, the rise of yoga studios and vodka bars and Himalayan salt caves may seem sort of weird. But it doesn’t seem bad. In fact, it’s flattering: You crazy young folks want to live here? With me? Not to mention that it’s hard to find willing public servants these days, especially for that pay.
Old-timers find the millennials flattering: You want to live here? With me? Really?
The millennial mayors return the favor by taking their jobs very seriously. “Being mayor is reflective of being president,” Mayor Mark explains. “You’re the highest officer in a defined, designated area. It’s the highest office in ‘the land.’ People see a lot of power in that. The power isn’t real, but it’s so important to govern as though it is.”
Just as I’m beginning to feel warm fuzzies for the millennial mayors, I visit Mayor Josh at borough hall in Downingtown. He keeps me waiting for the appointment he set up. He seems … preoccupied. He checks his phone incessantly. His answers to my questions come off canned, as though he’s been over all this territory before.
He likely has. He’s been at this a long time. He was appointed to the borough planning commission at the tender age of 21, then ran for mayor and won five years later. Though he’s only 36, he’s been on the job for more than a decade. Reelected twice, he’s also run for higher office: state representative in 2018 (he lost) and county commissioner last year. (He won. On New Year’s Day, he announced he’d step down as mayor to focus on that $87,012-a-year post.)
Thanks to his heady start, he bestrides a wider stage than his local peers do, namedropping national players — former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, that other Mayor Pete — and contemplating still higher office in the future. His wife of a year and a half, YA fiction author Blair Thornburgh, is the granddaughter of two-time Pennsylvania governor and former U.S. Attorney Dick Thornburgh. The wedding was covered in the New York Times.
He’s been good for Downingtown, which is also in Chester County; it and Phoenixville are the boroughs other mayors point to as blueprints for how to turn a sleepy town around. He rolls off facts and figures crisply: seven years without a tax increase, 60 percent of borough debt paid down, a new train station serving both Amtrak and SEPTA that he says will “increase the town’s values by 17 percent”: “You’ll be able to live here and work at Comcast in Philly.” A few years back, he got into a tweet war with Donald Trump after the then-presidential candidate captioned a photo of an abandoned paper mill in Downingtown “So sad.” It’s the new train station now.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
Asked how boroughs can grow and still maintain their small-town charm, Mayor Josh answers impatiently, as though it’s obvious: “Zoning! You take a map of the town and you make a circle where you want development, another circle where you don’t, and you circle the buildings you want to preserve.” Would it were that simple. He does mention that his wife declared Pete Urscheler “her favorite mayor in Chester County.” Ouch. (He also says of the turkey costume, “If I did that in Downingtown, it wouldn’t go over.”)
Mayor Josh stands out from the other young mayors, but I can’t quite put my finger on how. He says all the same things about diversity and inclusion and adding new voices to the room. It’s not until the next day, when I’m sitting with Mayor Stephanie in the Pottstown brewpub, that it hits me: He is from around here. He’s lived in Chester County all his life. The other mayors came from away and chose their bedraggled old towns, the way you might adopt an SPCA stray with three legs or a chewed-off ear. “I never felt Pennsylvania was home until we moved here,” Mayor Stephanie tells me, as young families around us await the Christmas tree lighting. “I always called California home. Pennsylvania was just a place I lived.”
Or, as Mayor Jenna puts it, “I don’t know how long you have to live somewhere before it’s your hometown. But I want to earn that, and I really respect folks who love what Royersford is.”
The local Mayor Pete has an almost unbelievable coda to his unlikely journey to Phoenixville. His dad, who was 90 by the time Pete was elected mayor, held the Bible for him at the swearing-in ceremony. That night, he died in his sleep. “He was the last member of my immediate family,” Mayor Pete says. “I was orphaned. But I never really felt that. I was bullied nonstop when I was growing up. Now, Dad knew I had a place to be safe, to be cared for.” At night, he says, “I drive around and look at the streetlights and the porch lights, and every one of those houses is so full of hopes and dreams. You want to take care of them.” This is the saving grace of millennials — that underneath all the tech and the emojis and the LOLing, they’re Holden Caulfields desperate to connect, to be that catcher in the rye.
Okay. The selfies are fun, too.
Just before Thanksgiving, Mayor Mark also made it into the New York Times, in an article on that other Mayor Pete’s struggles attracting black voters — “like Mr. Buttigieg, an openly gay millennial mayor,” the Times described him. (Mayor Mark’s a huge Mayor Pete supporter.) What was that national spotlight like? “I always feel like I’m the underdog,” Mayor Mark says, even more excitedly than he usually speaks. “It was like winning an award that nobody ever expected. The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘Hello, South Dakota? Anybody there remember me?’”
They say that about underdogs: When they finally find forever homes, it’s hard to tell who’s more grateful, the adopter or the adoptee.
Published as “Small-Town Heroes” in the February 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.