These Millennial Mayors in the Philly ’Burbs Entered Office Eager and Optimistic. Then Came 2020
Here’s what it was like to be the caretaker of an entire community when so much stuff — PPE shortages, school closures, job losses, overcrowded hospitals, toilet-paper hoarding — suddenly hit the fan.
Mark Barbee got laid off in 2020. He was a waiter in a King of Prussia restaurant that closed when Governor Tom Wolf issued shutdown orders in March. For Barbee, like so many of us, this was a first. “I’ve never been on unemployment before,” he says. “I didn’t want to file. But there’s no running from it.” So, also like many of us, he was forced to navigate the Commonwealth’s … well, let’s call it labyrinthine unemployment compensation system. “It’s really inconsistent,” he says. “The most challenging part is getting a live person to talk to. It’s not even the money, which is less than you’d make working. But you can go six or eight weeks without getting paid! My phone’s been cut off three times.”
Where Barbee’s experiences in filing for unemployment differ from yours or mine is that he’s also the mayor of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, a Montco borough of some 4,600 people nestled on a curve in the Schuylkill River just east of Valley Forge National Historical Park. (Small-town mayoralty, which generally pays a few thousand dollars a year, is rarely a full-time gig.) That meant he could put his frustrations to good use. “I’ll be talking to someone who’s applied for benefits, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s been a couple of weeks,’” he says. “And I can tell them: That’s normal. If you file every week, you’ll get the money faster. It gets your name back in the queue.” Instead of hiding his status, “I’ve been trying to be really open about being on unemployment. It’s been a learning experience. Now, I’m the unemployment guru. I know what people have been going through.”
I first met Barbee, 31, in late 2019. He was one of five suburban-borough mayors, all under age 40, that I interviewed for a story in the February 2020 issue of this magazine about how their generation — the millennials — was taking over the reins of local government. The first U.S. cases of COVID-19 were just being confirmed when the piece appeared in print. Sure, 2020 was an annus horribilis for everyone. But as the year dragged on, I found myself thinking about those five young people, the hopes and dreams they had for their towns when we talked, and the challenges they were facing even before any of this went down.
If Barbee seems awfully forthright about his joblessness, mark it down to his millennial status. William Strauss and Neil Howe, the demographers who coined that term in their 2000 book Millennials Rising, delineated the core traits of the generation born roughly between 1981 and 1996: They consider themselves “special,” both individually and as a group; they’re sheltered (because of overprotective boomer parents), confident, team-oriented high achievers who feel pressure to succeed and yet are highly conventional. Take onetime presidential candidate and current transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, perhaps the ur-millennial. What sort of gay Navy vet and Rhodes Scholar becomes the mayor of South Bend? What millennial writer Kate Nocera in the New York Times dubbed the “great millennial takeover” is very much a political revolution from within.
“Ours might be the first generation of mayors who don’t necessarily consider state and federal government a step up,” Buttigieg told Time magazine a few years back. “A generation ago, folks like us wouldn’t run for local office in the first place — we would go to law school, try to work for a Congressman, and then try to be a Congressman.” Now, according to Shauna Shames, a poli-sci professor at Rutgers who studies millennials, mayor is just about the only office they’re interested in. They tell her they’re turned off by the fund-raising that runs for higher office entail, and they want to make a genuine difference — to leave their mark.
Confident, team-oriented, high achievers … all that definitely fit the young mayors I interviewed at the end of 2019. But 2020 was enough to generate self-doubt in even the most special of their special generation. So I decided to check back in and find out: What’s it like to be the caretaker of an entire community when so much stuff — PPE shortages, school closures, job losses, overcrowded hospitals, toilet-paper hoarding — suddenly hits the fan the way it did last year?
The first thing that surprises me about the mayors is that the pandemic didn’t sneak up on them the way it did me. Peter Urscheler, 37, mayor of Phoenixville (population 17,000) and a communications consultant, remembers a meeting with the borough’s office of emergency management back in late December 2019: “We were dusting off old plans for dealing with a pandemic, looking at a variety of scenarios, sitting in a meeting room at Phoenixville Hospital. I remember being in shock that we were having this conversation. I never thought we would implement those plans.”
Josh Maxwell, 37, who’d been the mayor of Downingtown for a decade when he and I spoke in late 2019, was sworn in as one of Chester County’s three commissioners early in 2020. He’d barely started the new job when COVID came on his radar: “In January, we had our first meeting with the county health director,” he recalls. “She mentioned COVID in her brief as something they were looking at for the coming year. A few weeks later, it reached Seattle. On March 13th, we had our first positive case in Chester County. It’s been escalating ever since.”
For Stephanie Henrick, 39, mayor of Pottstown, her day gig as a tax and estates attorney offered the first clue: “I remember in early January, I had a young client die,” she tells me. “I looked at the death certificate. I thought it was odd that he’d die of a heart attack. It turned out he had COVID.” Aided by these early warnings, the young mayors drew on their generational skill set — social media savvy, organizational prowess, optimism, empathy, collaborative strength — to map out the role they’d play under the world’s new rules.
Boroughs in Pennsylvania have “strong council/weak mayor” systems of governance that give their titular heads less power than in big cities. Josh Maxwell contrasts the decade he spent as a mayor to his present role as county commissioner: “As mayor, you help people on an individual basis. You have someone knocking on your door who’s lost his job, who can’t pay the water bill. Now, helping to run a county this size — you can’t find the time to talk to everybody. You have to go through intermediaries, and that’s not something I’m used to.”
Jenna Antoniewicz, 37, mayor of Royersford in Montco (population 4,800), says, “This is a job that comes with influence but not much authority.” So when COVID hit, she drew on that influence. “One day I was sitting in a girlfriend’s living room, counting plastic eggs for the annual Easter egg hunt,” she says ruefully. “The next, we were having a big Zoom call with 20 or so people. We reached out to local first responders, fire, police, food pantries, the school district, to take inventory of the resources in town — what was already here, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.” The next task was to get that information out to people, aided by Facebook, Twitter, and the fire department’s website (social media savvy!). Of course, she also realized (empathy!) that not everybody is on the internet. So she worked with the local State Farm agent to print 1,000 copies of the resulting resource guide and made them available throughout town, including in borough hall, on a table custom-built by the public-works crew (collaboration!). “And we sponsored signs all over town for branding,” she adds: “‘If you need help, go to borough hall!’”
The lifeblood of every small town is the cycle of annual events that serve as community markers: the craft fair, the tree lighting, the June fete … “I used to do 52 events a year that required some road closures,” says Phoenixville’s Mayor Peter. That all shut down under COVID. “The community has become extra-creative trying to keep traditions alive, though,” he notes. “We had a virtual tree lighting. The Firebird Festival was virtual. The house tour was virtual. We had virtual fireworks, virtual bingo.”
In Bridgeport, borough council meetings moved online, where, to Mayor Mark’s surprise, attendance escalated: “Normally, we’d have four to 10 people show up at meetings. Now, when we have these viewings, it’s 20 to 40. People are like, ‘I’ll watch it if you put it on. I don’t have to leave home.’”
“Zoom is what it is,” Mayor Stephanie says with resignation. “It’s not in person. But it has provided opportunities that we didn’t have.” She cites hosting Louis Knight from American Idol — his manager is local Cliff Jurkiewicz — for the town’s virtual Fourth of July celebration: “He was on my team for Family Feud!” As an added bonus, the singer featured downtown Pottstown as the backdrop for his “Save a Little Love” video. The town looks great.
Still, the young mayors are extroverts, drawn to the job by its public face. “No one would pretend it’s not cool to lead the countdown for the Christmas-tree lighting,” says Mayor Jenna. “There’s disappointment with the loss of the communal highs we get. If you take away all the ceremonial stuff, many of us are really bummed.” And in the pandemic, what the “fun stuff” gets replaced with isn’t fun at all. “The transference of a town’s anxiety to you is daunting,” she admits. “You have to step back, set boundaries. If you get an email from a constituent at 10 o’clock at night, do you need to respond right away?”
“People are very raw and scared,” says Mayor Peter, “and that manifests in different ways. When there’s an inability to be together in person, you may behave in ways you wouldn’t if you were standing across from somebody.” “A lot of people are going through emotional distress,” Commissioner Josh notes, “and we’re not able to grieve the way we usually do.”
And yet, all the mayors say they’ve been struck by how their communities have come together to confront the pandemic (optimism!). “I really have witnessed the extreme ends of the bell curve,” says Mayor Jenna. “We’ve seen the worst of the worst of human nature. There’s nothing harder for a human than to hit them with uncertainty. And everything is closed — there are no gyms, no bars, no outlets for the expression of that anxiety. And yet at the other end of the bell curve — how to describe the warm, supportive humanity of experiencing this together? We’ve seen the best of the best.”
In June, after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, another ingredient got stirred into the pot: the Black Lives Matter movement. But while our TV screens were filled with images of riots and protests, the mood in small local towns was more serene. “It really brought a lot of us together,” Mayor Mark says of the experience in Bridgeport. “Everyone was forced to pay attention. Everyone was at home, and that’s what was on TV.” Now, he says, his constituents really understand what Black Lives Matter means: “There was no turning away from it, no just going back to your job or whatever else you had going on.” All the towns had marches. “That was an amazing thing,” says Mayor Stephanie. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and people want to protest! I know people who have businesses here and in Philadelphia, and I got calls: ‘Do I have to protect my store in Pottstown?’ We were really able to demonstrate that we can voice our opinions without violence and looting, and have the police stand with the community for social justice.”
Phoenixville’s march had several thousand protesters, Mayor Peter says: “I didn’t see anyone not wearing masks. The police marched alongside the students who helped coordinate the event.” In a speech at the town’s band shell, he noted that the interior of the Washington Monument is made of iron forged in Phoenixville: “For generations, we made things for the world. We may no longer make things, but we can be a beacon of love and hope and kindness — be an example for other communities.”
Montgomery and Chester counties had an advantage in confronting the pandemic: They’re two of only six counties in the state with health departments. (Chester also took the reins for Delaware County, which doesn’t — collaboration!) Commissioner Josh is a native of Downingtown — what he calls “a middle-class, lower-middle-class town.” His current countywide role has widened his perspective: “We reach from farms out near Lancaster to the Main Line. This is one of the wealthier counties in the United States, and the wealthiest in Pennsylvania. But we have to support agriculture, nonprofits providing services, immigrant populations on farms who may not have medical providers. … There are a whole lot of different experiences.” He’s proud that the county has provided $15 million to support childcare, to alleviate some of the pressure working constituents have felt.
“That’s the biggest complaint parents have,” Mayor Jenna tells me. “They say, ‘I have to work full-time and teach kids, too?’” She’s grateful her two, ages one and four, are small enough that she doesn’t have to deal with virtual schooling. Mayor Peter has tried to help Phoenixville’s schools with Zoom classroom visits where he talks to young students about handwashing, mask-wearing: “I tell them, ‘It’s okay that you’re going to be home. It’s not your job to worry!’” Residents could even sign up to have him visit their houses on Zoom and talk to their kids.
Early on in the pandemic, Mayor Stephanie says, she fielded complaints about loud motorcycles and fireworks: “People were trying to let off steam.” But when schools started shutting down, “I was terrified,” she admits. “How were we going to feed the kids? People rely on schools.” The concerns were eye-opening: “I never realized,” she notes, “that there’s no access to showers in churches,” which had taken in those who found themselves homeless. A rec center was co-opted to provide showers and stocked with clean sheets and towels. The town passed a permit for a “warming center” at a church — “a place for people to be socially distant, safe and warm,” she explains. The community, she says, “has come together without any help from the federal government. People just opened their hearts. It’s been really touching.” It’s been a while, she notes, since she got a complaint about the motorcycles.
And indeed, while national media played up the chasm between Republicans and Democrats in a presidential election year, the mayors say that on a local level, politics has remained safe and sane. Commissioner Josh notes that Chester County installed its early-ballot dropboxes at libraries: “We figured that was the least controversial place. We tried to stay off the news.” Mayor Mark says that though Donald Trump is “absolutely a bully,” Bridgeport proved to be “a place where it’s expected we’ll rise in support of inclusivity. I’m so proud of that.” Mayor Peter says there’s an analogy he uses when he talks to kids. He tells them Phoenixville is a lot like having a family: “You sit down at the table together even though you don’t always agree. You come with the belief that everyone is there for the right reasons and loves one another.” He shrugs over Zoom. “That’s how it feels to me.”
The millennial mayors know there are new challenges ahead. They have concerns about how vaccine distribution will be handled. About how the small businesses in their communities will weather this storm. “They say, ‘How can we help?’” Mayor Jenna notes. “They’re so generous. But they’re all struggling.” Commissioner Josh’s mom works at a local hospital; he worries about her and about keeping COVID out of the county’s long-term care facilities. He tears up as he recalls a COVID funeral he attended. Mayor Peter mourns the loss of human contact: “Just being there in person, seeing other people — that’s what I miss most.” Mayor Stephanie, the lawyer, worries about domestic situations: “There are couples who are getting divorced and are stuck living under one roof, and they didn’t like each other even before COVID!” Mayor Mark wonders what will happen to the restaurant industry: “I think about it every day. That’s my job. How long will it be before it’s normal? You can’t argue with so many people not ready to eat in restaurants. But how long will it be till everybody is ready again?”
And yet even with all the difficulties, the millennial mayors manage to find silver linings. They heap praise on their local police departments, emergency services, county governments and nonprofits. They laud Governor Wolf’s steady leadership. They cite new businesses that, against all odds, have opened on their Main Streets. They say they’re grateful that residents have gone with the flow, and for some of the changes the pandemic wrought. “The world just used to seem so busy all the time,” says Mayor Peter. “We were always doing something. This taught us to slow down, to take time to be with our families and communities.”
“I think the long-term effects will be positive,” Mayor Stephanie agrees. “We came together and worked through this.” She mentions Pottstown’s Wyndcroft School, founded in 1918, during the great influenza pandemic — an “open-air school,” with classes held on porches and in an open garage to guard students’ health. (They’re now indoors.) It’s with that long view that she plans to run again: “I made a pledge to the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation that every citizen in Pottstown would have access to green space within a 10-minute walk by 2050,” she says, then laughs: “I have 30 years to get that done.”
Mayor Mark, on the other hand, announced at a Zoom council meeting in November that he won’t be running again — not for mayor of Bridgeport, anyway. As for other offices, “I haven’t decided yet,” says the big fan of Pete Buttigieg. “Every time, I tell myself: No more! Make money! Live life to its fullest! Then something happens and I get angry, and I think, ‘Someone’s got to say something!’” Either way, he’s content with his legacy. “This was the first pandemic of its kind in our lifetimes,” he says. “There’s not a lot of blueprints for that. But the work we’re doing as mayors will be the blueprint for the future, and that’s cool to think. People will ask, ‘What did they do the last time?’ And my name will be there.”
Published as “Checking in on the Millennial Mayors” in the March 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.