Does city’s mayoral history tell its future?

By Greg Bassett

Salisbury is abuzz this week about the impending mayoral campaign. Jake Day announced Wednesday that he’s running; incumbent Jim Ireton said he’s reviewing his election options; people are looking to autumn and talking about what qualities a mayor should possess.

While I should be thinking ahead, all this mayor talk has me looking backward. I keep thinking that, in my lifetime, there has been a list of mayors who entered office as being right for their time, but ultimately seemed miscast. Salisbury changed faster than they either did, could or would.

When elected at age 30 in 1962, Frank Morris was known as “the boy mayor.” It’s wasn’t a dig to call him that. As a young businessman, he positioned his family’s plumbing supplies company to be a top regional business for decades to come. He had the right mix of youth, brains and community ties to lead.

After a single term, however, Morris lost to Dallas Truitt, a white-haired man who epitomized the blue-collar, good-old-boy network. The youthful Morris, it could be said, proved to be ahead of his time.

Truitt was replaced by Elmer Ruark, who won the office in 1974 at the tender age of 69. Few people, sadly, can remember anything Ruark accomplished.

The next mayor possessed a resume of old and new: W. Paul Martin Jr., who had joined the City Council at age 38 and had gone on to be president, was elected mayor at 62.

Martin could well be considered the best mayor in Salisbury history. His leadership, and focus on growth and development truly changed Salisbury. The retail explosion on the city’s north end made Salisbury (for better or worse) a completely different community.

Martin was mayor for a long time — four terms; 16 years — and it was awkward to watch him during the end of his tenure. While Martin was focused on business growth, Salisbury’s core neighborhoods experienced radical change. Suddenly a city of rental housing and transients, out-of-town business owners and landlord-businessmen were gaining . Martin was hostile to the changes going on around him: He didn’t know what to do about the neighborhoods, and couldn’t comprehend how anyone might criticize the development he championed.

Martin was followed by the ultimate change-maker, Barrie Parsons Tilghman, the first woman to occupy the mayor’s seat. Youth wasn’t a factor with Tilghman — the Glass Ceiling was. Her 11 years in office were notable for some high-wire highs and lows; she somehow managed to lose her base supporters, even as she desperately needed them to fend off the establishment that she was hoping to change.

Our mayor for the past six years, Jim Ireton, was a pro-neighborhoods candidate when he won election. He was approaching 40 when elected, and had won a City Council seat at just 28.

Some people have compared Ireton to Morris — his passion for the job is unquestioned and his focus is firmly on the future — but his connections to the city’s establishment have been sometimes strained.

Now here comes Jake Day: He turned 33 on July 3 and is often touted as one of the community’s young leaders hellbent on change. Day has also managed, remarkably, to win praise from the city’s establishment quarters. His youth and connections across the segments that run Salisbury would appear — at this juncture anyway — to be unique.

So, 53 years after Mayor Morris, is electing another “boy mayor” a possibility? It’s an eternity between now and the November balloting, and a lot will be debated between now and then.

I wonder if Salisbury’s mayoral history will be part of that discussion.

Greg Bassett is the Salisbury Independent’s editor.

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