As Major Cities Welcome New Leaders, Two Long-Serving Mayors Stay the Course

93-year-old John Land and 73-year-old Leonard Scarcella have been mayors for decades -- and they're not going anywhere

By Torey Van Oot
|  Friday, Jan 3, 2014  |  Updated 1:37 PM PDT
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For Long-Serving Mayors, Change Is Part of the Job

AP

93-year-old John Land was first elected as the mayor of Apopka, Florida, in 1949. Except for a one-term break in the 1960s, he's been the mayor ever since.

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John Land was just 29 years old when he was first elected mayor of a small Florida farming town called Apopka.

Six decades later, Apopka’s population has boomed from just over 2,000 to about 44,000, and the increasingly diverse city’s needs and wants have evolved from putting in a sewer system to installing Wi-Fi throughout the community. But Land, now 93, is still in office. And he doesn’t plan to step aside anytime soon.
 
"I've learned more and probably know more about running the city than anyone else," said Land, who is running for a 20th term this year.
 
As a new year brings new leadership to several major cities that had the same mayor for a decade or more, including Boston, New Haven, Conn., and New York City, communities like Apopka are just fine with their long-serving local leaders.
 
Land, who has served all but one term since his first election in 1949 -- a short break from service that occurred when "voters got sick of me" in 1967 and elected someone else, he said -- says he didn’t set out to become one of the nation's oldest and longest-serving mayors. His total time in office has hit 61 years.
 
“I really thought I’d serve maybe one three-year term, possibly two, and then go onto something else," Land said. "But after each term there always seemed to be something else exciting out there." 
 
The same is true for Leonard Scarcella, who has served 40-plus years straight as mayor of Stafford, Texas, a Houston suburb of about 18,000. The attorney and Stafford native thought he'd serve no more than six years or so when he first won the office in 1969. But a protracted and ultimately successful legal fight to create an independent school district for the city changed that plan.
 
"Once I'd gotten into that, then we had to set the school district up," said Scarcella, now 73. "One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I'd been mayor for 15 years." 
 
Scarcella is now believed to be the longest continuously serving mayor in the country, according to his office and extensive research by an Orlando Sentinel reporter covering Land’s tenure. He says he inherited the title in 2012, after the longtime mayor of a neighboring city just 13 miles away died  during his 63rd year in office. Land, whom voters returned to office in 1971, and Robert Blais of Lake George, N.Y., first elected in 1971, trail his 44-year streak.
 
“It’s very challenging, but I kept signing up and kept winning elections,” Scarcella said. “Sometimes, I didn’t have an opponent. It just carried through until now.”
 
Land and Scarcella’s long, ongoing tenures appear to put them in contrast to currently elected mayors in much of the country.  More than 250 cities elected or appointed a new mayor in 2013, with nearly 50 percent of 550 cities that held mayoral contests last year experiencing turnover in city hall, according to a list compiled by the United States Conference of Mayors.  
 
Those cities included Boston, where Mayor-elect Marty Walsh will be sworn in Monday to succeed Thomas Menino, who led the city for a record 20 years before deciding not to seek another term. New Haven, Conn., and Albany, N.Y., also both welcomed their first new mayors in 20 years, while New York City and Minneapolis said goodbye to mayors who had logged more than a decade of service.
 
Though a number of states passed term limits for legislators and other offices throughout the 1990s, restrictions at the city level remain relatively rare. While nine of the country's 10 largest cities, including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego, have mayoral term limits on the books, one 2008 report by the International City/County Management Association found that just 9 percent of cities overall had imposed some sort of restriction on term length.
 
Neither Apopka nor Stafford currently have term limits, though both mayors have faced a number of tough elections and challengers’ calls for new faces and ideas over the years. Land has attracted four opponents in an upcoming March election, the first time he has been challenged since 2002, according to local reports. City officials are also reviewing a proposal to add term limits there, a change Land opposes.
 
“We just need some fresh ideas in Apopka,” candidate Gregg Phillips told the Orlando Sentinel last month. 
 
The incumbent mayors, however, say there's a lot a longtime mayor can offer, especially when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of the city's governance. 
 
A long-serving mayor can "influence very substantially the direction of the city, the philosophy of the city," Scarcella said. They can also offer a helpful and knowledgeable perspective on everything from balancing the budget to dealing with stray cats, an issue he said has been coming up at town meetings since 1974.  
 
“You have that type of understanding and it becomes very beneficial in terms of being able to make sure that you’re disciplined and responsible, you live within your means," Scarcella said, "but also that you‘re doing things that are going to be productive and beneficial instead of doing things because somebody just came up with a new idea." 
 
Mark P. Jones, chair of the department of political science at Rice University in Houston, agrees that one benefit of having a seasoned mayor is “the ability to have a long-term vision and actually implement that vision of a long period of time,” especially in smaller communities more likely to see elected officials with lengthy runs in office.

“The case for having long tenured mayors is the reality that these are positions with a steep learning curve and you run the risk of, if you are constantly changing people in and out, that the quality of policies and the quality of government is low,” he said. “By the time people actually understand the job and understand the challenges and understand how everything works, it’s time for them to leave.”

But such tenures can also create “an entrenched mayor (who) allies with financial donors who benefit from that mayor being in office,” he said.

“The downside to all of this is municipal elections by and large are low turnout affairs where the donors... tend to be people who are directly affected by the city: developers, contractors, different businesses that tend to give to incumbents because those are the people who are influencing policy at the moment," said Jones.

And “given the combination of inertia, low turnout and the incumbent’s fundraising advantage,” Jones said, removing an official once he or she is in power can be a difficult feat. 

While the leadership has largely stayed the same in Apopka and Stafford, both cities have undergone dramatic changes under the watches of their longtime mayors. Apopka, now the second-largest city in Florida's Orange County, behind Orlando, has dealt with staggering growth ever since the Disney World opened in 1971. And Stafford has become "probably the most diverse city in the United States in terms of population," Scarcella said, with its population now near evenly split between African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian residents.
 
Those changes have pressed both mayors to search out different ways to reach out and connect with constituents, as well as solutions to problems that didn't exist when they first took office. It's also inspired one of Land's keys to success for mayors looking to lead over the long haul: don't dwell on the past.
 
“If you keep your mind looking to the future," Land says, "You can keep going a little longer in the job.”

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