Something huge happened in 2016, something we don’t yet fully understand. There was such a revulsion toward politics as usual that America located and elected the actual least presidential person available, and he wore it like a qualification. Nobody has any idea how this is going to work out, because a revolution of this magnitude hasn’t happened in America in our lifetimes.
But as it turns out, a much smaller revolution of the identical kind occurred a year and a half ago in a town of about 4,000 a mere hour from the White House. In an election in Indian Head, Md., the experienced, longtime elected town leaders were all thrown out and replaced by people who had never held elective office.
The least experienced of them all at anything, even in being alive, was elected mayor: Brandon Paulin, 19 years old, whose entire employment experience up to that point was selling raffle tickets at Redskins games for $10 an hour. He received more votes than all the incumbents combined. Whatever just happened the world over, it seems to have happened first in Indian Head. Is it the leading edge of the wave? Is this is a sneak peek at the new world order, where anyone but a politician can get elected?
Since the swearing-in, Paulin’s gotten his braces off, but he still looks like the high school wrestling captain he was two years ago. His blond hair is short. He’s pale with a little acne and is bewildered that a reporter would want to follow him home and watch him eat.
He grew up in Indian Head, in the same house he still lives in with his parents and younger brother. He can show you whose lawn decorations are the best in town and where the good fishing is. As a town, it’s a bit of a conundrum. It’s a mash-up of a small town and an outer suburb of the District, and it grew up around the naval base that employs about as many people as the town has residents. It’s a peninsula, between Mattawoman Creek and the Potomac, but doesn’t have much water access. It’s growing in residents but has been in business decline for the past 15 years or so. People still refer to Strauss Avenue as “the old road,” because it was the main capillary before Indian Head Highway was built, in 1949.
Indian Head is at the end of Indian Head Highway (Route 210), but don’t tell Paulin that. “We’re at the beginning of 210,” he says. “The mile markers start here at 1.”
He remembers, just barely, going to the Super Fresh grocery store with his mom. There was an automatic door and a big clock that hung down from the ceiling. He was 3 years old when the last Indian Head grocery store closed up in 1999, leaving a vacant and increasingly dilapidated building. Recently, when he toured the building with the property owner, trying to get the place torn down, he was startled to see the clock was still there; the hands hadn’t moved in 17 years.
Indian Head very much wants a grocery store. You hear this over and over, from fourth-graders’ “If I Were Mayor” essays to town meetings. The Dollar General in town sells milk, bread, frozen pizza and ice cream, but for fresh vegetables and meat you need to drive about 17 minutes away. If you have a car. Buses are scheduled every hour, when they can be relied upon. Paulin wants a grocery store because the town wants one, but really he wants the vacant buildings torn down — here where the CVS and Super Fresh used to be, and across the street at what used to be called Contractor Row, now an empty strip mall and an empty lawyer’s office. And the Algonquin building near Town Hall, and the thrift store that burned down.
So, Mayor, Safeway’s listening. What should they know?
He is ready for this.
“Indian Head is a beautiful place with outstanding waterfront. There’s a base that employs 4,000 people and is consistently growing, and the town has about 4,000 people and is growing. There’s going to be a new townhome development. Your trade area, you’re looking at about 12,000-plus. The town can provide you tax incentives. We’d be willing —”
A small pause. Tilt of the head.
“It’s negotiable. Depending on employment. We provide business incentives. All commercial permitting is free. Whatever we would need to do to get you in here, we’d be more than willing.”
Another pause. Is it working? He goes on.
“A lot of the foreclosures that we did have are bought up and are being fixed or flipped. From a business standpoint, you have more traffic coming through this part of the 210 corridor than ever, with the base. I think we’re at 17,000 drive-bys. Um, so buy now before someone else does.”
A pause, a laugh. The mayor has a sheepish grin and quite, quite blue eyes.
Paulin is something of a rock star. Caveat: Paulin is a rock star within the confines of the Maryland Municipal League’s annual conference, held in the convention center in Ocean City. He’s pictured in the program section on events for young leaders. In the big, high-ceilinged entrance hall filled with blazing June sunlight, he’s recognized and has his hand shaken by people he doesn’t know. He has a firm grip and says “Pleasure.” A businessman tells him that his son is Paulin’s age and not nearly as accomplished. He is applauded, multiple times, not for something he says or does, but for who he is. He is graciously and nervously accepting of this.
There’s a palpable tension in the convention center between the concept of municipal and the concept of cool. The president of the municipal league is named Spencer Schlosnagle (himself mayor of Friendsville, population 491, since the age of 21, in 1986). There are Maryland flag bow ties. A keynote speaker begins his TED-style talk with a picture of a generic local government meeting, possibly a stock photo. The people in the picture are old, and white, and boring-looking, wearing 1980s old-boring-people clothes. They are municipal.
“These,” the speaker says, “are not my people.” There are laughs, though, of course, some people here in the auditorium are these people.
There’s some tension, too, at the presentation of each municipality’s colors, flag and motto, how the municipality wants to identify itself to the larger group. Some mottoes are traditional: “Pearl of the Chesapeake.” “Heart of the four-county community.” Some are cautiously forward-looking: “Small town of tomorrow,” “One of the first towns to go green.” “Home of the human genome.” But some are consciously cool, aimed at millennials. “Birthplace of the Muppets.” “Home of the red Solo cup.”
Indian Head’s is “Home of the youngest mayor in Maryland history.” Cool.
Mayor Paulin is excited to be here, excited to do some networking with other people who’ve fought blight, and a couple of other young mayors. They swap stories about how they won over older voters. Paulin says that he played Texas hold ’em at the Indian Head Senior Center. Another young mayor once had an upset constituent who told him, “I voted for you! I’m never voting for a millennial again!” He grins, for he is the future. “Yes, she will.”
Before his four-year term is out, Paulin will be legally able to patronize one of Ocean City’s fine drinking establishments. But he probably won’t. His first night in Ocean City, on a business trip, with his own hotel room and a whole beach full of frolicking people his own age making unwise decisions, the 20-year-old mayor was back in his hotel room at 10 p.m., watching Olympic men’s gymnastics before going to sleep. He was up at 6 answering mayor-type emails, and he would be the next day, too.
He’s on a break now between Maryland Municipal League panel sessions, with nothing to do until the next one. The beach is 200 feet away, out the huge windows, as he settles into a table in the giant, echoey hallway of the convention center. He doesn’t even glance outside. He’s on his tablet, working.
Is he going to visit the boardwalk? He doesn’t like being in the water much. He likes boats. He likes fishing. There are boats out there! There is a family standing on a dock, fishing. But the mayor is answering emails. He gets on Facebook — such a young person! — though it’s the town’s Facebook page, and he is responding to constituents celebrating that Indian Head has been declared a Sustainable Community, which was very hush-hush until recently. When there’s no more of that to be done, he checks his Maryland Municipal League app for when his next event will be. Not till 3. He gets a mischievous look and switches to his personal Twitter account. And scrolls.
European soccer. The Nats just called up right-handed pitcher Rafael Martin. He reads, twirling a pen absently in his free hand.
Anything in Ocean City enticing him, other than municipal government administration?
“Might catch mini-golf on the way out,” he says.
He beats his little brother at Trivia Crack. It’s an app.
He goes to check out the exhibit hall, where booths are set up promoting each municipality via poster board and swag: tote bags, rulers, magnets, sunglasses labeled “North Beach.” There are also vendors hoping to attract local government officials to their products. Eco-conscious construction companies, pool safety equipment, an online permitting service.
“That’s an idea,” Paulin says of the last one. He doesn’t linger. He wants to see how Indian Head’s display stacks up. He determines it is the best one.
“Well,” he says. “Knocked that out quicker than I thought.” He sits back down in the big hall, pulls out his tablet and checks the town’s Facebook page. The Sustainable Community announcement has gotten some likes.
He attends the Strategic Partners dinner. He gets his picture taken with Gov. Larry Hogan. He never makes mini-golf.
Paulin is not exactly mayor the way most people think of the term. The way Indian Head’s government is set up, the town executive is an unelected position, and the three members of the Town Council are the legislators. Whoever gets the most votes in the council election becomes mayor, second place is vice mayor and third is councilman. The mayor gets to appoint people to committees and has ceremonial duties. Paulin reckons he works more than 30 hours a week as mayor for $6,000 a year.
So a part-time college student living with his parents is a pretty sweet deal in terms of bang for a town’s buck. This might be one of the only ways you could get a professional politician so cheaply: Pick someone who doesn’t have to be a professional anything just yet. And the ceremonial duties — graduations, holiday celebrations, speech-giving — take advantage of what he means as a symbol.
The ripples of media attention Indian Head got with its new, brace-faced teen mayor might end up helping the town, so as uncomfortable as it might be when a reporter asks where Paulin’s girlfriend lives, he understands he can use it.
“The more the town gets out there, the more people are hearing about it, the more sizzle, I guess, goes along with it,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity to talk about the town, talk about what needs to be done. Hopefully someone comes along, reads an article, wants to do something.”
Mayor Paulin has some cool, some cachet that’s hard to replicate. News articles about him get comments referencing the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” which featured a (disastrous) former teen mayor. And cool has a necessary frisson of danger. The town hosts a Halloween night Trunk to Trunk Trick or Treating, a safer and more efficient candy-redistribution process than the traditional house-to-house trick-or-treat, with elaborately decorated cars parked in a lot by the Village Green. Children in costumes visit each car in turn and get some candy.
The mayor stands near the police car marking the entrance to Trunk to Trunk, welcoming kids and parents and giving out candy. He has brought a baseball bat bound in barbed wire and named Lucille. It’s a prop for his costume, a particularly bad baddie named Negan from “The Walking Dead.” But it is also a real weapon. A mom stops to chat with the mayor and the area’s police officer, not noticing her two-foot-tall scary-clown child reaching for the bat. It is a very cool bat. Paulin moves the bat away from the child, but the almost-incident doesn’t seem to faze him. He is mayor, yes, but he is also 20 years old.
Ryan Hicks is the town manager, the appointed executive of town government, who is paid enough to live on. He’s lived in Indian Head for most of his life and wants to see it built back up to how he remembers it, or even before that, when the town had a bowling alley. It is, he says with a good-natured laugh, a struggle.
He knew Paulin from years of town meetings but still was surprised when he heard the kid was running for mayor, remembering himself at 19. But he voted for him.
“He ran on change. He was change. He was young, he was energetic, he used the social media aspect.” And now? “I think he’s doing a really good job. So energetic and passionate. Once he sinks his teeth into it he just stays on it until he’s progressed.”
“You talk to Brandon, you don’t see a 20-year-old.”
Paulin had never held office before, but he’s been active in town politics since he was 10.
Crossing Indian Head Highway to get to school every morning had always been a headache. Cars would fly out of the naval base, speeding through crosswalks, and kids would be stuck on the median, Paulin says, looking for a gap big enough to get across. Small, less patient people were taking their lives in their own hands twice a day. At his first town meeting, sixth-grader Paulin waited his turn at the microphone and asked for some signage to reinforce the idea of the crosswalk.
At the next town meeting, a month later, he asked where the signs were. As he recalls it, the council was surprised to see him back. The council members assured him they were working on it.
By the next town meeting, the crosswalk had signs.
He was hooked.
Wendy Paulin, 48, Brandon’s mother, remembers that when neighbors heard about him going to town meetings, they started asking him what happened and suggesting things for him to bring up next time. He was already representing the people.
Paulin had to do some sneaking around to keep his local-government urges a secret from his friends.
“There are a few people that knew, like my wrestling coach,” he says. “The first Monday of every month he would sit there and look at the clock as practice was going on and signal me when I had to run home, change, shower and get to the meeting. He knew. Not a lot of people really knew how involved I was in the town, except people who came to the meetings or watched on TV.” Keeping the secret worked, at least until his mayoral campaign.
He announced he was running on his 19th birthday, during his first semester of college. He learned from unsuccessfully running for school treasurer to put his name very big on the signs. The campaign cost $500, which he raised by selling his car, which he had bought with lawn-mowing money.
He really likes that about local politics — that it’s fast and cheap, comparatively. “Campaigns are much easier when you’re self-financed.” He didn’t want to ask anyone for money. Which puts a very hard ceiling on one’s political career.
After a year as a political science student at the College of Southern Maryland, about 15 minutes from Indian Head, Paulin took his politics final exam the same day he won the election with 239 votes. He did pretty well on the final, too.
“He always said he was going to be president,” says James Paulin Jr., 46, an officer with the U.S. Capitol Police. He’s in his well-kept garage workshop, where he keeps the motorcycles, and he is shamelessly embarrassing his son with stories of tiny Brandon’s big ambitions.
“I said it when I was little,” says the mayor. “I don’t say it anymore.”
“He made us buy this carpet, you know, with the presidential seal.”
“I don’t have it anymore!”
The dog apparently chewed young Brandon’s president carpet to death.
Paulin is yawning. It’s Veterans Day, and he was up until 1 a.m. writing the speech he gave this morning at the town reception honoring veterans. He and the representative from the naval base happened to use the same opening anecdote in their respective prepared speeches, but they rolled with it. It’s been a long week, for everyone. On Tuesday night Paulin stayed up until 3 a.m. to see the final results from the first presidential election he’s been able to vote in. The next morning he had an 8 a.m. meeting with the Robotics Club at the elementary school.
Hear about a kid winning serious elected office and you think it’s a stunt. Either that or he’s someone who is going to have his name on a lot of signs over the years. We could be looking at quite a trajectory here. Bill Clinton, “boy governor,” didn’t get elected to anything until he was 30.
What’s your plan, Mayor?
“Fight the blight. Tear down the vacant buildings. Once those are gone I can rest easy.”
“It all depends! If I’ve completely failed at making any progress, I want to step aside so someone else can take that opportunity. If I made progress, I might run for another term.”
But what’s next? For you, not Indian Head.
“That’s kind of my one and only goal right now.”
Well, he wants the grocery store. And he goes to the boring meetings, pesters people, uses his celebrity and symbolism, attends functions, shakes hands, keeps his head down and writes legislation until he gets the store or until he’s sure he can’t. There’s something radically refreshing about that, in this cynical age, a government functionary who wants to be a government functionary, who sees the job in front of him and not a bigger personal ambition. It might be the best way not to be a politician, if he can keep it up.
It’s the second meeting of the new Mayor’s Youth Advisory Team, and the mayor is encouraging kids to run for captain. There will be three, and Paulin really wants a contested election. The voting will take place at the following month’s meeting.
“C’mon, guys. We want an election. Posters,” he says to entice. “Campaign promises. Speeches.” Democracy.
The Youth Advisory Team musters three potential captains, then six. Alex, 16, thinks the athletic fields need more water fountains.
A younger boy thinks there should be Taco Tuesdays. Paulin praises his political instincts.
This is all important, civically, Paulin thinks, to keep young people engaged and dedicated to the town — and to find out what’s going on with them.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be 10 in Indian Head,” he says. “I know what it was like 10 years ago.”
The meeting is in the Indian Head Senior Center, in a big multipurpose room with hand weights and stability balls in the corner and some tiki decorations. There are 12 kids and three parents, though some arrive late and some leave early. There’s pizza and bottles of water. There is also a sign that says food is prohibited in this room. “I make the rules,” Paulin says about that. (“What am I going to do, call his mother?” says Cynthia Simmons, who runs the center, when advised her rules are being flouted.)
The mayor is asking everyone to write letters to the PNC bank president. The local PNC branch announced it will close, but citizen pressure has managed to put off the closing date a couple of months. Paulin encourages those listening to tell the president, whose email address Paulin happens to have, the importance of PNC bank to the town:
“This is how stuff gets done. You talk to people, you write letters, you scream at the top of your lungs.”
There is some stated interest in the possibility that Mr. Hughes, civics teacher at Lackey High School, might give extra credit for attending these meetings.
Kritika is 12 and running for captain. She suggests her age makes her qualified. “I’m youth, not 16 or 17.” Kritika goes to town meetings, too, with her uncle Ron Sitoula, who was elected vice mayor in the wave of 2015. It’s interesting, she says, to hear what people talk about, and she was part of the effort to put hand sanitizer in the porta-potties at the Village Green. It was a success.
A month later, Kritika gets elected.
Since Paulin’s election, three blighted buildings have been torn down. He helped set up the meetings that made this happen, but really it was about hooking up the owner, who wanted help paying for the tear-down, and the Military Alliance Council, which was happy to give money to demolish the eyesores right outside the base’s gates. Paulin dreams of food trucks in the empty space. The town also got high-speed broadband Internet, with help from the state and county. New housing is in the works. There’s still no grocery store, but the council is looking into getting a farmers market for 2017. The PNC closed for good in December, so the town is looking for a different bank.
For Christmas, the mayor gets sneakers patterned with the Maryland flag. Under Armour, a Baltimore company, actually stocks these. (If you can’t picture the Maryland flag, Google “ugliest state flag.” Though Paulin disagrees. “We have the coolest flag,” he says. “Like, California’s flag is just a bear. It’s usually just like a [state] seal. Ours is wild — it has so many different colors and patterns.” He roots for the home team.)
His two best friends are away for college, and they don’t hang out much over the holidays. Paulin says he doesn’t really want more social activity.
He doesn’t do anything much for his 21st birthday. He is working that night. He has bought a six-pack of Heineken, but that was a present for the vice mayor’s birthday.
So, celebrating at all?
“My [older] brother bought me whiskey,” he says. “That’s about it. I smelled the whiskey, and I was like, Oh, that’s cool. And I took a sip of it, and I was like, Oh, that’s not cool.”
At school, he tries to avoid becoming part of the lesson, which means keeping the whole mayor thing on the down-low. When fellow students or interested faculty ask, his job is in “government administration and legislation.”
“I’m a normal student. I try to keep it that way. If it’s a government class, the teacher is going to be like, ‘ Brandon over here. ...’ I’m hat on, back of class, taking notes. I’m pretty good. No straight-A student, but I definitely don’t fail.”
He is certain that he will live in Indian Head all his life — as he estimates, 79 more years. And he is certain he will own a 1970 SS Chevelle, blue with black stripes.
“Most likely the 454 big engine block will be bored out to a 554. Race headers, the whole nine. I want that thing pushing like a thousand horsepower. I’m not sure if it’s going to be turbocharged, supercharged, blower car or not. If I go blower I can’t get nitrous in it.” He smiles. “Haven’t decided.”
“It’s okay, because I have like 40 years to decide before I can afford that car.” It will cost, he estimates, about $80,000 to restore and make the changes he wants.
How much does he have saved right now? The question astonishes him.
“Nothing. I have nothing. None of it.” He is laughing.
“Definitely, eventually, I’ll have a higher-paying job.” Certainly.
Where is he even going to drive a thousand-horsepower Chevelle?
“To the grocery store.”
Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide at The Washington Post. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost. com/magazine.
Email us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.