Fairfax City Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne was riding high last spring, basking in the success of a popular new park he had championed in the quiet bedroom community 20 miles west of the District.
He had weathered public criticism over the city’s decision to sell land it owned in Loudoun County without a public bidding process, and he was busy weighing whether proposals for new businesses and homes would detract from the community’s small-town charm.
When he noticed a small lump on his neck one morning, Silverthorne chose to ignore it. The lump would turn out to be the first in a series of challenges that demanded his attention and would end up changing his life.
In late June, Silverthorne was laid off from his job as a director of recruitment with the National Association of Manufacturers. By September, he owed about $58,000 to various creditors and filed for federal bankruptcy protection. A few weeks later, the bank foreclosed on Silverthorne’s five-bedroom house. The mayor moved into a nearby townhouse with a friend.
Meanwhile, the lump in his neck had grown bigger and become painful. Friends noticed that he was losing energy and had lost 35 pounds. In late October, Silverthorne visited an oncologist, who diagnosed squamous cell carcinoma of the neck, a sometimes aggressive but nonlethal form of cancer.
Reaction in the town of 23,500 has ranged from sympathy to questions about whether Silverthorne should give up his mayoral duties to focus on his health and financial stability.
“It’s been a terrible year for me,” Silverthorne said. “There’s no question about it. I can try to sugarcoat it as best I can, but the facts speak for themselves.”
As a boy, Silverthorne learned politics through watching his father, the late Frederick W. Silverthorne, who was mayor of Fairfax City in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In dealing with cancer, the 50-year-old Democrat used as a role model a Republican political leader from across the Potomac River: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who since June has waged a very public battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I thought he handled it with class,” Silverthorne said of Hogan, whose cancer is in remission. “Very dignified.”
Like Hogan, Silverthorne announced his diagnosis on television — in his case at the start of a city council meeting broadcast live on the city’s government access TV station on Nov. 17, Silverthorne’s 50th birthday.
“Every party has a pooper, and tonight that pooper is going to me,” Silverthorne began, after the Pledge of Allegiance. He then relayed the details of his prognosis and his intention to seek a third term in office in the spring.
“I’m not looking for your sympathy,” Silverthorne added. “But I do believe in the positive power of prayer.”
Complete strangers emailed their get-well wishes, Silverthorne said. People showed up at council meetings to express their support.
“You’re getting a lot of prayers out here,” Allen Griffith, a local advocate for the homeless, told the mayor during a city council meeting this month. “We’re thinking of you, sir. Get well.”
Sounding sheepish, Silverthorne replied: “I really am grateful.”
Jeff Greenfield, a city council member who grew up on the same Fairfax City block as the mayor, said the outpouring is to be expected in a close-knit city where many families have stayed for generations.
“We rally behind people in a time of need, and the mayor is no different in that regard,” Greenfield said, describing how the community supported his family when his daughter underwent a series of heart surgeries years ago.
At the same time, the mayor’s critics are raising questions about aspects of his situation, especially his financial problems, which he has not discussed much in public.
“A lot of people have asked me: ‘Is it true the mayor lost his home in foreclosure? Is it true the mayor is in bankruptcy?’ ” said Nancy Loftus, a city council member and frequent critic of Silverthorne, especially on the 2014 land deal with Loudoun.
She predicted that the mayor’s situation could become a campaign issue next year, although she also said she thought Silverthorne’s illness might leave people unwilling to openly question him.
Silverthorne admits to battling nausea from his medical treatments but said that he’s fully capable of remaining at the city’s helm. He’s looking for work, he said, and recently applied to become a substitute teacher with Fairfax County’s public school system. The pay isn’t much, but it’s more than the $541 per month he receives as mayor. He said he thinks his combination of ordeals will only make him more sympathetic to other people.
“It’s going to make me a better mayor,” he said.
During a recent chemotherapy session, the mayor ticked off plans to bring high-density developers to Fairfax City and talked about whether the community of shopping centers and Civil War monuments could become a magnet for millennials.
“If I could use this time period to cajole and arm-twist, where people are hopefully going to say: ‘Well, we don’t want to go against Scott right now because he’s not feeling well’?” Silverthorne said, as nurses helped other patients nearby. “At the end of the day, the mayor has the bully pulpit, and I should use it.”
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly described the type of cancer that Fairfax Mayor Scott Silverthorne has. It is squamous cell carcinoma of the neck. The article has been corrected.