I grew up in a small town knowing I’d inevitably leave my small town.
Why? Because I wanted to see what was out there. I wanted to roam, explore, check out new places and meet new people and experience life away from the comfortable-yet-suffocating boundaries that surround my place of origin.
So here I am in Southern California, a mere 3,000 miles away from Mahopac, N.Y.
Ken Shetter is not me. Or, perhaps, you. He’s the mayor of Burleson, Texas, a Fort Worth suburb of 40,000 residents and the place where he was born and raised. Why has he stayed? Love. For the people. For the land. For the potential. And why is he the city’s mayor? All the same reasons.
Today, Ken talks job experiences and life experiences; why he would be a better president than Donald Trump and why—as the governor of Texas—he will one day mandate the Houston Texas become the Houston Oilers.
All hail the chief. He’s the 357th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Ken, you are the mayor of Burleson, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth with a population around 40,000. And I wanna start with a weird one—at this moment we have a man with no political experience in the White House. Which has people thinking, “Who’s next?” Oprah? Mark Cuban? The Rock? So, Ken, does a small-city mayor have the experience to jump to the presidency? Can that argument be made?
KEN SHETTER: The argument can certainly be made that many small city mayors are at least as well suited as those you listed (including the current occupant of the White House) to run for president. In fact, one of the things about being a local elected official is you have to learn to be accountable to those you serve very quickly. It is not unusual to encounter a constituent with a concern, complaint or suggestion in the grocery store or at one of my kids’ school events. That kind of personal accountability, if one takes it seriously, is an important element of the experience gained from serving as a mayor. In addition, local elected officials have experience making decisions that impact people’s everyday lives to a greater extent than officials at any other level. Think about it—we are responsible for making sure you have clean running water, that your toilet flushes, that your trash gets picked up, that you have a decent neighborhood to live in, that your kids have good parks to play in and that you are physically safe. Those are some of the most important functions of government at any level. Of course, the lack of national name identification makes such a leap unlikely, from a political perspective.
J.P.: You’re in Texas and you’re a Republican. Yet, judging from social media, you don’t seem to be hard- hard- hard-core far right or a Trump backer. Sooooo … how does that play? What I mean is, you’re in a state that’s run deep red for many moons. How have you succeeded with a divergent world social view?
K.S.: Actually, it’s worse than you thought—I’m not even a Republican (gasp!!!). In my official capacity, I am nonpartisan. Our city charter requires us to run and govern as nonpartisans. While it’s no secret that I lean center-left (some would say just left), I work well with folks of all political stripes and certainly promote a number of policies that some would associate with conservatism. I have promoted strong accountability and transparency practices, been fiscally responsible and prioritize strong public safety.
I think I’ve been successful in my campaigns for two reasons. First, the city has thrived during the time that I’ve been mayor. We have doubled in size, our economy has been remarkably strong, and we’ve focused on quality of life. Second, when you govern in a nonpartisan context, you have the luxury of just arguing the merits of an idea or a platform, without getting bogged down in partisan BS. In fact, when some have tried to introduce that as part of the conversation or debate, I think it has generally backfired—turns out people like nonpartisan government. Also, it doesn’t hurt that I’m a hometown boy—it’s harder to despise someone you’ve known since they were in diapers.
J.P.: What is the day-to-day life like for the mayor of Burleson? Soup to nuts? What are you doing? How many meetings are you attending? What are the main issues you need to address?
K.S.: Because I have a full-time job in addition to being mayor, most days are a mix of mayor and day job duties. We have official council meetings every two weeks on Monday nights. Most weeks I will have a few other city-related meetings and often speak to civic or student groups. Of course, every day involves phone calls and emails from city staff members and citizens. I know my day is about to get more complicated if I get a call from a staff member that begins, “Mayor, there’s something I need to make you aware of …” There really isn’t a typical day or week, but I would estimate that spend, on average, between ten and twenty hours per week on city business.
The main issue I deal with is management of our population growth, which implicates public safety resources, public works and transportation infrastructure and development policies.
Currently, the development of a public plaza in our Old Town district and the expansion of higher education opportunities are particular areas of focus for me.
J.P.: How did this actually happen for you? I mean, I know you attended Baylor. I know you have a law degree. I know you’re in your mid-40s. But when did you know politics were for you? When did the lightbulb go off?
K.S.: I am one of those weirdos who was interested in politics and public policy from the time I was a small kid. In fact, even when I was nine or ten I would get in knock-down-drag-out political arguments with family members. My goal was always a career in public service. When I was in my twenties a seat opened up on the city council and I threw my name in the hat. I intended city council service to be a stepping stone to higher office. Funny thing happened—I found serving in city government to be far more rewarding and consequential than I expected. Any time I’ve thought about running for another office, I always felt like there was more important work left to do as mayor.
J.P.: You also serve as the president of One Safe Place, a non-profit that focuses on preventing crime and violence. Well, how do we prevent crime and violence? It seems rather impossible, considering the amount we have in this nation … every … single … day.
K.S.: It would be impossible to eradicate crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands—there is a lot of good we can do for a lot of people! At One Safe Place we have several different programs (including Crime Stoppers and a DOJ federal grant program called Project Safe Neighborhoods), but for our discussion, I’ll focus on our family justice center. We serve victims of domestic violence and children who live in violent homes. The idea of a family justice center is to bring all the services a victim needs together in one place, and to integrate those services so they are more effective for the victim. There are twenty-two different partner agencies working together through One Safe Place. We prioritize domestic violence because it makes up a significant percentage of all the violent crime committed, because perpetrators of domestic violence pose a danger to the community at-large and because most of our violent criminals grew up in homes where there was violence.
To drill down a bit more, we are particularly interested in strangulation as part of domestic abuse. A significant percentage of domestic violence victims suffer non-fatal or near-fatal strangulation and that has lots of ramifications. First, there are often long-term medical consequences that aren’t immediately evident to the victim, and second, victims who have been strangled are 700% more likely to ultimately be killed. It also turns that intimate partner strangulation is a warning sign for violent behavior outside the home. For instance, there are multiple studies which have found a majority of cop killers have a documented history of intimate partner strangulation.
Sometimes my work at One Safe Place and as mayor intertwine—I’m proud to say the City of Burleson was recently the first city in the US to adopt an ordinance creating a strangulation protocol for first responders. Among other things, the ordinance requires an emergency medical response anytime strangulation is alleged or suspected.
Finally, I can’t talk about One Safe Place without mentioning Camp Hope Texas. We do a week-long outdoor adventure camp for kids exposed to violence. In addition to traditional camp activities, we have a special curriculum designed to increase our campers’ level of hopefulness, which is the key to creating more resilient kids who can overcome the traditional cycle of violence.
J.P.: I just came upon a story from 2015, headlined BURLESON MAYOR’S PRO-SAME-SEX MARRIAGE POST DRAWS MIXED REACTIONS. It was about you posted a congratulatory message to LGBT friends on Facebook—and the backlash that followed. And I wonder, did you at all see that coming? Did you debate the initial messge? And how have you seen the views of people morph on gay rights during your time in office? If at all …
K.S.: The initial post was a simple congratulatory message to LGBTQ friends, with an expression of hope for LGBTQ youth that this was one more indication they were fully loved and accepted. A citizen challenged me to justify my statement as mayor, considering what the bible has to say about homosexuality. What actually got all the attention was my response to that citizen (which you can read here). I certainly expected that the post could get a lot of negative reaction. While a few responses were downright hateful, most were very positive. In fact, the large number of positive responses served to provide further affirmation to the LGBTQ community. I even got a few responses from citizens who said for the first time they felt accepted in their own community, and they had thought that would never happen for them. It was a great lesson for me—NEVER miss an opportunity to let people know they are loved and they belong in our community.
I certainly have seen the views of people morph on gay rights during my time in office. I don’t think there’s any way the post I wrote in 2015 would have received so many positive responses if it had been written in 2003.
J.P.: Your last election was May 2017, and you beat two challengers—Katherine Reading and John Garrison. I wonder, how do you move past an election? What I mean is, the months leading up are filled with criticisms of your performance, your stances. Then this vote happens, and it all ends. So … can you let any bad feelings go? Can you run into Katherine or John at, say, CVS and have a buddy-buddy convo? Is it awkward? Weird?
K.S.: You don’t have much of a choice—there’s always a city council meeting within a couple of weeks of the election, and the work must go on. In terms of personally letting feelings go, the honest answer is sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. After having served in local government for almost 20 years, I’ve had lots of opponents and made lots of people mad over the years. I can almost always get over it and repair relationships … but I can’t deny there are some folks out there who wouldn’t vote for me if I was running against Satan (an actual quote from a voter in the last election) and they’re never going to feel differently.
I am happy to report there are no lingering hard feelings from the 2017 election, at least between the candidates.
J.P.: It’ the elephant here, so I’ll ask: Donald Trump. You’re in Texas. Can you explain his rise? His appeal? Because I see a lifelong conman with no convictions or moral compass. How do so many, um, not?
K.S.: I agree with your assessment and would add that I think he’s a literal threat to our democracy. My best explanation is that his victory was a combination of two things: One, there were a lot of people on the right who despised Hillary Clinton, and they thought there was only so much damage one man could do. Two, there wasn’t enough excitement on the left to turn out the vote for Hillary Clinton in places where it really mattered.
I think all the hand-wringing over the angry white voter is kind of ridiculous. Just looking at demographic forces, the focus for those wanting to elect progressive candidates should be on turning out the kind of coalition that elected Barack Obama.
J.P.: You live in a gun-friendly state. I’m terrified every time my kids leave for school. Seriously, what can we do about this? Are there ANY steps that the nation might agree upon?
K.S.: Yes! I think the most important thing we can do is pass comprehensive background checks. That’s the first and most important step to making sure we keep guns out of the hands of people we all agree shouldn’t have them. It drives me bonkers when politicians say, “We just can’t do anything until we find common ground.” About 90% of Americans agree on comprehensive background checks. For the love of God, that is common ground.
J.P.: What’s the appeal of living in the town where you grew up? Like you, I was raised in a small town where you always saw familiar faces, did things repeatedly, drew on traditions and festivals and the such. And, to be honest, I wanted out. And left. So why stay? What is it about a small town that does it for you?
K.S.: This is a great question. In fact, I often ask teenagers, “What do we need to do to make sure you want to stay or come back after college to raise your family?” For me, the fact that most of my extended family lives in Burleson (they have for generations), and that I actually like them, makes it hard to leave. We also have the advantage of having a lot of the benefits of a smaller town while being right next to Fort Worth, which is one of the most vibrant big cities in the country.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KEN SHETTER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): roller coasters, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, TLC, Justin Bieber, “Ocean’s Eleven,” USFL, puppies, Jeff Flake, peppercorn medley grinder, overly ripe fruit: Puppies, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, roller coasters, Jeff Flake, peppercorn medley grinder, Ocean’s Eleven, TLC, USFL, overly ripe fruit, Justin Bieber
• Five reasons one should make Burelson his/her next vacation destination: In no particular order: 1. Outstanding food and music in Old Town; 2. Awesome golf courses; 3. We’ve got two great wineries; 4. We have events throughout the year that are worth the trip: free summer concerts, a big bicycle race in the Spring and Founders Day in the Fall are just a few examples. Plus, we’re always thirty minutes from something amazing in Fort Worth or Arlington (but stay in Burleson and get the added value of small town charm); 5. The Old Town Ghost Tour.
• One question you would ask Kim Jong Un were he here right now?: Do you speak English?
• My nephew Jordan won’t let me chaperone his senior prom. What should I do?: Find a single teacher and go as her date.
• In exactly 17 words, make an argument for the acting talents of the late Jim Varney: He has never uttered the intolerable, fingers-on-a-chalk-board-annoying, moronic phrase, “Git-r-done.”
• What’s your secret talent?: I grew up playing the fiddle.
• Would you consider running for governor, then insisting the Houston Texans become the Houston Oilers and switch back to their old unis? Please …: Yes, absolutely. And I would pass a law that every head coach of the Houston Oiler had to legally change their name to Bum Phillips.
• If you had to hang out with three 1980s sitcom characters, who would they be?: Coach, from Cheers, Hawkeye, from MASH, Judge Harold T. Stone, from Night Court.
• Don’t get mad at me, but I’ve gotta think you received a few “Ken Shitter” ridicules while growing up. Yes? No? How bad was it?: Actually, I got a lot more Barbie cracks when I was growing up. The “Ken Shitter” ridicules have been more common since I’ve been mayor. Like water off a duck’s back.
• I’m not sure the Reds getting Cesar Cedeno from Houston was such a great idea. Thoughts?: Well, I’m a lifelong Rangers fan, so my strongest Astros thoughts involve bitterness that they won the Series before the Rangers did.