The town of Earle, AR, (population: 1,831) has many of the sorts of issues that have hit small towns in recent decades. Jobs have left, and so have the businesses that serve residents, like the local supermarket. Young people flee town as soon as they graduate from the local high school, never to return. There are lots of boarded-up, decrepit buildings. Crime is on the rise.
Quite understandably, the residents of the majority-Black town felt they needed new leadership. Jaylen Smith thought he was the man for the job. So, he spent much of 2022 campaigning, and also shadowing other towns' mayors to see how they did the job. The residents of Earle were impressed with what they saw, and so they elected Smith last November. He was formally inaugurated last week, and presided over his first city council meeting.
Smith's plans for Earle are ambitious. He wants to increase spending on law enforcement, so that the police station is staffed 24/7. He hopes to lure a few big-box stores back to town. He has already made arrangements for many of the abandoned houses and buildings to be torn down. He wants to improve public transportation. These things all take money, which is not necessarily in great supply in a small, poor, majority-Black town. But, back when he was a student, serving in governance at his school, Smith gained a lot of experience with laying hands on state and federal resources.
Now, when we say "back when he was a student," we mean... 2022. And by "his school," we mean "his high school." See, Smith is 18 years old, and was elected mayor just months after he got his high school diploma. He is, in fact, the youngest Black mayor in American history. He decided that instead of fleeing Earle, like so many of his classmates, he would try to save it. Town founder Josiah Francis Earle, a Confederate veteran who led the local Ku Klux Klan klavern before dying in 1884, is probably rolling in his grave. And if so, good.
Smith's election is part of a larger trend, noticeable in 2022, of young people running for office. In that election, the number of Gen Z office-seekers tripled, while the number of Millennials who made a run jumped nearly 60%. Even if we allow for the fact that teenagers and twenty-somethings often can't, or just won't, run for office, these increases are considerably higher than the historical norm for generational change. It would seem that many young people have decided it's up to them to be the change they want to see. And if so, that's a good thing for the country.
Meanwhile, Mayor Smith's aspirations go beyond just fixing up Earle. Once he's made progress on that front, he sees a future for himself in higher office. Starting as mayor of a small, rather forgotten town was exactly how Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) launched his career, and at a considerably older age. So, Smith is someone worth keeping an eye on. (Z)