Former mayor Ronnie Wall follows unexpected path back to the dais as new Burlington city councilman

Ronnie Wall insists that he had no intention of ever returning to public life when he stepped down from his post as Burlington’s mayor six years ago.

“When I walked out in 2015, my thought process was that I would never seek another elected position,” the one-time mayor recalled in an interview earlier this week. “I had spent 10 years in politics, and I enjoyed every minute of it. But that was it for me.”

“When I walked out in 2015, my thought process was that I would never seek another elected position. I had spent 10 years in politics, and I enjoyed every minute of it. But that was it for me.” – Former mayor, now city councilman, Ronnie Wall

Shortly before he gave up the gavel, Wall had embarked on a new career as the head of the Burlington School, a private K-12 academy that had been established a couple of years earlier. As a former public school principal and a one-time assistant superintendent for the Alamance-Burlington’s school system, Wall had no illusions about the challenges he’d face in his new position. So, he had resolved to cast off any other commitments that would distract him from his work at the Burlington School – and that certainly included his old role in the city’s municipal government.

Wall’s decision to bow out of politics ultimately allowed him to build a solid foundation for the Burlington School, which had initially hired him to serve as its admissions director in the summer of 2014.

As the school’s titular head, the city’s ex-mayor has overseen a 250 percent jump in student enrollment, which has shot up from 164 to 406 pupils during his tenure. Wall has also presided over a significant expansion of the campus that the Burlington School had taken over from the defunct Burlington Day School. Meanwhile, he has seen many of his students achieve distinction in a variety of fields thanks to the school’s emphasis on the “Three A’s” – Academics, Athletics, and the Arts.

Yet, in the midst of all this success, Wall has never completely evaded the tug of his former life as a municipal leader. In spite of his determination to make a clean break with the past, developments within Burlington’s municipal government would repeatedly intrude on Wall’s consciousness.

In the end, though, it was a plan to allow residents to raise hens in their backyards that literally brought the former mayor back home to roost on Burlington’s city council.

“The chicken ordinance,” he recalled, “was what got me to pay attention again to the things going on in the city. I even got a question from someone who wanted to know what I thought of that ordinance.”

Wall acknowledged that he wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of “backyard chickens” – a view that also ultimately prevailed with a majority of the city council, which voted to scratch the proposed ordinance in May. In the meantime, however, Wall grew increasingly concerned about the goings-on at city hall, as Burlington’s police force grappled with an outbreak in gun violence, inertia seemed to consume the city’s efforts to attract business and industry, and a disconcerting number of staff members left the city’s employ.

Wall wasn’t the only one who had some misgivings about the direction of Burlington’s municipal government. The state of the city also caused consternation for incumbent councilmen Jim Butler and Harold Owen, who were both up for reelection this year.

Butler, a close friend and political ally of Wall’s, ultimately chose to forgo another bid for his seat in order to mount a challenge against the city’s then-mayor Ian Baltutis. Wall, for this part, seized on this opportunity to run for one of the two regular council seats that appeared on the ballot this fall.

Wall’s political comeback was, in some ways, an encore to his political debut in 2005, when he successfully campaigned for a regular seat on the council – which he gave up two years later when he won his first term as Burlington’s mayor.

But Wall’s entry into this year’s election ultimately proved quite different than his previous campaigns – if for no other reason than he now had the company of two other veteran candidates who shared many of his concerns about the city’s municipal government.

During his latest campaign for the council, Wall teamed up with Butler and Owen to create an informal “ticket,” of sorts, in opposition to the pair of progressive Democrats who ran alongside Baltutis in the general election. Wall acknowledged that this tandem approach to the race was a considerable departure from any of his earlier campaigns.

Wall with wife Susie and their grandsons Baxter and Charlie Johnson at the swearing-in ceremony on December 7, 2021.

“Someone had told me years ago never to campaign with anyone else,” he recalled, “and I had always [previously] campaigned by myself.”

Wall nevertheless overcame his reticence ahead of this year’s municipal elections and agreed to conduct his latest campaign with Butler and Owen. The three veteran politicos would go on to disseminate a coordinated message to Burlington’s voters, and they collectively drew on a pool of enthusiastic supporters who worked the polls for all three candidates ahead of last month’s general election.

Wall and councilman and former city manager Harold Owen on night of their swearing in, December 7, 2021. Owen was re-elected in November, and Wall won a seat with him on Burlington’s city council.

Wall said that this year’s campaign also differed from his other bids for office in the central role that his family played in his political comeback. The former mayor acknowledged that his wife, Susie, who had previously been lukewarm about his political aspirations, was one of his most avid supporters during this year’s race for the council. His campaign team also included his sister and her children, his step-daughter and her husband, as well as three grandchildren – all of whom were out in force when Burlington’s voters went to the polls.

With the full faith and confidence of his family, not to mention the support of two other experienced candidates, Wall ended up leading the field in this year’s council race. The city’s voters also favored Butler over Baltutis in their duel for Burlington’s mayor, while Owen finished a close second to Wall in the race for the two regular seats that were up for grabs on the council.

Since the election, Wall and his running mates have enunciated a fairly consistent agenda for the city’s municipal government. In Wall’s case, the issues of primary concern include the redevelopment of the former Western Electric plant on the east side of town, the growing number of homeless people in Burlington’s downtown business district, and the need for a more “common sense” approach to code enforcement.

The mayor-turned-councilmember would also like to see the city make greater strides on economic development, take action against gun violence and gangs, set up a police substation in east Burlington, bring broadband Internet to the downtown area, and improve communication with the general public.

Wall won’t be the one actually wielding the gavel as the council addresses these issues in the coming year. But the former mayor insists that he has no regrets about ceding this honor to Butler, whom he has tried to prepare for the challenges he’ll face as Burlington’s new mayor.
Wall said that one of his suggestions to Butler concerns the importance of maintaining focus as the council attends to the business of the community.

“I told him,” he recalled, “that, when you’re running a meeting, it’s difficult to pay attention to the conversation taking place and to focus on the agenda at the same time.”