It isn’t unusual for political leaders to claim a disinterest in the trappings of power. But this common political trope seems to have a ring of authenticity in the case of Burlington’s new-mayor elect Jim Butler.
A 56-year-old Burlington native and long-time city council member, Butler chose not to seek reelection this year in order to roll the dice on a do-or-die bid for the office of mayor. His gamble paid off earlier this month when the city’s voters roundly elected him over Burlington’s incumbent mayor Ian Baltutis, who originally won his seat in another match up with Butler six years ago.
While his win at the polls would certainly merit a victory lap, Butler appears genuinely nonchalant about his electoral success.
“I never woke up and said ‘boy, I’ve got to be mayor to have self-fulfillment,’” Butler insists as he settles into an armchair in his home office. “To me, the mayor’s just a member of the council, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with people calling me ‘mayor.’”
It might sound far-fetched coming from a two-time mayoral contender. Yet, Butler’s claim to be one among equals is bolstered by his track record as member of the city council as well as the collaborative nature of his latest campaign for mayor.
In what proved quite a departure from Burlington’s previous municipal races, this year’s election witnessed an unprecedented degree of coordination among the various candidates – with Baltutis leading a slate of progressive Democrats and Butler teaming up with two other veterans of city government.
The level of cooperation was especially high among Butler’s coalition of candidates. This troika also included incumbent city councilman Harold Owen, a registered independent who had served as Burlington’s city manager before his elevation to elected office, and the city’s retired mayor Ronnie Wall, a Democrat who returned to politics this year as a candidate for one of the two regular seats that were up for grabs on the council.
Butler, a registered Republican, recalled that he and his fellow candidates developed a sophisticated strategy for reaching the city’s Republican and unaffiliated voters in this year’s election.
“We had a strategy team that we engaged in August,” Butler recalled, “and we ran two campaigns: one for the primary [which narrowed the field of contenders for mayor and city council] and one for the general [election].
“We created a strategy, and we stuck to it with discipline,” the mayor-elect added. “It was very targeted, and it was designed to get people to turn out. We had over one hundred volunteers. We ran it like it was a little Congressional campaign.”
Back to basics
The thrust of this three-way campaign was to tap into public misgivings about Baltutis, who has espoused a variety of progressive political causes during his six-year tenure as mayor.
Last year, Baltutis rankled some traditionalists, particularly in the law enforcement profession, when he positioned himself at the front of the movement against police misconduct that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. As
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Baltutis pursued this crusade, the city’s police department, which has been a standard-setter for internal reform, began to experience an increase in turnover. In the meantime, other city departments have faced their own staffing problems, while a number of municipal priorities seemed to fall by the wayside, leaving some critics to wonder if Baltutis was as concerned about the actual operations of city government as the optics of diversity and inclusion.
Butler contends that the objective of his campaign for mayor was to refocus the city’s priorities on things that have an actual impact on the daily lives of Burlington’s residents.
“There are action items that have been studied and talked to death,” the mayor-elect elaborated. “We’re going to get back to action items, moving quickly, giving staff clear direction and support to the staff.”
One item that Butler believes needs a kickstart from the council is the much-brooded question of what to do about the former Western Electric plant in East Burlington. This once bustling site, which had, for decades, produced missiles and other military hardware, has largely sat idle since the departure of the federal contractor that most local residents still associate with the facility. The property has changed hands a couple of times since its disposal by the federal government in 2004. Yet, it has never been successfully repurposed due, in part, to lingering concerns about contamination left over from its days as an ordnance factory.
Also on Butler’s to-do list is an indoor rec center in the western part of the city. Butler acknowledged that this project, which grew out of a city council retreat in 2012, has been overshadowed by a subsequent focus on improvements at North Park. He added, however, that there clearly remains a demand for a public gym and other associated facilities among residents on the city’s west side.
Another issue that Butler wants to address is the growing number of homeless people who are roaming the streets in downtown Burlington. The mayor-elect believes that this particular problem can be ameliorated quite quickly with the support of nonprofit organizations, like Allied Churches, which runs the city’s homeless shelter, and some decisive action from the city council.
Butler said that he also hopes to see some improvements in the morale of city employees, who he admits will be the key to any initiatives that the council tries to implement.
“We’ve got to be sure that we’re appreciative of our city staff,” he said. “We’ve got to support those who are doing the work, give them a conducive working environment and a culture that allows them to thrive.”
No man is an island…
Butler’s emphasis on the need for a supportive environment is a principle that ultimately derives from his own upbringing and life experiences.
The mayor-elect attributes much of his personal success to a handful of formative influences that continue to shape the way he looks at the world.
Butler credits his father, Butch Butler, with imparting a strong work ethic in him, while his mother, Julia Bradshaw, impressed him with a respect for authority. Butler also pays homage to the late Tom Grayson, who served as his football coach when he was a student at Eastern Guilford High School.
But perhaps the most enduring impact of Butler’s adult life has been his association with Wallace Gee, a Burlington car dealer, a former county commissioner, and a long-time trustee with Alamance Community College, who passed away in 2004. In fact, Gee gave Butler his first job at a dealership he owned at the corner of Front Street and Lexington Avenue – and which the future mayor-elect’s father managed on Gee’s behalf.
“I went to work for Wallace and my dad when I was a teenager,” Butler goes on to recall. “I washed cars in that little alleyway with a garden hose and a bucket.”
Butler would go on to devote much of professional career to the business of automotive sales. For 21 years, he managed a General Motors operation for David Westscott, and he currently oversees several dealerships for Winston-Salem-based Modern Automotive, including a Chevrolet store in Burlington.
Butler also credits Gee with his concern for the community and his involvement in local government. The mayor-elect’s own civic involvement began nearly two decades ago when he was appointed to Burlington’s traffic commission. Butler went on to wage a successful bid for the city council in 2007, where he has continued to serve, off and on, ever since. He also serves on ACC’s board of trustees thanks to an appointment he received from Governor Roy Cooper.
Butler contends that he has been particularly fortunate to have enjoyed the unwavering support of his family throughout his career as an elected official. The mayor-elect nevertheless admits that the experience hasn’t always been easy for his wife Kim or their three children, Megan, Nathan, and Grayson. Butler’s eldest was still in middle school when he first ran for the city council, and he concedes the coming years would see each of his children grow up in an atmosphere of intense public scrutiny, amid continual chatter about their councilman father.
“The toll that it has on your family is never fully appreciated,” the mayor-elected added.
Yet, through it all, Butler said he has always been able to count on his family to be at his side as he attended to his public duties. In fact, the mayor-elect saw all three of his kids, who are now 22-, 25-, and 27-years old, pitch in with his latest campaign. Even his younger son Grayson managed to fly in from the University of Alabama, where he is currently pursuing post graduate studies.
Butler acknowledges that he also owes his election as mayor to the support and encouragement of a large network of friends and acquaintances, including his fellow parishioners at Burlington’s St. Mark’s Church, where he and his family are long-standing members.
With a majority of the community behind him, Butler believes he is well poised to captain the city’s municipal government – a government that he merely wanted to stay the course when he first ran for mayor six years ago, but which he now hopes to steer in an entirely different direction.
“In 2015, I wanted continuity,” he said. “Now, in 2021, I want to get back to reality.”