Mr. Mayor

At 19, Chris Portman, a poised, ambitious and impossibly wholesome college student, makes his voice heard in Mercer, Pa.

Cover Story

January 20, 2002|By Story By John Woestendiek | Story By John Woestendiek,Sun Staff

MERCER, Pa. -- In his first full week in office, Mayor Christopher D. Portman mastered his new Palm Pilot and fell slave to his cell phone; he tackled zoning issues and helped appoint committees; he made some speeches, received his first hate mail and appeared on CNN.

And he cleaned his room.

Not that his parents have ever had to nag him about that. Portman keeps his priorities, and everything else, in place, from the political books that fill his shelves (including The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents and All the Best, by former President Bush) to the toiletries on his dresser (where five sticks of roll-on deodorant are lined up in parade formation).

The bed is made. The clothes are hung. Were you to run a finger along the frames of his wall hangings -- the campaign sign, the plaques from speech tournaments, the front page with the story about his mayoral victory -- it would come up spotless.

The dirt on Christopher Portman, the new 19-year-old mayor of Mercer Borough, is that there is none.

Follow him for two days and, while you may learn a thing or two about poise, grooming, good manners and the art of schmoozing, chances are you won't end up anywhere, or hear anything, less than 100 percent wholesome.

He is about as squeaky clean as college freshmen come -- whether he's sitting in the living room with his entirely functional family (mother, father and the three boys celebrated New Year's Eve in a smoke-free bowling alley); going out to lunch with Poppie ("I call my grandfather 'Poppie' and my grandmother 'Nonnie,' and I have since I was 2 years old," he explains unapologetically); or driving to church in his entirely sensible Ford Contour with his girlfriend, Kim Lange, a high-school cheerleader.

"I compare her to a Laura Bush," Portman says. "She's very kind and sweet and stays in the background. You couldn't find a nicer girl. A lot of girls my age just want to party, get drugged up and have sex, and I'm not into those things."

To call him serious (and most do) may be an understatement. He exudes a formality rare for his age, or any age, both in his behavior and his speech patterns, the result of either his upbringing, six years on the school speech team, or maybe a little of both. He is ambitious, polished, conservative, some even say a bit old-mannish.

"When he was in the seventh grade, I remember a teacher saying, 'He's like a little old man,' and he is," says his speech coach and mentor Hugh Ringer, who -- in addition to having been in broadcasting 35 years, and sounding like it -- is an English teacher and athletic director at Mercer Junior and Senior High School. "With Chris, it's always 'Yes, sir. No, sir. AAABsolutely, sir, I'd be glad to help you out.' He's very prim and proper for someone his age."

If there seems to be a little bit of Ringer in Portman -- namely, the same animated, self-assured, way earnest style of speaking -- Portman says it's not surprising. He is, after all, a product of Mercer, a quiet Victorian town of about 2,400, 96 percent white, that still holds dances in the courthouse square and hasn't had a robbery since 1992.

"Hillary Clinton always said it takes a village to raise a child," says Portman, a Republican. "This entire town has raised me, and now it's time for me to give it something back."

If he sounds too good to be true, that is how he comes across. Remember Alex Keaton, the character on the television show Family Ties? Throw in flawless manners, a cell phone and personal digital assistant, and an undying admiration for President Bush, and you have something pretty close to Chris Portman.

Between commuting to nearby Westminster College, where he's focusing on broadcasting and political science, and his job at a Polo Ralph Lauren outlet store, where an employee discount has enabled him to assemble a fashionably conservative wardrobe, Portman plans to devote most of his time to mayoring -- solving Mercer's not-too-heinous problems, preserving its 199-year history, and improving its already quaint quality of life.

While the borough operates under a weak-mayor system (he votes only to break ties on the council), Portman does have a voice at the meetings, signs the checks and oversees the six-member police department, run by a chief whose daughters used to babysit the new mayor.

"Even when he was 5, he was more like a 10-year-old," said Chief Frank J. Detelich, who has photos of Jack Webb and John Wayne in his office, an unclipped clip-on tie hanging from a tie clip midway down his shirt, and no qualms at all about the new mayor's age.

"Eighteen is old enough to vote. And it's old enough to get shot at. If you're old enough to die for your country, you should be old enough to help run your country," he said. "I think it's great. I really do."

Using his great-grandfather's Bible, Portman was sworn in as mayor on Jan. 2 -- taking an oath, he noted later, that was much longer than that administered to the president of the United States.

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