Teenager making run for mayor of Aberdeen

College student challenges incumbent, retired trooper

October 10, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,SUN REPORTER

Nicole V. Burlew is a candidate for mayor in Aberdeen who never voted in a city election - she wasn't old enough.

But the soft-spoken 19-year-old college student has taken up the call to public service, mounting a campaign to lead the Harford County city of 15,000 that faces budget troubles and looming growth because of the national military base realignment.

"When people tell me I'm too young, I usually say my age doesn't matter," said Burlew, a junior at Towson University who is studying political science. "I want to make a difference, and the fact that I have a passion should outweigh my age."

FOR THE RECORD - An article about young mayoral candidates in Wednesday's Maryland section incorrectly described a plea agreement involving Michael Sessions, the 20-year-old mayor of Hillsdale, Mich. Sessions pleaded no contest in July to a misdemeanor charge for his role in an e-mail prank.
The Sun regrets the error.

Burlew is taking on incumbent Mayor S. Fred Simmons, a successful insurance salesman, and Michael Bennett, a retired state trooper, in the Nov. 6 election. The candidates will join 10 hopefuls for City Council seats at a forum tonight at the Aberdeen American Legion post.

The teenage candidate acknowledges her status as a novice. Burlew has never attended a council meeting and the only office she has held is vice president of the Spanish Club at Aberdeen High School.

"It is a worry that people might not take me seriously because of my age," she said. "It's not a joke. I'm very serious about becoming mayor."

Teenage mayors are "extremely unusual," said Ruth Mandel, director of Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

"If we did a head count across the country, we'd still find that the population of elected leaders under age 30 is very tiny and under the age of 20 is barely existent," Mandel said.

A 2004 study by the institute counted 814 elected leaders under age 35, in federal, state and local governments in communities with a population of more than 30,000. The study found that 28 percent of the young leaders were 18 to 29, and 72 percent were between 30 and 35.

In Union, Ore., a town of about 2,000 in the northeastern part of the state, Kyle Corbin took office in January at age 18. And 20-year-old Michael Sessions is the mayor of Hillsdale, Mich., having been elected as a write-in candidate in 2005.

But the tribulations of being mayor do not discriminate according to age.

Sessions nearly faced a recall after pleading no-contest to two felony charges for posing as someone else and using the password of a friend to send disparaging e-mails.

And since the beginning, Sessions has faced criticism about his youth and inexperience.

"I look at them in the eye and hand them my business card," he said. "You've got to be like a rubber ball. You've got to let the criticism bounce off of you and not let it get to you."

Sessions, who is fighting testicular cancer as he balances his role as mayor with being a college student, said Burlew should "do as much as possible to get her name out."

"That's what we did here, and it proved to be successful with a lot of door knocking," he said.

While Burlew's two competitors have posted election signs around the city and Bennett is holding fundraisers, Burlew's political strategy is simple: maintain her Web site, distribute fliers and meet voters.

"I don't find it hard to go up to anybody," she said. "That started when I was in college and started making new friends. I wasn't afraid to go up to strangers and ask their opinions."

She has asked that campaign contribution checks be made out to the American Cancer Society.

"There's only so many days left till the election," Burlew said. "I figured I'm not going to buy too much more stuff. Any leftover campaign money, I want it to go to the cancer society."

Burlew's road to politics was a spontaneous one. This fall, while working on a research paper, she visited the city government's Web site and noticed that the November election was nearing. She based her decision to run for mayor on two factors: She meets the criteria, and it is an election year.

"The best way to learn anything is by doing," Burlew wrote on her Web site.

Burlew criticized Simmons' performance and questioned his habit of carrying a gun. Aberdeen is facing a water shortage, debt from its deal on Ripken Stadium and growth issues because of the base realignment process known as BRAC.

On water: "I'd like to find out what's causing the water shortage, do as much analyzing to find out what's causing it."

On property taxes: "I know that there has to be a better way to raise revenue rather than through taxation."

On BRAC: "There's BRAC, I know a lot of people are worried about that, and I'd like to see how to do that transition as smoothly as possible."

Writing on her Web site about her view on raises for the Police Department, Burlew, whose grandfather was a longtime New Jersey police officer stated, "My answer is very simple, yes, I like police officers."

Born in New Brunswick, N.J., she moved to Aberdeen with her parents in 2001, when her father came to the area to work at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She graduated from Aberdeen High last year, pursued paralegal studies at Harford Community College until this year and then transferred to Towson.

Burlew credits several professors for sparking her interest in politics and government. Among them is Michael Korzi, an associate professor of political science, who taught Burlew in a five-week summer school course about Congress.

"She was pretty quiet," Korzi said. "It's a little surprising that she's running for mayor."

But he said she took a step in the right direction by putting up a campaign Web site.

"Not only is it the wave of future, it's a cost-effective way to get your message out there, rather than buying up TV and radio time," he said.

Burlew said she is realistic about her prospects of winning.

"I wouldn't say [I'm] optimistic about it," she said. "If I won, I'd be happy. If I didn't, I wouldn't be crushed."

madison.park@baltsun.com

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