Mayor Brandon Paulin of Indian Head, Maryland, goes into a shop to get his favorite smoothie. As he walks in, an 18-year-old who just graduated from high school reaches out his hand, pleased to meet the youngest mayor in the state's history.
Last year, Paulin, who looks like he could be the student's classmate, was elected mayor of this tiny town when he was just 19.
Four thousand residents live in Indian Head, a 2.5-kilometer-long strip of land along the Potomac River. The town, with mostly older homes on tree-lined streets, ends at a peninsula with a U.S. naval base, and the busy highway in the city’s center extends north toward Washington, D.C., about an hour’s drive away.
“I think everyone has gotten used to how old I am now,” Paulin says. He's not big on honorifics. “If people call me Mayor Paulin, I ask them to please call me Brandon.”
Now a year older, and more than a year in office in his home town, the mayor reflects on his accomplishments and the issues he faces as he sits in his tiny office in City Hall.
Looking for a commercial renaissance
His first order of business is trying to bring business back in Indian Head, which was a thriving community through the 1960’s. Then, competition from new shopping centers in a nearby larger city forced many retail stores to close. The boarded-up storefronts are eyesores that people see as soon as they drive into the town.
But Paulin sees a future with a grocery store, retail stores, quaint shops, and weekend visitors from the Washington area who come to enjoy themselves. He would like Indian Head to be known as “a place to live, work and play."
“We’re definitely trying to become more business friendly,” he says, explaining the town is now providing business incentives, like waiving commercial permit fees.
He’s personally been calling the dozen or so property owners of the vacant buildings to encourage them to fix them up so they can be leased to new businesses. While many appear to be on board, a few are ignoring his calls.
Fixing the problem isn’t easy.
“Some of those buildings were handed down from deceased relatives,” he explains, as he walks by an abandoned strip mall, now owned by 20-somethings who don’t have the money to renovate it. In addition, none of the building owners live in Indian Head, “and some of them don’t even live in the state, but they get the benefit of the property tax write offs. I don’t want it to be us against the property owners," Paulin stresses, "but to work together to move Indian Head forward.”
Some buildings are in such bad shape that they have to be torn down. The mayor points out what’s left of several structures that were just demolished. They had sat empty for 30 years. “It already looks better and the area will be planted with grass,” he says.
Some property owners will be confronted with a business incentive they won’t like. Those who let their buildings sit empty face fines which will increase every year and “it may be as high as $10,000,” explains Paulin, who hopes the fines will influence them “to make changes.”
Lessons from the first year
The mayor's first year in office has taught him to be confident, he says, but also to recognize that he doesn’t have all the answers, and some ideas don’t work. He wishes he could get faster results.
Paulin knew going in that he wouldn't make a lot money. Being mayor is supposed to be a very part-time job, just 12 and a half hours a month. But he figures he works at least 100 hours each month, for an annual salary of $6,000.
He takes college classes on-line, majoring in political science, and lives at home with his parents and younger brother who has congenital heart problems.
“Every once in a while I’ll bounce ideas I have off my parents,” Paulin says. My mom usually gives me “a positive response, but my dad looks at my ideas from different perspectives. I get that teenager response from my 13-year-old brother.”
He says his friendships haven’t changed, except “I don’t talk politics anymore and just listen. I’ve gotten pretty good at finessing situations,” he says, and laughs.
Paulin wants young people to get more involved in the community, the way he did. When he was 10 years old, he convinced officials to put a crosswalk on the highway, just across from City Hall. “Who knows,” he says, ”one of them may become the 18 year old mayor of Indian Head.”
He says social media, especially Facebook, has helped him to better connect with both kids and adults. “If they understand more about the town government and what we’re doing, they can make educated decisions about what they want to do to help out the community.”
Paulin is “not affiliated” with any political party. He says he doesn’t know who he’ll vote for in the upcoming presidential election, but that if he could talk to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he’d ask, “what will you do for Indian Head? If either of them will help Indian Head, that’s the one I’ll vote for.”