‘Whatever negatives there have been, large or small, I had a hell of a time’
Declaring it’s “time for a change, both for me and the town,” Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan says he has decided against seeking a third term in office.
“I’ve had a good run,” Sullivan told the Rappahannock News.
In an email that went out Monday addressed to his friends and colleagues, the widely popular mayor wrote that his decision not to run for reelection did “not come easily and indeed has evolved over recent months.”
Sullivan said he will serve out the remainder of his second term and officially pass the gavel to his successor on Jan. 1, 2019. He pointed out that the deadline for a candidate to file for the office is June 12, “so I want to give ‘whomever’ ample notice.”
Election Day in the town is November 6.
Sullivan, who is 74, wrote that being mayor of historic Washington “has been the capstone” of his 40-plus year career in national media, much of it spent as a magazine publisher in the big Washington. When his term ends he will have served eight years in the town’s top leadership position, 10 years total on Council, and two years on the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
While not all of his time in the town’s top position has been smooth sailing, Sullivan said he has worked hard to build on his mayoral predecessor Eugene Leggett’s inroads in diffusing often-contentious proceedings between town officials and citizens.
“Gene was a great believer in getting people to work together, to trust each other, have a common purpose,” the mayor said. “I’ve tried to do that. I think our [Town Hall] meetings are civil, they involve the community, and they are run very informally, which I am criticized for sometimes. But if someone who knows something is sitting 20 feet away from you why don’t you ask him or her the question, it’s their town.
“So I like to think there is a comity and a civility in our town that is lacking in our world at large, and the county for that matter.”
Asked about his latter reference, Sullivan said it’s a very fine line that separates the town of Washington and Rappahannock County. Indeed, during the town’s few but significant litigation cases of late the mayor’s most outspoken critics weren’t even his constituents.
“I think the town and the county are inseparable,” the mayor said. “I love the county as much as I love the town — well, almost. But I get terribly frustrated by the internecine warfare of [certain] people. They don’t have a sense of the common good. I’m a believer in the common good. So many people seem to be living in their own little bubble — the mentality that if something good happens to the other guy it’s going to hurt them. It’s a zero-sum game. And I believe just the opposite.”
Still, while “the town is often referred to as ‘Little’ Washington, there is nothing ‘small’ about the passion residents have for the town. Every issue, large and small, is important to someone and we have done our best ,” he said, “and I have learned much in the process. I appreciate the support people have given me.”
He cited the town’s numerous accomplishments during his decade of public service, including developing and implementing a state of the art wastewater system; stabilizing the town’s finances through cost controls, sewer and water fees, meals and lodging revenue, and the painstaking sale of Avon Hall; developing a new Comprehensive Plan with demanding goals; and beautifying the center of a village that is cherished by visitors from around the world.
Sullivan, who was re-elected mayor in 2014 with 28 of the 29 votes cast, said he seriously considered a third term, but he couldn’t guarantee he could serve out all four years.
“My gut just told me it’s time,” he said. “I think it’s good for me, I think it’s good for the town.”
The mayor said the town will “forever” be his and his wife Beverly’s home, which they happily share with their three dogs. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re not going to disappear.”
“There’s a lot that’s going to happen in this town in the next three, four, five, six years,” he continued. “There’s the whole issue of housing and attracting more [residents], both identified by the Comp Plan as priorities. That’s going to be some heavy lifting — figuring out what to do, pushing it through, dealing with differing views. You need a full time mayor for that. And by that I don’t mean eight hours a day. It’s a part time job, but you never stop thinking about it. At least I didn’t.
“But I am not ready to be the person who takes this town into its next [phase]. I just don’t have it in me. I don’t have the passion for it,” he confessed. “And if you don’t have the passion you’re not going to do something well.”
Longtime Washington resident Nancy Buntin can relate.
“He served a long time as mayor and dealt with some tough issues,” she told this newspaper. “We’re coming into a period when we need some major decisions made about the direction of the town. We need infrastructure improvements; we really need to increase the population of the town.
“He’s done a lot and he just feels it’s time to turn over the reins. And he’s probably tired,” Buntin reasoned. “The mayors who have served in this town have found that for such a little place the job is very tiring. And our mayor has new issues to deal with, so I can understand his decision.”
Rev. Jennings W. “Jenks” Hobson, who spent 42 years as pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church before retiring in 2015, said “I have watched a whole cadre of mayors work for the town since I moved there 45 years ago. Many have been faithful in their work, but John Sullivan stands with the very best and I am thankful for his ‘ministry’ as mayor.
“He has engaged himself in every one’s concerns, no matter how small. He has sought out folks from the edges of town life. He has listened to all. At the same time, he has provided awesome leadership in accomplishing much that is very important for the town’s present and future. From sewer to beautification to planning he has cared for it all.”
Hobson also picked up on the similarities between Sullivan and Mayor Leggett, who died in 2012.
“He has carried on the particular work of his predecessor,” the priest said, “seeking greater civility in the town’s corporate life, despite some very difficult challenges. He has represented the very best we can be, and I am thankful to him for his time in the office of mayor. He will forever be ‘Hizzhonor’ for me.”
Sullivan, speaking to the News, identified several highly qualified potential candidates to fill his seat, although whether they would choose to run remains to be seen. “The numbers aren’t gigantic,” he said, “but this town is attracting interesting, energetic people who are committed to the town. They want to do things, there’s a residential energy. The town is in good shape.”
As for regrets, he has just a few: “When I started out I thought we would be able to tap into a lot of federal and state money to do [positive] things here. And you can. But we didn’t get the grant writers. We didn’t tap into those outside sources of income — the town has done a crappy job, the county has done a crappy job.”
Yet even without the outside sources of revenue, the town of 126 people (its population dropped 26 percent between 2000 and 2010) “is being rebuilt in these last six or seven years,” the mayor noted. “On Main Street there are 19 buildings that have been significantly renovated. And only two of those are Inn [at Little Washington] buildings.”
And then there’s his favorite building — Town Hall, circa 1857 — where Council meetings are called to order. The architecturally significant structure’s entire rear wall of bookshelves was all but bare when Sullivan took office. Today they are lined with hundreds of prominent titles, all donated from Sullivan’s personal library.
“The books are staying. I gave the books to the town, and more books are going to be given,” he said. “There are things hanging on the walls I’ve given, and I’ve got more that I’m going to give. I like history. They belong there. They don’t belong in boxes in my basement.”
What will he miss the most about public service?
“I confess that when you’re walking along somewhere and somebody says, ‘Hi mayor, how are you doing?’ I like it, the mayor shtick, you know. That’s kind of cool.”
Except perhaps when fireworks fill the air — literally.
“About two years ago Patrick O’Connell was having a big event at the Inn. Some wedding, some rich people, whatever,” Sullivan tells the story. “And they hired a fireworks group to put on a display. Patrick appropriately comes to [then-county Administrator] John McCarthy and asks for his permission, comes to me for the town’s permission, he went through all the hoops. And McCarthy says, ‘It’s going to be fabulous, but we’ve got to make sure everybody in town knows about it.’
“So one Saturday night Beverly and I are in our library watching television and there’s this noise outside, as in like bombs going off! And Beverly jumps up and screams, ‘What’s going on out there?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know!’ And we open up the front door and run out onto the porch and the sky is filled with these fabulous fireworks, things going ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’
“And my first response was, ‘Oh crap, we forgot to tell people!’
“That was certainly one of my faux pas, and within 10 minutes I had emails and telephone calls from mostly hysterical, or at least unhappy people. Of course there’s a good ending to the story. People like fireworks, and once they got over the element of surprise they all thought these fireworks were great.
“But you know, it’s been fun. Whatever negatives there have been, large or small, I had a hell of a time. I am very lucky. I spent 40 years in magazine publishing that largely covered politics, and to end up a mayor, a political official of a small town, has been amazing.”