A Greensboro man has set out on a unique mission. A mission to meet every mayor in North Carolina.
“I wanted to find a way to really hear about what was happening across North Carolina because I spent my whole life in Greensboro,” said Mitchell Whitley, a Samford University graduate whose project is entitled “Mitchell’s Mayors” and now takes him and his family to all corners of the state. “We go to Boone in the mountains and Edward Island at the beach, so I never really got exposed to or got to experience what it was like to be a true North Carolinian from all angles.”
While in college, Whitley interned for Republican Congressman Mark Walker, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, the secretary of labor in Washington D.C., and for multiple campaigns in Alabama.
“I did it just to learn campaign work and to be knocking on doors and to meet people and be able to spread the word on stuff I thought was going to make a positive difference,” he said.
After graduation, Whitley wanted to learn more about state government, so he interned again, this time in the state Senate. He worked part-time in six different senators’ offices, including Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico.
“While I was there, I was really dead set on making sure that I got the chance to meet every senator and speak to them,” Whitley said. “I went and bought one of those Senate composites that shows all the members for the term, and I went around and scheduled times to meet with every senator and got them all to sign it.”
That list also includes Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. The composite hangs in Whitley’s apartment.
He currently works as the executive assistant to Cecilia Holden, president and CEO of myFutureNC where he engages in a passion of his: policy work that deals with education and workforce development.
His inspiration to meet all 551 mayors goes back to childhood. He thought that to be a good leader for others, it’s important to understand how things operate from every angle.
“Doing this project allowed me to also get municipal government experience to understand what it’s like to be right there, boots on the ground in the town when the people can come straight to you and say this is happening, I need some help,” said Whitley. “It’s helped me to continue to be a well-rounded leader for those around me because I’m an Eagle Scout, and that’s another aspect that’s helped me to be a good leader. I wanted to get that next level of experience, and listening and learning about municipal work helped me grow even more.”
The self-funded project takes up most of Mitchell’s weekends, listening and learning about what it means to be a North Carolinian.
“For somebody to come and listen and learn to the mayors and say I’m not here to politic, I’m not here to ask for money,” he said. “I just want to hear your story and hear about your town and that means a lot to people.”
Whitley’s father, Kim, accompanies him on his travels, allowing extra time together working on the project.
“A lot of times he’s around the same age as our mayors are in most towns, and having him there with me, they’re able to make references or make jokes or talk about historical things that my dad’s like, ‘you know what? I remember that too,’ and it helps us just better connect with one another rather than just having a young person that just shows up out of nowhere,” he said.
Whitley started meeting North Carolina’s mayors more than a year ago. So far, he’s met 193 out of 551 mayors. He says he has so many wonderful memories and so many stories.
In this journey, he got to sit in a space capsule used by astronaut John Glenn at a NASA display inside the Science Center in Monroe, where Marion Holloway is mayor. The display also has special significance as Dr. Christine Darden, one of the female African Americans profiled for their work in the STEM industry in NASA in the movie “Hidden Figures”, is a native of Monroe.
Whitley also got to talk with Jean Toner, the mayor of the Town of St. James, and found out how her father worked on inventing two half spheres that covered the plutonium that made up the first atomic bomb that was part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
He also climbed to the top of the Oak Island Lighthouse in Caswell Beach and talked with the mayor of Littleton, Stephen Barcelo, who owns The Cryptozoology & Paranormal Museum. Barcelo showed Whitley how he caught “Bigfoot” and some ghosts on camera. “He has these all these haunted dolls in these cases,” he said. “He said if you let them out, it would cause havoc on the world.”
Whitley and his father had the chance to help out Elton Wendell Newkirk, the mayor of Atkinson, during last year’s Christmas parade. He told the pair that he needed a driver for him and his wife for the parade. They volunteered and had a great time in Newkirk’s 1970 Buick Electra 225 convertible.
“It meant so much that somebody from outside of Atkinson showed up to listen and learn and to just be a part of this great community that was there, and so that was a really special moment,” he said.
Whitley said his project should take a few more years to wrap up. He plans on beginning a podcast to talk about his experiences, and when the project is complete, he plans to write a book to describe his time on the road meeting all 551 mayors.
“I want to be able to give a snapshot in time of what was happening in our state,” he said.
While he doesn’t have any set plans for the future, a run for political office isn’t out of the question.
“After my project is done, I want to be the best advocate I can, and being able to run for office or to make a difference in a political capacity is definitely something I’m more than willing and excited to hopefully do someday,” Whitley said.