Meet The Mayors
Jul 01, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By Tom Worgo and James Houck
Chris Cerino is getting a little antsy. The self-described river rat has his eyes on the weather, which is tempting him away from his day-to-day office work—be it as mayor of Chestertown or vice president of Sultana Education Foundation. Recently, I caught up with Cerino, and he’s itching to get out on the water as soon as possible. After all, it’s one of the many and main reasons back in 1992 he fell in love with the town he now governs.
When he’s not at his downtown Chestertown office or his home just a few blocks away, Cerino is often found on his 17-foot Boston Whaler, fishing or crabbing the Chester River or an offshoot tributary. It may be his only way to escape the high-profile positions he’s held in town for the past several years. He’s been on board with the Sultana Education Foundation since before its flagship, the Sultana, was even wet in water. In 2014, he succeeded Margo Bailey at the heels of her retirement. He was re-elected to a second term, which began this year.
Today, Cerino is steering Chestertown in a cautious but optimistic direction, balancing town needs and its wants; economic stimulation through waterfront and corporate development, while maintaining the small-town Shore integrity that drew him, and so many of its residents, here. Cerino shared much about his background and interests, as well as what’s making Chestertown tick, during an interview.
Could you share about your upbringing, and your background, and your association with Chestertown and Kent County?
I grew up in northern Virginia. My family always would come over to the Chesapeake, mostly to Annapolis, to go boating on weekends. We were the prototypical weekend warriors. We’d come down and rent a trawler, and then eventually we had a place in Annapolis on the water. That’s how I got to grow up and love it in the Chesapeake Bay. Then, my parents had old friends retire to Kent County, and my first day setting foot in Kent County was coming over here with my mom to visit those friends. It happened to be Memorial Day weekend when Chestertown has its largest tourism event of the year, the Chestertown Tea Party Festival re-enactment.
That day, I was walking around the festival and stumbled upon a booth for a place called Echo Hill Outdoor School, where basically they pay you to go out and work with kids out in the wild, and I thought that sounded awesome. I’ve always been an educator, and I always loved the outdoors. That was a great way to combine the two. That was in May of 1992. I’ve lived in Kent County ever since.
Were you with Sultana basically from the start?
I worked at Echo Hill for about seven years. Then I actually left and worked at a classroom setting in the school outside of Annapolis for three years, but I was coming back in the summers to help lead trips for Echo Hill on the Chester River primarily.
Whenever I was back in Chestertown, I’d stop by the shipyard and saw this tall ship coming up from the ground. The gentleman that was running the organization, Drew McMullen, had been a colleague of mine at Echo Hill. He said, “Hey Chris, when this thing gets in the water, I need somebody to design, market, and run these educational programs.” It was a very unique opportunity to join an up-and-coming nonprofit at the very ground level. My wife and I moved back here full time in 2000 into downtown Chestertown.
We’ve really grown tremendously. The boat takes out about 5,000 students a year. We travel all over the shore. We visit St. Michaels and Cambridge every year. We spend about half of our season here in town. Then more recently, we now have the mobile canoe rigs and mobile kayak rigs, we take kids out on those platforms. We do a lot of professional development programs for teachers. It is a busy time here.
You recently opened the education center, right? Yeah, we’ve been in this new education center now for about a year and a half. That’s been an incredible resource. Now we actually do programming through the winter months. It also has just been an incredible tool to enhance programs that we already were doing in town.
What other projects are on the horizon?
If you want to know why I’ve grayed a lot in the last four and a half years, it’s that we are in the process of rehabilitating the one working marina in town. It’s a multimillion-dollar project. It’s probably the most ambitious capital project that the town has ever undertaken.
The hope is that we revitalize the marina, and over the course of two to three years after we’re done, it becomes a busy marina. The thing that’s unique about Chestertown as a boating destination is we’re 25 miles up the Chester River. If you’re making that voyage, you’re not just popping in to eat crabs and heading back out like you might in Rock Hall, which is right on the bay. We’re going to attract boaters that come up here on a Friday afternoon and stay until Monday morning. The hope is that while they’re at the marina, they take the time to walk that two blocks up the street to see the town and patronize our local restaurant and businesses, and B&Bs, and art studios, and whatnot.
You’re the face of the town. Do you find yourself being stopped all the time?
Absolutely. That is without question, the hardest part of the job. I’m governing in a fishbowl. For me, it’s especially tricky because my job and my house are right smack dab in the heart of downtown. If you want to find the mayor badly enough, it’s not hard to do.
You’ve said in the past that putting your name out there was difficult. Has that changed?
I’d say I’m used to it. It is what it is. It comes with the territory. As I said, the tricky part is it’s already a small town. Then to be the voice of the town, it’s definitely cumbersome at times, for sure. I think the hard part for me running is I don’t like to brag about myself. I like to just get things done quietly, behind the scenes.
Do you see yourself running again in 2022?
Hopefully by the end of this run, the portion of the waterfront that the town controls will be done. I think most of the things I set out to do, I will have gotten done. I think two terms and eight years is plenty of time. Sometimes for a town of our size, it’s nice to get new ideas and new energy. I don’t want to say no to anything, but I lean toward this probably being my last term.
Could you describe your relationship with Washington College?
It’s been very interesting. I’ve been the mayor for four and a half years. President Landgraf is the fourth college president that I’ve worked with. It’s very challenging to develop a consistent working relationship when there’s that much turnover. He’s made a great first impression. I think the college has been very supportive of the town’s efforts on the waterfront because they’re actually building a brand-new boathouse right now simultaneously. I think they see the two efforts as being linked. When the town looks great, it’s a good tool for the college to help recruit students and parents. Then when the college is doing really well, they’re a tremendous economic engine for Chestertown.
Beside politics, what other interests and hobbies do you enjoy?
I love spending time with my wife and my two boys. I’m a family man, but also a total river rat. If it’s a nice day and I have the time, you’ll find me out in our Whaler, or on a kayak fishing, or crabbing. That’s what’s so great about living here; the water access. To me, that’s what makes this a great place. It’s a great town in a great location if you are an outdoors, water-oriented person. It doesn’t get much better than Chestertown and Kent County.
Victoria Jackson-Stanley says deep down, she’s salty and sweet and proud of it.
That comes with the territory of being mayor of Cambridge, a town where she knows almost everybody and everybody knows her.
She is also the first African American and woman mayor in the city’s 334-year history.
Cambridge town council president Donald Sydnor says Jackson-Stanley has been incredibly effective in her 10-year tenure.
“She has done a lot with her leadership and networking,” Sydnor explains. “We were able to acquire over $30 million (from the state). We met with the governor, the comptroller. She is very well-connected.”
Jackson-Stanley’s popularity extends beyond Dorchester County. Then-President Obama invited her to the White House to raise awareness for Harriet Tubman.
She received the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award in 2015. The award is given to politicians and community leaders who have made a lifelong commitment to helping others.
Jackson-Stanley is widely credited with highlighting Cambridge area history—particularly its importance to Tubman.
Jackson-Stanley’s other priorities include creating more educational and recreational opportunities for young people and redeveloping Cambridge’s waterfront.
We talked to the 64-year-old Jackson-Stanley about Cambridge’s past and future and her role in it, along with the Inspiration Center named after her. She also shared her thoughts about running for a third mayoral term and for higher office.
Has your 40 years as a state social services worker helped you as mayor?
Absolutely. I have met all kinds of people from the very young to very well-to-do to the homeless. I have to communicate with them all fairly equally and with a degree of passion. That helps me in how I deal with the people I meet as mayor. I have met President Obama and Billy, who walks around town with his pants down. I have to treat them all with the same kind of dignity and compassion.
What kind of social services work did you do?
I had a variety of experiences. I was a child protective services worker. People hated me because I took their children. I was a deputy director, and lead person for child abuse, neglect, foster care, and adoption. I was also assistant director for welfare-to-work services. I ended my career with social services by telling a woman she couldn’t get food stamps anymore.
Given your social service background, do you feel you are nurturing and helpful to others?
I can be, but I can also be quite pointed and direct. That was the lesson I learned at social services. But I am a bleeding heart. You look up that description in the dictionary, and you will see my picture. I do care about people, but when I have to draw a hard line, I do that well, too.
Does it have special meaning to you to be mayor of your hometown?
It’s comfortable I but feel like I am in a fishbowl. I will tell you a story that puts it into perspective. I was speeding. A state policeman pulled me over. I gave him my license and registration, and he came right back to my car. He said, “Sorry mayor, have a great day.” I thought, “I can never do anything bad for the rest of my life.” But it can be great that I am recognized. I do love it when the children see me. They are like what, “A black mayor? A lady mayor?” They don’t always see that. The children have someone they can identify with.
What is your most significant accomplishment as mayor?
I am proud of this community and the way revitalization started and has moved forward. We have gone through a major revitalization. From downtown to providing water and sewer to places that didn’t have it before. We have put sidewalks in areas where children can now walk safely to school. We have boutique restaurants downtown. We revitalized Governors Hall. We designated Pine Street as historic. We have plaques all over town, touting Harriet Tubman as well as the historic part of Cambridge. A lot is going on here. We are not Mayberry, but we are a great town.
Have you considered running for higher office? State senator or state delegate perhaps?
They (political people) keep telling me I should, but I have not considered that. I am visible, and my name is known throughout the state. But I don’t want to get that high. I just want to do a good job as mayor and chill.
What do you want your legacy to be?
A small-town girl that did the best she could do for her community. That’s all I ever wanted since I was a kid—to do something good for my community.
Would you like to run for mayor after your term ends in 2021?
At this point, no. I have thought about it. I have had a pretty tough year at this point. Some of the things I wanted to get done are not getting done. I was hoping we would have a solid plan to have more cultural activities for our young people and more companies coming to provide employment for millennials. We are losing our young people. I am thinking that maybe a new person can get things to move forward. Unless things go more positively, I am not sure. I am saying, “I don’t know. Ask me again a year from now.”
What other major projects are you focused on?
We have the second biggest port in the state. We are working to develop it and the property around it. It was the Bumble Bee Tuna warehouse, but it’s gone. We are putting money into historic sites. We have governors that are buried here. We have the Harriet Tubman initiative. That’s a big deal. We are trying to improve our housing stock. It’s quite poor. Those who rent are always struggling. They get in my face about the market. You can’t get away from that.
What comes to mind when you think of Cambridge’s past?
Cambridge has an interesting history. I am not afraid to speak on that because I am from here. Like most communities back in the ‘60s, our racial civil rights movement had some tensions that have not been resolved. We have the reputation of burning down one of our major neighborhoods in the community— it was a predominantly black community back then. It created a divide in communication. Until we start opening up about some of the difficulties and the hard feelings that we had, we are going to have a difficult time moving forward. That’s my version of the story. Everyone in Cambridge has their own story. I was a young girl back in the ’60s, but I remember the difficulties that my father, who was one of the civil rights leaders, faced.
How did the Victoria Jackson-Stanley Inspiration Center in Cambridge come about? What did it mean to you?
They did it because the wanted to honor the first female and African American mayor of Cambridge. It made me feel very humble. I was excited, but anxious. You don’t have too many monuments or buildings named after people who are alive. I was so proud of it, but also quite embarrassed. That’s a visible symbol of being boastful. I am not someone who boasts or brags.
When lifelong Easton resident Robert C. Willey first considered going into local politics, he asked his mother Elizabeth for advice.
Considering Elizabeth spent 43 years as the Easton town clerk, she was the obvious person to ask. Yet her answer was not what Willey expected. She told him to steer clear.
Obviously, Willey didn’t listen to her. He has been mayor of this Talbot County town of 16,000 residents for the past 16 years. Before that, that he served 12 years on the town council, including a six-year stint as its president.
It seems the 76-year-old Willey still hasn’t had his fill. The Republican enthusiastically talks about running for a fifth term in 2019 and if he wins again, he would be mayor through 2023.
Willey is especially proud of keeping the city’s finances in good shape and investing in downtown Easton. These days, one of the most crucial issues is Easton Point, a multi-use public/private sector project on the town’s sliver of waterfront along Tred Avon River. The plan includes a waterfront promenade and public plaza, a park, a marina, a seafood market, a boardwalk, and a waterfront restaurant. The challenge is finding a balance between retail and recreation that will cater to both residents and visitors.
Easton Town Council President John Ford has followed Willey’s enduring passion for politics for more than two decades and says his heart is definitely in the right place when it comes to charting Easton’s future. “He is a terrific mayor,” Ford explains. “He steered the town through some difficult financial times several years back and we are financially in pretty solid shape right now because of his leadership.”
Although Willey is a long-time politician, he doesn’t come off as out of touch. He stresses he loves to meet new people in the community, and he goes out of his way to do so.
We recently sat down to talk to Willey, who is married with two children and four grandchildren, about running for a fifth term, his accomplishments and what he wants his legacy to be.
What does it mean to you to be mayor of a town that you grew up in and have lived in your entire life?
It does have a special meaning, but it creates problems. I know a good many of the Easton people. Consequently, you wind up on both sides of the fence on various issues. No matter which way you settle a disagreement, some people are going to be unhappy. You try to lessen that problem and usually you can work things out. But there are times when it gets very uncomfortable. Despite that, my mother was the town clerk for 43 years and I have a vested interest in seeing the town do very well.
Who have been some of the most influential figures in your political career?
Probably, (former Easton mayor) George Murphy. George had a very unique way of bringing people together and solving issues. He would be one. My mother (Elizabeth Willey) would be the other. She told me I wouldn’t be happy as mayor or in a council position because of having to make tough decisions. But I told her that I had some very strong ideas. I told her I wanted to try it and if I didn’t try it, I would be very unhappy.
You have been mayor for 16 years. Do people say, “There’s the mayor?” Do you find yourself constantly stopping and talking to people?
We have a fair amount of people that have moved into the area in the last eight or nine years. What I find kind of neat is most people come from towns where they have never met or knew the mayor. Where they came from, it was very unusual to see him at the golf course or a local restaurant or coffee shop. You have to be more approachable than what they are used to. There are very few places I go where someone doesn’t recognize me.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be remembered as the guy who took the town to new heights without destroying the old-time values and the old-time culture. With old friends and new folks coming into town, I have tried to help everybody get along. The overused word is inclusive, but I think it’s a big item nowadays. We all have to get along, or we are not going to get anywhere.
You want to run again for mayor again in 2019. Why?
There are some things that aren’t finished yet that I would like to see taken care of. That’s one reason. But I see the town as very close to doing great things with the schools, parks, the recreational activities. It’s also important that we are bringing jobs into the area. We still have a lot of problems with economic development, but we are getting better. It’s crucial to continue these initiatives. We are marketing the town much better.
What does Easton Point mean to you?
I can remember as a youngster we used to go swimming and hiking with the boy scouts down there. It has a strong appeal to a lot of folks in the area. It’s all about how you preserve all of that without over running it with cars and people and activities. It’s the only waterfront we have. We want to do it right.
What is your view on Easton Point?
I think it’s going to happen and pretty close to when it was planned. What’s starting to happen now is it's starting to break loose with a program that involves a lot of bicyclists and walkers in the area. There are some amenities that are getting ready to start and be put in there that will also help. It’s just not going to be a fast-paced project.
What do you consider your biggest achievement as mayor?
I would think the fact that we have made the town government much more open. I have tried to get across the approach to the employees of the town that a smile or thank you doesn’t cost you a thing, but it goes a long way in making people feel comfortable. It doesn’t always work, but at least we are trying.
What else did you feel was a significant accomplishment?
The first thing I tried to get was the memorial on West and Nova Street to outstanding veterans and first responders. That was my first try at raising money that wasn’t tax payer’s money to get something like that started. That’s been a great achievement. We have used it a lot. It’s very noticeable.
Is it important to keep developing the historic district?
I think so. If you go around to some of the towns on the Shore, you notice that the core of towns has gone downhill. We have made a big effort about keeping the core of Easton viable.