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Tough Times for Tough Portsmouth Mayors


mayor stereotypes

Winner takes over

What we don't know about our hard-working mayors would fill a book. And that book would tell us a lot about the evolution of our city. I'm still not certain why we adopted our winner-gets-to-be-mayor system. After 1947 it appears that the winning city councilors chose the mayor from among their own ranks. I'd like to have been a fly on the wall at those smoke-filled backroom sessions. Did they draw straws, vote, or arm wrestle?

Then in June 1963 we see an amendment to the Portsmouth City Charter approved by the state legislature. It appears under the heading "Election of Mayor." (See Chapter 430:1, Amendment Section 13 of the Laws of 1947.) It reads, "The candidate for councilman who shall receive the largest number of votes at any election... shall be the mayor." Runner up becomes assistant mayor. In case of a tie, the councilor with the longest record of service wins.

I'm not complaining. Our city council runs as smoothly as any other governmental body lately. I'm told that Dover and Portland considered switching to "the Portsmouth system," but changed their minds. I'm also told there is a movement afoot to undo the system here, but that story belongs to a real reporter, not the history guy.

And while the era of the "strong mayor" has passed, anyone running for city councilor this week must be a little bit nervous. Things have gotten pretty scrappy around here in recent months. If your name is on the ballot for city councilor, you might just wake up Wednesday morning to find yourself the mayor. So when the next frantic Portsmouth mob rises up, probably over some tall building or parking garage issue -- this time, your Honor, they will be looking for you.


Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. 

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