The Rant Monthly sat down with Sanford Mayor-elect Rebecca Wyhof Salmon in late July to talk about her upcoming tenure as mayor. This conversation has been edited for length.
The Rant: What are some of the things you’re feeling in the wake of the election?
Salmon: It’s been a very exciting few weeks and months for me and for the community. I’ve just had to sort of take a step back and sort of assess where we want to go and what we want to do. I feel very motivated and excited, and I feel like the community has sent a very clear message about the type of leadership they’re looking for.
The Rant: I want to talk about the electoral aspect of it. You still ran a campaign even though you were uncontested in the general. What was your thought process there?
Salmon: A couple of things. The first thing is when I commit to do something, I just commit to do something fully. I still feel like one of the unfortunate results of having partisan elections is that our Republican residents as well as, our unaffiliated residents who choose to vote on Republican tickets don’t get to have a say then in the results of that Democratic primary. I feel like standing out there and campaigning equally to everyone gives our whole community a chance to interact with their elected officials and to have their questions answered. I feel I owe it to our community to continually be able to put myself out there to be as accessible as possible. And I also feel like you never know what’s going to happen and I feel like turnout is a really important issue. I think that continuing to campaign keeps the election hopefully a little higher on people’s radar so everyone who wants to participate gets out and has a say in the community’s future.
The Rant: Talk about your decision to go for this seat. Mayor Mann’s decision not to run came kind of late in the process and surprised a lot of people. So what went into your decision making process?
Salmon: It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly at all. And it wasn’t something that I had aspired to do prior to the mayor choosing not to run. I had to think long and hard about what I thought I could offer the community and I really feel like when I was taking stock and trying to make this decision, I had to analyze the qualities that I think I brought to leadership and the community. I think I bring a specific temperament, skills, and experience, and just a perspective and a way of looking at things and being able to listen and to work with people that I think would be advantageous to sort of some of our future demands. I felt I had something to offer and it takes a lot to step up and put yourself out there. I think the process helped me to know that I really do think the community supports the type of leadership that I was putting out there.
The Rant: You’ve been on the council since 2011. So you’ve served under two mayors. What are some of the lessons that you’ve taken from both Mayor Mann and Mayor Olive before him?
Salmon: Both of them have provided incredible examples for me of how to be a good mayor. It’s a very specific job that requires bringing people together and really being able to listen, to bring out the best in other people. Competing interests sort of look two sided sometimes and they’re really not. And I think it’s necessary to try to figure out a way to find that third way, or even a fourth or fifth way if that’s what’s required. We have an incredible community of people that love, love, love Sanford. I’ve learned from both of them that those are some very powerful attributes in good times and bad times. But being you know, a steady hand I’ve just learned a lot from them. It’s a lot of big shoes to fill. I’m going to do my very best.
The Rant: You’ll be sworn in on Aug. 16. What does that first meeting look like? What are the things you want to accomplish coming out of the gate?
Salmon: The first thing is, people need to know there’s nothing in Sanford that is slowing down. This election happened midstream on a huge number of really large projects. So the first thing that we’re going to need to tackle as a new team is bringing everybody up to speed on the projects we’ve been working on and getting everyone on the same page. We have the water treatment plant projects going on, VinFast, we got the ARPA money that we need to figure out how we want to use for our community defining projects and what those are going to be. We have economic development projects. I’m looking forward to that process of incorporating the new ideas that the folks are going to be bringing in. It’s an exciting time. We have some outstanding public servants joining the council.
The Rant: “Open for business” has been a big theme around here for the last decade. Taking the reins of that — what does it mean for you to move that forward in your way?
Salmon: To me “open for business” is a philosophy ingrained into how we approach our work. These tenets that were a part of the open for business agenda — job creation, sense of place, community pride, tourism — these things are part and parcel of the underpinning that builds a strong community. You’re never going to be able to do anything on top of that until you’ve secured those foundational elements. We’re never going to lose sight of what it means to support those activities. And then it also involves how we interact with our citizenry, with economic development partners. We want people to be able to come here and find a community that is welcoming, that’s easy to access, and that is service focused. The next steps will be to build on that and we’ve set out a strategic framework for our next program of work.
The Rant: You may be the first mayor I can think of, at least in modern times, that’s not born and raised here. What does it mean to you to have lived somewhere else and then become part of this community? What do you think that brings to your leadership style?
Salmon: Well, first, it is really humbling, having been given that trust. It means a lot to me, and it’s something that I will care for very, very deeply. This community has such a strong history. And it’s what makes it so easy to fall in love with. I’ve lived a lot of places and when I came here, it felt like home. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to be a city council member, and it is something that I’m so excited to be able to continue as mayor. I think I can recognize some of those things that are so unique and special. I don’t take them for granted, because I’ve been places that didn’t have them. So it makes some of them even more special to nurture, protect and expand because we don’t want to lose that.
The Rant: One of the things I think is unique about Sanford and Lee County is that we’re a very small sized county with one mid sized municipality and one very small one. Between Sanford and the county government, we sort of have divided government just in terms of partisan makeup. How do you go about developing the relationship with county leaders who may have different priorities in terms of their partisan affiliation?
Salmon: I truly believe we want the same things. We want a community and a county and a city that work for everybody that allows people to achieve their full potential and to live a wonderful life. I think if we can coalesce around those things we have in common, we don’t have to agree necessarily on all the individual pieces along the way to get us there. Continuing to refocus on our shared values as a community will work to keep us strong. I’ve had an opportunity to serve on the interlocal committee since it came into existence, and that has strengthened our relationship with the county so much. It’s a chance for us to share information to make sure that we get rid of misinformation, and that we can work through some of some of the things that may have been stressors on our relationship. That foundation will be a big part of our success. I don’t like to view things through the lens of partisanship. It’s just not where I think we start building a strong relationship. I really think we need to start where our values are shared, and then build from there.
The Rant: It sounds like what you’re telling me is that when it comes to local government, it’s a lot more about where can we put a project like the splash pad or what can we do for this or that project that’s going to impact people’s lives than it is about what the Democrat said to the Republican or the Republican said to the Democrat?
Salmon: Absolutely. I would say the vast majority of the issues are just the issues. People say things like “potholes, they’re not partisan.” They just need to be filled. And if you can see the community benefit to any of these projects, you usually can get a team on board. I mean, look at the collaboration that the city and the county have done on things like (the Sanford Area Growth Alliance). The proof is in the pudding. Our economic development has blossomed when we actually worked together to make something that worked for the whole community.
The Rant: I’m sure throughout the campaign you talked to a lot of voters across the spectrum. What kinds of things do you hear about the state of the city and where people want it to go?
Salmon: I could talk about this all day. This has been such a wonderful experience. We went to over 1,400 homes. We had amazing conversations. People have a lot of concerns obviously about things like growth or affordable housing or access to public transportation. But more than anything, the thing that struck me the most is the love and the optimism that people have for our community. People have wonderful ideas. From quality of life projects to community appearance to obviously, retail stores they’d like to have, but people see a community that has all kinds of different things for all kinds of different folks as a real asset. We can really build on the things we have now. It doesn’t take away from our core character to keep building on top of that. One of my favorite comments that someone shared with me about the future direction of our city is that they felt that sometimes we just don’t dream big enough. And it really struck a chord with me because it made me realize that if you don’t ask the questions, if you don’t imagine a possibility – just the process of asking the question with a room full of folks that also love the community can really change how you view the possibilities. We don’t need to be afraid of asking questions. We need to make very strategic choices about what we choose to do, but I don’t think that there’s a problem with dreaming big.