An unlikely exterminator will take the helm of the U.S. Conference of Mayors — a black Republican mayor from the eastward outskirts of New York City.
Mayor James Garner of Hempstead, N.Y., whose business savvy in pest control earned him a delegate appointment in 1986 to the White House Conference on Small Business, officially will lead the 1,200-member group for a year starting June 10.
His election to the president’s post is a turn at partisan equity in the nonpartisan, Democrat-heavy conference; a Republican gets the position every three years.
Mr. Garner, 57, left his job in the private sector in 1985 to run for village trustee in Hempstead and moved up to mayor a term later in 1989. The Long Island town of 70,000 is famous as the home of basketball great Julius Erving and Hofstra University, and is 52 percent black.
Black, Republican, New York, are a curious confluence of geography and politics, though.
“It is ignorance for people to think that when I walk into a room, because I am African American, I am a Democrat,” said Garner, who was born into a Democratic household in North Carolina and went north in the 1960s to attend college.
Mr. Garner, by all accounts, has taken the flagging city of 70,000 and given it an economic boost, despite his un-Republican raising of local taxes over the years.
“We are indeed better off today than we were in 1989,” he said, answering the political question that has gotten him repeatedly re-elected.
The new post gives the mayor a national profile that colleagues have felt he deserved for some time.
“This guy is really not viewed in any racial terms,” said Pat McCrory, the Republican mayor of Charlotte, N.C. “James Garner transcends race and is a real individual and is not at all subject to any form of peer pressure.”
Mr. Garner said the office of mayor is underappreciated on the national level, a variation perhaps on Rodney Dangerfield’s famous “no respect” line.
“It is the level of government that is closest to the people,” he said. “You can’t walk into the governor’s office and get a pothole fixed or your garbage picked up, but you can do that with a mayor. At the end of a day, I could have talked to 15 or 20 people who had problems like that, that I have to solve.”
He gets his turn to lead the mayor’s conference as national Republicans seek black elected officials to highlight and groom for higher office. Mr. Garner said there is no reason that the party can’t expand into the black community, which, he noted, was overwhelmingly Republican for a large part of the 20th century.
“There are a substantial number of black Democrats coming this way,” he said, noting Alabama state Rep. Johnny Ford, a former mayor of Tuskegee who made the switch in January.
“He loves it here, and I gotta tell you, before it’s over, they are going to come back home.”