- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

MARION, Ill. - Bob Butler had big dreams about fixing this stumbling southern Illinois city when he took over as mayor when President Kennedy was still in office.

It was 1963, and the city faced having its lights shut off for an unpaid $6,000 electric bill. When the streets superintendent asked a store clerk to charge a $1.25 bundle of stakes to the city, the clerk put them back on the shelf.

“The town seemed to be drifting along in dire financial straits,” Mr. Butler, 78, said of that first time he ran for mayor. “We were hanging on the rope, and I thought, goodness, we could do better.”

The city has and Mr. Butler has been at the helm ever since.

Many praise him as a straight-shooting, old-school public servant whose pro-growth agenda has helped turn this once-flagging city into a regional powerhouse along Interstate 57.

Now in his 11th term, Mr. Butler continues a streak as mayor that according to some rankings is among the nation’s longest.

Some of Mr. Butler’s defeated opponents still call him a friend and credit his accessibility, including handing out business cards with his home telephone number.

“What I like about Bob is that he’s given his whole life to the city. That’s a fact,” said David Hancock, a former Marion city commissioner who lost to Mr. Butler in 1995. “Bob has dedicated his being, so to speak, to this town. That’s Bob’s life.

“When Bob sets his mind to doing something, it gets done.”

The city’s population now numbers more than 16,000, up about 30 percent since Mr. Butler first took office. During his tenure, the city has worked hard to court businesses and now has two industrial parks, one bearing Mr. Butler’s name and featuring a Circuit City distribution center sprawling across 27 acres.

“He’s a fixture, and he’ll be mayor as long as he wants to because you can’t argue with success,” said Marion’s long-term water commissioner, Robert “Dog” Connell, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Butler in 1971 in what Mr. Connell called a “personality contest” between two like-minded friends.

Two years later, Mr. Butler accomplished what he considers to be his crowning achievement. He urged city leaders to pay $15,000 for a vacant 1920s theater downtown and then got them to agree to spend 10 times that to turn it into a civic center.

When some branded that a waste, Mr. Butler often replied, “You very well may be right.” But when that civic center burned down in 1997, Mr. Butler said, locals watched helplessly, many of them weeping.

Mr. Butler can’t help but gloat about the 44,000-square-foot, 1,065-seat gem.

“Fortunately more often than not I’ve been proven to be on the right track,” Mr. Butler said.

“He pulls no punches,” said Tim Petrowich, managing editor of the Marion Daily Republican. “With people who don’t like him, what you hear is ‘I don’t like him but he’s doing a good job.’

“If you take a look at the growth in this city the last 10 or 15 years, it’s been phenomenal.”

To Mr. Butler, the recipe for that has been simple: Let businesses do their thing, provided it’s not illegal, immoral, unsafe or against zoning.

“So often, when a business would come to town, they’d be burdened by regulations and rules as far as permits and whatnot. We cut through all that like a knife through hot butter,” he said. “We keep regulation to a minimum.”

Up for re-election in 2007, the self-professed Republican who holds a “nonpartisan” office isn’t talking retirement.

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