An Ailing Arkansas City Elected an 18-Year-Old Mayor to Turn Things Around
EARLE, Ark. — The shoe factory closed and the supermarket pulled out. So did neighbors whose old homes were now falling apart, overtaken by weeds and trees. Likewise, the best students at Earle High School often left for college and decided their hometown did not have enough to lure them back.
Jaylen Smith, 18, could have left, too. Instead, when he graduated from high school last spring he resolved to stay put in Earle, a small city surrounded by farmland in the Arkansas Delta, where his family has lived for generations.
Not only that, but he ran for mayor. And won.
“Why should I have to go somewhere else to be great when I can be great right here in Earle, Arkansas?” Mr. Smith said a few days after his inauguration last week. He was sitting at his new desk in the mayor’s office but never keeping still as he signed papers and alternated between answering a landline and a cellphone that rang constantly.
Mr. Smith won over voters by talking about patching up streets, tearing down dilapidated buildings and lifting up the community’s morale.Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times
Over the years, Earle has been defined in large measure by all it has lost; its population has dwindled to roughly 1,800, from well over 3,000 in the 1990s. But the city has been infused with a sense of optimism since Mr. Smith won the mayor’s race in early December and especially since he took charge on Jan. 1. His victory made him one of the youngest African American mayors ever elected in the country — a point of enormous pride to his family and supporters. And many residents hope that his youthful energy and sense of mission can boost the city’s fortunes — or, at the very least, attract a supermarket back to Earle.
“It’s an asset because he’s motivated and he has fresh ideas,” said Tyneshia Bohanon, a city councilwoman who came to know Mr. Smith while substitute teaching in Earle’s public schools. “He’s thinking of others, as he always has. He chose to stay and get his city where he knows it can be.”
The supermarket plan was a pillar of Mr. Smith’s campaign, as was building up the Earle Police Department so it can operate 24 hours a day. He also won over voters by talking about patching up streets, tearing down dilapidated buildings and lifting up the community’s morale.
“I figure he needed a chance,” said Etta Poole, who came to Earle from Chicago in 2008 to care for her sick brother and decided to stay.
His platform, as straightforward as it seemed, reflected the steep price that those who remained in Earle have had to pay. Among other things, they have contended with a faulty drainage system that leaves neighborhoods swamped after rain, and coffers that have occasionally been so bare that the city has struggled to make payroll. The school district, while outside the mayor’s purview, was taken over by the state in 2017 partly because of mishandled funds.
Achieving his vision would require Mr. Smith to overcome a decline that has decades of momentum. Yet he does not seem all that daunted.
“I’m kind of a go-getter,” he said. “When I was in high school, I was always told no, but I always kept pushing it because I knew there was someone that was waiting to tell me yes.”
Not everyone was ready to entrust him with leading the city. One of his biggest obstacles as a candidate was persuading skeptics who cited his age and lack of experience, especially since his opponent in the December election was the city’s far more seasoned sanitation and street manager.
But his supporters argued that they were not asking voters to put their city in the hands of any 18-year-old. This was Jaylen — the teenager who started wearing suits to school in ninth grade and has gospel music blasting from his computer speakers. He had also become a fixture at City Council meetings and community events.
“Sometimes, when the City Council members didn’t show up, Jaylen was there,” said Angela Jones, a councilwoman.
“He attends the school board meetings, the water commission meetings,” she added. “He was young and he was doing this — who does that? At a young age, he had purpose.”
Earle, whose population is largely Black, sits about 28 miles from Memphis amid sprawling fields where cotton and beans are grown. There are churches, a few used car dealerships and little restaurants, like the Glory Grill on the main street with its signature “Mercy Burger.”
A block from City Hall, Charlie Young, 70, runs the small grocery and convenience store his father opened before he was born. When he was younger, there were several such stores owned by Asian American families like his.
“We outlived everybody,” Mr. Young said. “Nobody wants to do it.”
He was not nearly as bullish as some of his fellow residents on Mr. Smith’s plan to bring in a supermarket.
“It ain’t going to come,” he said.
In any case, in his view, Earle did not need one. “We’ve got everything you can think of that Walmart’s got,” Mr. Young said of the vast inventory in his store, which includes chips, snack cakes and soft drinks, but also T-bone steaks, crab legs and a diverse selection of hair weaves.
“He says he’s going to clean up the city, so we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Young said of Mr. Smith. “Everybody’s eyes are on him.”
Billy Joe Murray, the retired basketball coach at Earle High School, said that the city was in dire need of improvements. For him, the drainage system was the most pressing issue. “Every time it rains, I’m underwater,” he said as he swatted away sweat bees on his front porch.
“Everybody leaves Earle,” Mr. Murray, 68, said. “People want to move up in life, and Earle is probably at its lowest.”
He believed in Mr. Smith, though. “I taught his mama, I know his daddy,” Mr. Murray said. “He may look young, but he’s got his head on right.”
Mr. Smith, who has two older brothers and a twin, Jayden, has “been old since he was little,” his mother, Sonya Perkins, said. Coach Murray made him the manager of the basketball team at Earle High, and Mr. Smith once had aspirations of becoming a state trooper. But his plans shifted after he became involved in student government.
Other 18-year-olds have been elected mayor elsewhere over the years: Hillsdale, Mich.; Roland, Iowa; Yoncalla, Ore. Indian Head, Md., elected a 19-year-old. In 2019, a 7-month-old boy became mayor of a small town in Texas, but the role was purely ceremonial. There are no comprehensive records collecting the ages of municipal leaders, but the Association of African American Mayors said that when Mr. Smith officially joins, he will be its youngest member by more than a decade.
Mr. Smith knew he had detractors who were wary of his youth, said DeAveon Holmes, one of his closest friends from student government. “He took that as motivation.”
As Mr. Smith campaigned, he knocked on the door of nearly every home in Earle. He spent days shadowing mayors in other Arkansas cities, including Little Rock and West Memphis, and scheduled video calls with mayors outside the state, eager to learn what the job actually entailed.
“You have to have the knowledge,” Mr. Smith said. “You have to have the character. You have to be disciplined.”
On New Year’s Day, in a government building in Marion, about 17 miles away from Earle, judges swore in mayors, council members and incoming law enforcement officers from a number of towns. Each received a certificate attesting to the oath they had just taken. But no other municipality had a crowd like Earle’s, with many people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Mr. Smith’s face.
Ms. Jones, the councilwoman now carrying her own certificate, acknowledged the tough work ahead but also savored what felt like a victory for more than Mr. Smith alone. “He has an opportunity to show the world what our young Black men are capable of,” she said.
He has imagined running some day for a seat in the State Legislature, or even serving as the governor of Arkansas.
For now, though, Mr. Smith’s attention is on Earle and the often tedious work of running a city. A few days in, his calendar was filling with meetings, and he had already dispatched crews to work on storm drains. He also has college to think about, as he balances the job with online classes at Arkansas State University Mid-South.
“There’s this Bible verse that I always use,” Mr. Smith said, paraphrasing a line from the Book of Habakkuk that had propelled his campaign and drove him now as he mapped out a future for himself and his city: “Write a vision, make it plain.”
His landline rang yet again. “Mayor’s office,” he said.