Gulfport’s Mayor Juggles Family, Graduate School, Public Service, and Bartending

Cathy Salustri

“This particular friend of mine ran a bar in Key West for a long time before we got fed up with all the other alternatives to politicians and elected our favorite bartender mayor.”

– Jimmy Buffett

 He doesn’t run the bar, and no one’s calling him Gulfport’s “favorite” bartender – at least not yet – but Mayor Sam Henderson taking a job bartending at the Peninsula Inn’s Isabelle’s (most weeknights except Thursday, when fabulous locals Mike McCue and Daniel Hodge take over the bar for the famous “Thursday Night Social”) lays one more stone in the path towards making Gulfport increasingly not unlike an only-in-memory Key West.

 For the mayor, however, it’s more about paying the bills than becoming a legend.

 “A lot of people have asked me, ‘Oh, you’re just doing this so you can speak to people more easily?’ and the answer is no, that’s a nice benefit, but I was seeking additional income,” Mayor Henderson said shortly before his Tuesday shift at the bar. “Everybody thinks that because you do a job in public service, you’re independently wealthy. Public service, for elected officials, doesn’t generally pay that well. It’s an important job, but we don’t have our own offices or assistants. Most people are going to have to find income from some other source. This is my way of balancing. I’m a regular person with a regular family, and families require money.”

 Ten years ago, Gulfport’s council included Mayor Mike Yakes, Ted Philips, Dawn Fisher, Harry Brodhead and Larry Cooper – at least three of whom were retired. Five years later, councilmembers Judy Ryerson, Bob Worthington, and Mayor Mike Yakes were all retired. Few councilmembers had young families.

 Today’s council consists of a business owner, consultant, teacher, Viet Nam vet and part-time law office employee, and Mayor Henderson, a graduate student who also happens to be mayor and, now, a local bartender. Mayor Henderson says that locals look twice when they see him behind the bar.

 “People seem so surprised. People think it’s some neat little gimmick,” he says without rancor, adding: “No, I get a job for the same reason most people get a job.”

 Mayor Henderson, who left an environmental career to continue his education, has two semesters left in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Florida Studies program. The program – the only one in the state – takes a cross-disciplinary approach to learning about Florida. Students to focus on one facet of Florida as part of their graduate research. Mayor Henderson’s research deals with Florida’s public lands. While former students received assistantships that paid their tuition as well as a salary, state budget cuts have killed the graduate assistantship.

 “In an ideal world, graduate programs would have funding to help all or most of their graduate students, and so graduate students can afford to be full-time students,” Program Director Dr. Chris Meindl says. “We’re a much smaller operation, our budget is so much less than that. Our budget has been destroyed so badly...our students have to work part time and go to school part time. That’s essentially what has happened to virtually all of our graduate students.”

 So Mayor Henderson, constrained by school requirements, opted to finish his Master’s degree and work part time.

 “I bartended for several years in my 20s and I enjoyed doing it. I liked making drinks, I like talking to people. It was something local and something I thought I could easily do without it being full-time hours,” he says.

 He also says that he enjoys being on council but understands that people have different expectations because of the town’s history of retiree-officials. If you send him an e-mail, you get an auto response saying he will respond “as quickly” as he can. “It may be a couple of days, but I will respond to you at my first opportunity,” the return e-mail promises.

 “It’s not that you can’t do it, but you have to make an appointment with someone. You have to manage your time,” he says of meeting citizens and handling city business. He estimates he spends 20 hours a week on city business.

 He will continue to bartend once the fall semester starts. Once he graduates, he will look for an environmental job while continuing his public service.

 As for bartending as a way to reach residents? He says if it happens, great. But if it doesn’t? He hopes Gulfportians remember that he bartends for money, not political gain.

 “If somebody wants to come by and have a drink with the mayor, I’ll be happy to make them a drink, but I am at work, and I have an obligation to my employer and my customers. I may not have more than 45 seconds,” he says.

Below: Council last gave itself an increase in 2000; before that, council received a raise in 1989. Here’s what other full-service city councils and commissions (without a strong mayoral form of government) stack up against Gulfport’s council pay.








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