EAST LANSING, Mich. — Aaron Stephens never thought he would be a mayor.
“I thought like maybe I would get there at some point if, weirdly enough, if I needed to be," Stephens said.
But July 14, 2020 was the day that all that changed when former Mayor Ruth Beier resigned. Stephens was the mayor pro tem and automatically became the new mayor of East Lansing.
“If you look at my face during that meeting when I did become, you know, the person in that position I think you can see the shock in my face to the point where you understand I never thought that I was going to be,” Stephens said.
In the middle of a pandemic.
“I wanted to make sure that we did everything," Stephens said. "That we saved the most people, that we influenced the most people, that we just did the most to make sure people were safe.”
Stephens said it was tough.
“It was really hard," Stephens said. "I didn’t expect to be in the position I was in. Nobody can plan for something like that.”
And sometimes the job took an emotional toll on him, but he was willing to "put that on his shoulders" and doesn't regret it.
“It’s just the best part is to like look and be that proud and know that even though I’m leaving, East Lansing’s going to be completely fine,” Stephens said.
Now that he's leaving to go back to school at Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy, he's reflecting on his time serving the city.
“I am feeling very nostalgic, I’m definitely a little bit nervous,” Stephens said. “It’s just kind of like one of those feelings where I’m like oh man I’m going to miss this.”
He said he's proud of how far the city has come.
“Under our tenure we’ve navigated a pandemic, we’ve done police reform, we’ve done housing, look at our downtown," Stephens said. "All of this has happened because of our resources and people we have here.”
And thinks it will be in good hands with new Mayor Jessy Gregg.
“Jessy’s great," Stephens said. "She’s a powerhouse who both knows her worth and doesn't know her worth.”
Gregg was appointed to mayor pro tem shortly after Stephens became mayor.
“He and I had a conversation at that point with me saying, you know that I have a very full life and you know i can’t do this right, so if you ever leave, and I might have threatened him a little bit,” Gregg said.
As she's processed Stephens moving on to the next chapter of his life, she said she can do it.
“The Mayor in East Lansing is really just kind of the focal point for council communication and I’m a good communicator so I think I can handle that,” Gregg said.
While her term could be short lived, she knows she wants to continue keeping the city safe.
“We’re seeing those numbers start to climb again and I’m feeling a little deja vu-ey about last August and just the fallout," Gregg said. "We’re already doing some pullback things like masks are being required in city buildings, we’re seeing more business putting those mask signs back up.”
And appoint people to the independent police oversight commission.
“We have about 26 applications the last I heard, we might have received more, I’m not sure, and we are planning on interviewing those candidates to find the 11 people that we want to seat,” Gregg said.
With the November election approaching and three city council seats up for grabs, Gregg know some change is coming.
“We’re definitely going to have at least one new council member as we’ve got a vacancy that doesn’t have anyone running for that seat," Gregg said. "So we’re either going to have a big change or small change.”
While Gregg might have "threatened" Stephens a year ago not to leave, now she's coming to terms with everything.
“I can say confidently say, Aaron, if you are starting your masters degree having just vacated the position of mayor during a global emergency, you’re already on your way to great things and I can’t wait to see where that takes you,” Gregg said.
So, is the title of mayor somewhere in Stephens' future?
“Maybe 20 years in the future, who knows, but right now, i think what I want to do is affect the most good change that I can,” Stephens said.
Who knows for sure, but Stephens said he does know the city will be just fine without him.
“As long as East Lansing maintains that passion for bettering ourselves, then we’re going to be alright,” Stephens said.
Mayor Gregg will hold that title until at least November when the council will choose a mayor and mayor pro tem.
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