ANGUILLA — When Anguilla Mayor Merlin Richardson takes his oath of office July 1, it will be the 10th time and he will be expanding a record no other mayor in Mississippi can touch.
Richardson, 81, is the longest continuously serving mayor in the state with 36 years in office, according to the Mississippi Municipal League. His win June 4 in the South Delta town of 722 people, according to 2011 figures, will allow him to take that number to 40.
It’s an accomplishment that has matched his other endeavors.
“When I start something, I stick with it,” he said.
He served in the U.S. Air Force for four years then joined the Mississippi National Guard for eight, leaving as a sergeant major. He went to work at Deer Creek Compress Co. in Rolling Fork in 1956, stayed there 42 years and retired as the company’s owner and president. He’s been married to his wife, Lanetia, for 53 years and they have two daughters.
Richardson’s tenure as mayor of the Sharkey County town began in 1977 when he defeated banker Lee Martin in a special election.
“The former mayor had to leave because he worked for Southern Natural Gas, and they transferred him to Jackson,” he said. “I’d been an alderman for a couple of years, and I said, ‘If I’m going to fool with this (politics), I might was well run for the top spot or get out of it.’ The banker and I ran and I won. I’ve been running ever since.”
The secret to his longevity, he said “is treat everybody the same — right. Treat them with respect.”
“I’ve helped a lot of folks. I don’t mind helping people. That’s one reason I’ve stayed in office as long as I have, I guess. I’ve got a kind heart, I guess you could say.”
He’s also a lifelong resident of Anguilla.
“I was born and raised here,” he said.
The only time he left the area was to join the Air Force with his twin brother, Marlin, during the Korean War.
“I was in for four years and got out, and he stayed in for 27. He was a jet pilot,” he said.
“When I got out, I was going to go to school at Ole Miss,” he said. “I changed my mind and went to work for this cotton company (Deer Creek Compress). I went to work in May, and I was going to go to school in the fall. But I found I liked the work. I went there sweeping the floor. I was the lowest man on the totem pole, but I stayed there 42 years and ended up owning the place. I sold it when I retired.”
Running a small town, he said, is not too different from handling a large one.
“A small town’s like Vicksburg or Jackson. We’ve got the same problems, but we don’t have as many of them.
“We’ve got people fussing at you about garbage or cable TV. When you’re elected the mayor of the town, you’ve got to stop and listen, you’ve got to lend an ear.
“You’ve got to listen to those complaints and you’ve got to do something about them. If you don’t, when you run for re-election, people will remind you. I try to return all my telephone calls,” Richardson said.
Richardson said the biggest change he’s seen in government is the reduction of government grants and program funding.
“With this economy like it’s been the past few years, you don’t have the money and you don’t get the grants that you used to get to keep your roads and equipment up to par,” he said. “Used to, you could always find some kind of funding, make ends meet and make a payroll.”
Despite the tight economy, he said, the city budget is in good shape.
“We don’t owe nobody nothing,” he said.
And things are improving in town.
“The economy’s picking up a bit. We have several small businesses that are in good shape,” he said. “We have some stores and a cafe that are doing well.”
A deserted garment plant on U.S. Highway 61 south of town has been cleaned and transformed into a recycling plant that employs 15 people, he said.
“All the streets are blacktopped,” he said. “I was able to get a grant to do that.”
Despite the complaints, problems and tight funds, Richardson said he’s enjoyed being mayor.
“I get along with the people,” he said. “I must be doing something right, but I don’t know what it is.”
Will there be another term in 2017?
“There’ll be no 11th term,” he said. “I’m through. This is it. If I live through this one, I’ll be 85.”