Dexter, Saline, and Chelsea are very different cities, with very different mayors. Yet each tells the same archetypal political story: the call to public service, the challenge–for all three, the Great Recession–and the final triumph, though no triumph is final in politics since there’s always the next campaign.

To get a sense of the mayors, their towns, and their stories, we sat down with them, two over coffee and one in his council chambers. All three proved ardent advocates for their communities–and consummate politicians complete with fully formed public personas.

Saline’s mayor turns thirty-one in July. But with his polished poise, Brian Marl appears much older. He walks into Saline’s Carrigan Cafe wearing a tasteful black sweater and greets everyone in the downtown coffee shop, most by name. He’s a true native son.

“I was raised and spent my entire life in the Saline community,” he says. Raised in Saline Township, he moved into town in 2005–to the home on Russell St. that his grandparents had built in 1951. While kids his age played soccer or video games, Marl’s interests veered to politics. One childhood treasure was an autographed picture of Richard Nixon and a signed, velvet-bound copy of his biography.

While still in high school, Marl worked on his first congressional campaign. His candidate lost, but for Marl it was only the beginning. State rep Kathy Angerer offered Marl a full-time job in Lansing when he was a freshman at Washtenaw Community College (he’s since completed his associate’s degree at WCC and is now working on a bachelor’s at EMU). Marl spent six years with Angerer, followed by eighteen months with state rep Jeff Irwin. As in Chelsea and Dexter, being mayor in Saline is a part-time job; Marl now works as the legislative director for state rep Adam Zemke, commuting to Lansing from the house his grandparents built.

An active member of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Marl served on the city’s special projects commission, on the zoning board of appeals, and on the historic district commission. But he always knew he wanted to run for political office.

He took the leap in 2008 when he ran successfully for city council, a feat he repeated two years later. Two years after that, then-mayor Gretchen Driskell “informed me that she was likely to run for state rep. I began to think about running for mayor. I met with five dozen different people to discuss what attributes they were looking for in their next mayor.” That outreach helped Marl build a solid base of support, and he won with a resounding 60 percent of the vote against an opponent twice his age.

When he took office in 2012, Saline was still suffering from the Great Recession. In 2009, the city had eliminated four positions–“that was unprecedented, to lay off people,” Marl says–and the cuts were continuing. “Every year we started the budget process hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red. We were reducing and/or eliminating core services. We lost [staff] people by attrition and didn’t fill the spots.

“It started to turn around in 2013,” Marl continues. “Council decided to bite the bullet and increase our millage rate by three-quarters of a mill,” adding $300,000 annually to the budget. “Last year we started in the black, and we’re in the black this year. In both years, we added people.” The council vote to increase the millage was six to one, the exception being Lee Bourgoin, who then ran for mayor against Marl in 2014. Despite raising taxes, Marl won again–with an even more resounding 68 percent of the vote.

Marl says that Saline today is what it’s always been: “a safe community, a community with good schools, a great place to raise children, and a great place to live.” But the mayor says it’s a mistake to think of Saline as a bedroom community: “More people come into our community during the day than leave because of the schools and businesses. We have some very large employers in this area, particularly Faurecia,” says Marl, referring to the French automotive parts manufacturer that acquired the former Ford plant in 2012.

But Marl doesn’t see more manufacturing in Saline’s future. “Additional housing [will] drive our economic development. Our population is just shy of 9,000. For this community to prosper, it is necessary to expand with more homes and more commercial enterprises.”

The “sluggish economy” remains the biggest threat to Saline’s future, Marl says: “We’re not out of the woods yet. People are hoping there’ll be more businesses and cultural amenities and recreational opportunities.”

Marl won’t predict how many more times he’ll run for mayor, but in May he announced he won’t run for Driskell’s seat when she leaves the state house and runs for Congress this November. “I love being mayor,” he told a press conference at the Saline Area Fire Department, “and the next few years are critical. We have the Michigan Avenue makeover in 2016, we’re working on substance abuse prevention, and there’s still much to be done to attract businesses small and large to town. My time will come.”

Given his obvious skills and ambition, it surely will.

At forty-four, Dexter’s mayor is older than Saline’s. But Shawn Keough also looks remarkably youthful, casually dressed in a checked white polo shirt. Like Marl, he knows most of the people in the local coffee shop where we meet–Foggy Bottom in Dexter Crossing.

Where Marl projects poise, Keough projects earnest sincerity. Born in Livonia, he earned a U-M bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and is now a vice president at Wade Trim, a municipal consulting company. Keough says he and his wife fell in love with Dexter and moved into the then-new West Ridge subdivision in 2001, making them part of the demographic bulge that doubled the population to 4,500 in just ten years.

Though he’d always liked helping people, Keough hadn’t considered public service until he was asked to be on a citizens’ committee looking at the village’s water and sewer rates in 2002. They discovered rates needed to be raised, and Keough decided shortly afterwards to run for village council.

When the Dexter Leader singled him out as the lone newcomer in the race, Keough knew he had to work hard. “I went door-to-door saying, ‘We need to raise water rates.’ They said, ‘You’re running for election and telling us that we need to raise water rates? We think you’re nuts, but you’re honest.’ And I got elected.” When Keough joined the village council, literally the biggest new thing in town was “the Monument Park building next to the Dairy Queen. Then there was [the rebuilding of] our dilapidated Main St. bridge. It brought over 20,000 vehicles a day in and out of town. There’s maybe 20,000 who call Dexter home who don’t live in the city.”

Another issue confronting Dexter in those years was growth. The village had added three large developments, and Keough says “there was pressure for a development south of Dexter Crossing.” After months of negotiating with a developer, the village declined. “It was not in our best interest. A huge development like that would take a huge amount of our well field and wastewater treatment plant capacity.”

In late 2007, village council president Jim Seta resigned, and council appointed Keough to fill out his term. “I ran again in 2008 and in 2012 and was elected both times and was elected mayor in 2014.” That’s when the village voted to become a city, likely the biggest political event in Keough’s career. He says it happened for a very pragmatic reason–to maintain Dexter’s competitive tax environment. “By eliminating the township level of government, we could eliminate a layer of taxation and still cover those services.”

Though voters living in the historic town center preferred to remain a village, cityhood passed in the new subdivisions and won overall with 54 to 46 percent–and Keough got more votes for mayor than cityhood did: 61 percent.

The biggest physical event of Keough’s career will hopefully be the tornado that tore up more than 100 homes in March 2012. Terrible as the event was, Keough says he heard no complaints about the government during the cleanup. “The tornado is a perfect example of the community coming together.”

Keough figures Dexter’s fastest growth is behind it: “I don’t see more subdivisions going in.” The biggest threat to Dexter is “our unfunded [pension] liabilities. We were about 67 percent funded in 2008. We needed to have $3 million, but we only had $2 million.” Growth came to the rescue. “While other places’ state revenue sharing was declining, ours got a jump of $125,000 a year. So we set up a savings account, and today we’re 83 percent funded [with] a $500,000 gap. If we stop making payments, that’s a big threat.”

The mayor says they’ve forestalled another possible threat by passing a moratorium on oil and gas drilling. Keough clarified some details about potential drilling in a follow-up email exchange. “One property in our industrial park has signed an agreement giving a company the rights to drill.” But that company has not so much as hinted that it is interested in drilling. Nevertheless, the city immediately put a six-month moratorium in place and asked various commissions and committees to review all aspects of regulating resource extraction. A draft ordinance is expected in a few months.

Like Saline’s, Dexter’s council voted to increase taxes. “We raised our street millage half a mill–before the county and before the state. It was unanimous. You know how many people have complained about it? None. People thank us all the time.”

Keough says he has no aspirations for higher office, but he’s not without ambition. “I definitely see myself here in Dexter. I’m enjoying being mayor. Would I rule out a second term? Absolutely not.”

Between the obligations of his day job, his family, and his church, Chelsea First United Methodist, plus his duties as mayor, Jason Lindauer is a busy man. Another native son and at fifty-five the oldest of the three mayors, Lindauer arrives at Chelsea’s city council chamber wearing a sedate dark suit, a white shirt, and a pale red tie and radiating cheerful optimism.

“Chelsea was idyllic even in 1960,” he recalls. “Our main street contained everything it took to be well fed, well fortified, and well dressed in three or four blocks. It hasn’t changed much.” A Chelsea High grad, Lindauer says he “went away to college and swore I’d never be back to this one-horse town”–only to return, at age thirty, when he and his wife “bought our first home here in a place I grew up calling a cornfield.”

He returned a different man. He’d graduated from Adrian College and then started but didn’t finish graduate school at Wayne State. “I had four part-time jobs, one as an intern at Merrill Lynch in Ann Arbor, where I’ve been the last thirty years. I head the wealth management team who oversee the financial affairs of maybe eighty different households, primarily here in the Midwest.”

Lindauer returned at what he calls Chelsea’s nadir. “A lot of the downtown was moving out to the shopping centers closer to the highway, and we lost some anchor stores.” Chelsea came back because “some very visionary leaders said we’re going to make a restaurant out of a department store that had closed. That’s the Common Grill,” now open twenty-three years. And then there’s Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre, which “brings in almost ten times the city’s population per year. We’re getting ready to celebrate year twenty-five [of the Purple Rose] next year.”

Such successes drew more folks to town, increasing the population 38 percent from 3,700 in 1990 to 5,100 today. Lindauer was recruited into politics when he was forty-four. “A great example of service named Fred Mills buttonholed me after church and said a ‘group of us in town would like to have you consider running for city council.'”

Lindauer figures his qualifications were “the reputation the family had. My kids are the fifth generation here. I was serving on church boards, and we had four children in the school district, so we were at everything.” That helps in a small town. “We joke about it. We know each other and we’re all married to one another.”

Lindauer was elected in 2004, the year Chelsea became a city. “That was coincidental. I was for cityhood. I did not run on a platform of cityhood.” Lindauer says he didn’t actually have a platform. “I hadn’t created that social or political identity.”

Cityhood was on the agenda long before Lindauer ran for office. “Our city charter was the result of the hard work of community leaders over ten years. We wanted to have more control over our future, over how we levy taxes and what services we provide. The greatest positive effect–and they were all positive effects–was the higher profile we had with our representatives at the county, state, and federal level.”

He won when he ran again for council in 2007 then ran for mayor unopposed in 2009 and won. It’s easy to understand why he had no opponents: Lindauer is backed by the city’s leaders and Chelsea was in the midst of the recession. “You saw growth stop almost immediately in any subdivisions that were being built. And all the things that come with that–inflow of population and young kids in the school district–all that stopped.”

Property values went down and took property taxes with them. But unlike Saline, Lindauer says Chelsea “didn’t lay people off. But we did bring efficiencies to the workforce. Most of the public works department is now cross-trained so electricians can help with snow removal. At the time our primary obsession was to keep the same level of services coming at the rate people had always expected them to.”

Chelsea, too, raised taxes. “We did a utility rate study that showed a lot of our fund balances were embarrassingly low. We identified how to bring them up to a 15 to 20 percent balance at all times.” Like Dexter, Chelsea has unfunded retirement liabilities and a way of addressing them. “We are in the high 70s [percent funded] now, but we have items in the budget [that will] bring us up to balance in six years.”

Another similarity to Saline and Dexter is that many residents of nearby townships have Chelsea addresses and send their kids to its schools. “Our identity intertwines with the townships,” says Lindauer. “Fifteen to twenty thousand people call Chelsea home who don’t live in the city.”

Lindauer ran for mayor unopposed again in 2013. Now that the recession’s impact has faded, the biggest issue confronting Chelsea is “economic development for our retail and commercial sectors. Also, housing is scarce in downtown, and we’re always considering [development] proposals but have nothing before us now.” The city has room to grow. “The last three years we’ve had housing starts inside the city. We have the capacity–power, water, wastewater–for a considerably larger population than we currently have.”

The biggest risk Lindauer sees to Chelsea’s future is the gravel mine proposed for Lyndon Township. If built, it would send sixty to eighty tandem trucks daily through downtown Chelsea to I-94. “That would be a threat if it were to come to pass,” says Lindauer–but he hopes it won’t. While he can’t share details “until it’s legally settled,” he says that “the work we’ve put in leads us to believe a positive resolution will come.”

Lindauer’s vision is to “continue to make Chelsea a destination for individuals, families, and businesses.” The trick is to balance growth and maintain Chelsea’s character. “We were elected to serve, and we do that by listening to the citizens whether they be individuals, business owners, advocates for educational communities, or what have you,” he says. “We’re hearing people asking for progress. I don’t know what that means. Things run here at a high level, and people at the very least want things to continue as they are.”

Asked if he’ll run for mayor again, Lindauer says he hasn’t made up his mind. “I consider that a lot. You have to have children and a spouse who understand public service. There isn’t anywhere you go where you do not represent the citizens of this city. Seven days a week there’s always something to attend and something to send your regrets to.”

Does he have ambitions to seek higher office? “I hear that question a lot. I’ve not ruled out higher office at the county, state, or federal level.”

At that point, Brian Marl and Shawn Keough arrive in the council chambers along with a photographer for a group photo. They banter about senior citizens’ voting habits, then naturally group with Lindauer in the center, adjust their public personas, and smile for the camera.