Although councilmember Jamie Whelan may not have lived in Flagstaff all her life, she has made it her home. From her dedication to the education system to her involvement in local politics, the mayoral candidate has been an engaged community member since she arrived from New Jersey 30 years ago.
“Leadership-wise, I have had vast experience. I’ve been a school teacher for a total of 36 years,” Whelan said. “So, having students, being able to run a classroom, that give and take, that collaboration is such an important skill.”
Along with her countless years of experience in education, Whelan has also been on Flagstaff City Council for four years and has served as vice mayor for two of those years.
Whelan’s campaign manager, Bernadine Lewis, said the concept of Whelan running for mayor was introduced almost concurrently with Mayor Coral Evans' decision to run for the Arizona House of Representatives in Legislative District 6. Lewis said it seemed like a very natural follow up to Evans' leadership. She said that when Evans decided to run for the representative position, she suggested that Whelan run for mayor.
Whelan said she strongly believes that mentorship is one of the most important parts of learning the ropes when it comes to politics. Throughout her years on city council, both Whelan and Evans mentored each other based on their individual strengths. Whelan said seeing what a day in her own life is like can be both a great teaching opportunity and a way to build confidence.
“Mentorship is so important,” Whelan said. “I’d love for you to just call me up and say, ‘Hey, can I hang out with you?’, and that connection one on one, or even a small group, is so important. It’s just like teaching. It’s more like, ‘Let’s do this together,’ and I think that’s what builds our confidence.”
Whelan said she constantly views her political positions as a way to save the seat for the younger generation because she believes everything is up to them.
Lewis said a candidate’s experience often plays a large role within political campaigns, regardless of the office. Whelan’s campaign is no different and focuses on her experience within Flagstaff’s local politics as well as the local education system.
Lewis teaches a leadership class at NAU’s W. A. Franke College of Business and insists there are certain qualities that a leader must have in order to be great and well-respected.
“We need to look for individuals who have the capacity to listen, empathize and then have the ability to persuade,” Lewis said. “When you have those three qualities, that’s the making of a good leader … Are we always going to agree with the direction that they’re trying to take us into? No, but if we have someone who we can sit down and talk to, who will make us feel like our concerns and our opinions matter, then we have a good leader.”
Lewis said she has witnessed the strong leadership qualities within Whelan over the years they've known each other. She also said political candidates must look at their campaign as a job application and show the community what experience they have to offer.
“Ms. Whelan is offering experienced leadership," Lewis said. "All it’s about is what you have to offer Flagstaff. Experienced leadership."
Whelan said she didn’t always dream of being a public official but when she saw problems within the local government, she felt compelled to fix them. She said she wanted to be an agent of change in the community — a change for the better.
“I remember I went to a council meeting years ago,” Whelan said. “The mayor hit his gavel and told me to sit down and I said, ‘I have three minutes,’ but he said, ‘No, you sit down now.’ That’s when I knew I needed to do something and that’s exactly what I did.”
The negative experience helped form one of the main pillars in Whelan's political philosophy: As a representative of the community, it is important to remember that the people are ultimately the boss of city council.
Lewis explained that Whelan's campaign team is in a pre-campaign mode because first, they need to obtain enough signatures to even get Whelan’s name on the ballot. Throughout all of this, Lewis said it is important that Whelan is involved with the community and creating connections.
“We’re ensuring that she’s out in the community, but then again, she always has been as a councilmember,” Lewis said.
Whelan said that while she is out in the community, she has to keep her duties as a councilmember and mayoral candidate separate from each other in order for her campaign to remain ethical. She described it as similar to taking off a nametag or hat when she switches from councilmember to mayoral candidate within the community.
Lewis said it is important to note how grounded Whelan is within the Flagstaff community as well as within her own spirituality.
“She’s very much rooted and grounded in her spiritual belief as a Buddhist,” Lewis said. “She instills those principles in her daily life, as a professional and just as a human being trying to have this experience called life.”
Marsha Modrell, treasurer for the Whelan campaign, said the community support that Whelan has been receiving is immense and has really helped the campaign’s early success. Modrell said Whelan’s success is also based on her innate leadership qualities.
“I think Jamie's success is based on her honesty, integrity and knowledge of issues that are of concern to the community," Modrell said. "She is a hard worker and wants to reach closure on important issues."
To Lewis and Modrell, Whelan’s hard-working personality is another side of her that allows her to be a strong member of the community.
Women within Flagstaff have been empowered to aspire to leadership positions for years. Whelan said it is a town where women succeed as business owners and politicians alike. She said in Flagstaff, women are truly able to thrive.
Whelan said she cannot recall any specific instance where she faced a major challenge due to being a female candidate. However, she said women can often become numb to certain feminine struggles and view it as just another day.
Despite the immense empowerment of women within Flagstaff, Whelan said there are still aspects of gender discrimination that need to be addressed and changed.
“Do people think about walking out to their car after a late council meeting? Men certainly don’t. Do I? Absolutely," Whelan said. "You know, it’s dark and I think about those things. I don’t think people get that until you walk in those shoes.”
Lewis said she has not seen any campaign difficulties due to gender and said respect is a big factor. She said if the campaign members are respectful to each other in terms of what they bring to the table, then everything essentially falls into place.
“Everyone has a place,” Lewis said. “We all have these different personalities. I like to just look at it as working with each individual to make up Team Jamie to get the job done and that’s for her to be the next mayor of Flagstaff."
Modrell also explained how she has felt her quality of life improve because of the relationships she has fostered as a member of Whelan’s campaign team.
“It has been a privilege to work with a group of intelligent, driven women,” Modrell said.
Lewis said women have truly stepped up to the forefront of politics, not only within Flagstaff but across the country. In this sense, Whelan’s mayoral campaign is simply another stone on that path, contributing to the success of women within the Flagstaff community.