The friendly young man from the mountains of western North Carolina didn’t set out to make history or change the world.
All he wanted to do was put his college education to work making his little corner of the world a better place.
And now Preston Blakely ’17 is one of America’s youngest mayors.
Blakely is 27 years old and in his first term as the mayor of Fletcher, a town of 7,987 residents at a wide spot on the road between Asheville and Hendersonville.
He’s just the second Black mayor in Fletcher’s history, and he’s the grandson of civil rights activist Oralene Simmons.
He’s proud of all that. But that’s not why he ran his first political campaign for a seat on the Fletcher town council as a 24-year-old leading up to the 2019 election.
Blakely did it because he loves his hometown.
“I grew up here. I’ve lived in Fletcher for as long as I can remember,” Blakely says. “If you have a passion for helping other people, and having a direct impact on your neighbors’ lives, then you have what it takes to make that jump if you want to. If you’re not going to do it, somebody else will. And they might not do things the way you would.”
Blakely didn’t dream about being the mayor as a kid growing up in Fletcher. The truth is, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he graduated high school in 2013.
Or where he wanted to go to college.
“At first, I thought I wanted to go to Western Carolina. I was accepted there, and I was pretty excited,” Blakely says. “But about a week later, UNCG sent me an acceptance letter. I thought, ‘Well, let’s not make a hasty decision.’ I do love the mountains – it’s why I’m back here – but I went to tour UNCG. And it was absolutely amazing. What captivated me about it was the diversity.”
The campus is far more diverse than Blakely’s hometown. Data from the 2020 census shows more than 89.7 percent of Fletcher’s people identify as white.
“When I got down to Greensboro from my mountains, it was an incredible experience,” Blakely says. “I didn’t even have a major my first year of college. I was in the First Year Experience – FYE is a great thing – and I lived on the second floor of Cone (Residence Hall). I took classes to explore, to see what I might like.”
By the time he was a second-semester sophomore, Blakely was a double major in Political Science and African-American & African Diaspora Studies.
“I enjoy learning about Black people and diaspora across this world and, especially, across this nation,” Blakely says. “I was learning about people who look like me, and that was incredibly cool. I enjoy politics a whole lot, and it really is a great way to give back to your community.”
Political Science classes taught by Dr. David Holian lit a fire within Blakely.
“He taught the U.S. Presidency and the U.S. Congress courses, and I really enjoyed both of those,” Blakely says. “He was super tough. But he was one of those teachers who, although he’s tough, you can tell he’s really passionate about the material. That passion really captivated me. I was hooked.”
Blakely landed internships with the N.C. General Assembly, in the N.C. 12th Congressional Office of Rep. Alma Adams, and with the City of Hendersonville.
He went home and earned a Master of Public Affairs degree at Western Carolina while working as a graduate assistant in Cullowhee’s Public Policy Institute.
The goal was to find a role in the administrative side of government, maybe become a city or county manager, a professional paid to implement the policies of elected decision-makers.
Maybe Blakely would’ve been happy in such a role. It’s a career path that would’ve kept a roof over his head and allowed him to pay bills with money left over.
But something gnawed at him.
“When I was on that administrative side of government, I saw the elected decision-makers setting policy,” Blakely says. “I didn’t necessarily always agree with it, even as an intern. It began to resonate with me that someday I might be the one implementing policies I don’t agree with. That’s where I got the idea, ‘Maybe I’ll run for office one day.’”
That day came sooner than Blakely ever expected. People he trusts convinced him to run for Fletcher’s town council in 2019. He was 24 years old when the campaign began.
“Yes, I was young,” Blakely says. “But my education and work experience was relevant. So I ran my first campaign, and I won with like 70 percent of the vote. That’s crazy.”
It was actually 71.7 percent of the vote, and he defeated an incumbent in a town where African-Americans make up 5.3 percent of the residents.
Two years later, incumbent mayor Rod Whiteside – the town’s first Black mayor – decided not to seek reelection and encouraged Blakely to run.
Blakely ran and won, earning 55.2 percent of the vote to defeat Baptist pastor Phillip Luther (44.7 percent) in the 2021 election.
How did he do it? This is a staunchly conservative Republican area of North Carolina, and Blakely is a progressive Democrat.
“I took a page out of Rod Whiteside’s playbook,” Blakely says. “He knocked on doors every single day except for Sundays. I did that same thing in both my campaigns. I also did social media, and meet-and-greets, and talked about issues on a street-level basis. It was grassroots campaigning.”
It worked, in part because the Fletcher races are non-partisan. There is no “D” or “R” next to the candidate’s name on the ballot.
And Blakely talked to people about things that matter to them at the local level.
“When you really get out and talk to people, a lot of times you’ll find when you get beyond partisan politics, we have a lot in common,” Blakely says. “I identify as a progressive, and that’s definitely not how my county identifies. But I got past that by talking to people at ground level. What I found out as a council member and now as a mayor, we do agree on most of the issues at the local level. When you’re talking about parks and roads and public works and property tax rates, most people want the same thing.”
Blakely pauses a moment and laughs.
“Getting the garbage picked up and recycling matters to everybody, you know?” Blakely says. “Things that are universally understood don’t have a partisan nature to them.”
And now Preston Blakely is the face of Fletcher, a young man in charge of a small town with an $8 million budget to manage. The voters of his hometown put their faith in him.
“I’ve had a short life so far. I know that,” Blakely says. “But I was able to explain my experience and education, and that resonated with people. At this point, I’m really content where I am. I like politics at the local level, because with the decisions we make, you can really see how it makes a difference in folks’ lives. It’s tangible. State and federal governments do things that are more glamorous. But you don’t always see the impact. The decisions I’m making might help my next-door neighbor. And I enjoy that.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications