OCEAN CITY — Last November, Matt James made Ocean City history, becoming the youngest person ever elected to the City Council at the ripe old age of 21.
But after all the fanfare ended surrounding his historic win, James took his seat at City Hall and quietly got to work listening and learning. Like many councilmembers in their first year, James has been a man of few words, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been as involved as anyone else in the “voting seven.”
James celebrated his 23rd birthday this week and sat down with The Dispatch to look back on his first year in public office, the meticulous balancing act of his daily life, and his future plans for the city he has always called home.
Q: You stole all the headlines in the last election as the top vote getter, becoming the youngest ever to be elected, but you didn’t come to City Hall wielding a megaphone or a sledgehammer. You’ve taken a much more passive approach. Was that a deliberate strategy?
A: Yes and no. I believe the first year was good to learn about being on the City Council and learn about the town, but also, I was active. It wasn’t necessarily my only plan, but I definitely took the first year to learn and observe how things work.
Q: People always talk about politicians in the partisan color schemes of red and blue, but with you, some folks wondered aloud during the campaign that you might be too “green” to be elected. “Green,” of course, meaning too young or too inexperienced. Obviously, the voting public didn’t agree with that, but for you, as you look back on your first year in office, just how green were you?
A: I’ve definitely learned a lot since I was elected, and I’ve had a good time learning everything I’ve learned. But, I don’t know where else I would’ve started if it wasn’t in City Council, and I’ve enjoyed every day being on the City Council, so I think it was the right place to start.
Q: So what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the inner workings of town government now that you are on the inside?
A: Um, I don’t know. There weren’t any big surprises, I don’t think.
Q: Who have been the biggest mentors for you on the council?
A: Not one in particular, but I think the group as a whole. When we come together, I think we make a good team. I think any of my fellow councilmembers are always available. They’ve all said, ‘if you ever have any questions about anything, feel free to call,’ and I’ve done that from time to time. I’ve said, ‘hey, what’s your take on this?’, or I just go over a few things before a meeting. But, I think as a whole group, everybody has kind of embraced everybody. We aren’t necessarily the new guys anymore. We are just part of the team.
Q: During the election, it was apparent, especially during public debate forums that you were heavily coached by your family, specifically your father, Michael, who ran for the House of Delegates and the State Senate. How big of a factor was your dad in not only getting you ready to compete in a political campaign, but ultimately, winning one?
A: I think my whole family played a pretty important part from the day I decided to run all the way to the election. They had everyone out there. I think initially, working on my dad’s campaigns got me interested in politics. If I had questions about stuff, I would call him up and we would talk, but nothing in particular, really. It was just having dad there to talk to.
Q: So there was never any coaching? Like if a debate was coming up, he never said, ‘hey, these are some of the questions that might be asked and things you need to prepare for.’ Sort of like a young athlete who comes in and joins a professional sports team, they get a certain amount of coaching on the field and off the field about how to handle the media and how to handle questioning after games. There was none of that with you?
A: We would talk about what might come up and stuff like that, but there was no formal coaching. It was a lot of talking and kind of like what you said, what questions might be asked. I mean, [my dad] played a pretty important role. He plays a pretty important role in everything I do. He’s my dad.
Q: How do you see yourself stepping out and making your own way as a young professional and legislator?
A: I think this kind of goes back to what I based my campaign on, and that’s to be a spokesperson for the residents and property owners in Ocean City and a voice on the council to be fiscally conservative and to just be a voice for the people.
Q: We hear all the time about the need for Ocean City to appeal to a new generation of visitors: the people your age or even my age that will be bringing their families to Ocean City for the next 30 or 40 years. How well do you think the city is doing with that issue currently with its’ advertising strategies and the like? Are we appealing well enough?
A: I think we are doing a good job at appealing to both our current customers and our future customers. A lot of that is through our marketing, but also our special events. If you think a lot of the sports teams that come are younger children and families, so those kids will remember having a good time in Ocean City and hopefully they will get older and bring their families to Ocean City.
Q: We are seeing more and more seasoned veterans of the Ocean City workforce retiring, and it’s ushering in a new generation of town employees. That means more people your age are going to have to step up and fill those positions to enable the town to run as efficiently as it has for the past few decades. Recently, you were in opposition to a modest across the board pay hike for town employees. You seemed to favor the performance based raise system that Councilman Tony DeLuca spoke of publically. So the question is, how do you attract young people to join the town’s workforce if the council is hesitant to approve even a 2-percent raise?
A: I don’t think the council is opposed to a 2-percent raise. I think we were opposed to giving everybody a 2-percent raise. Not everybody deserves a 2-percent raise, some people deserve way more, and some people deserve no raise. I’ve worked in the hotel business for a long time and, I think I said this during my campaign, I’d rather have a few good employees and pay them a little more, than have a large number of just okay employees. So, I think the employees that go above and beyond should be rewarded.
Q: A lot of young men your age are not spending their evenings at City Hall. Many are out enjoying the plentiful nightlife options this town offers up and perhaps because of that, many kids your age think they aren’t taken seriously or given the respect they feel they deserve at the so called “adult table.” Have you felt that way at all during your time on the council? That you need to prove something or you need to earn the respect of your colleagues?
A: I thought that it could be an issue when I was first elected, but everyone was very welcoming. I didn’t really have any issue gaining any respect, I don’t think.
Q: It takes an awful lot to juggle being a public figure. How do you handle the pressure of being 23 and in the public spotlight?
A: I think by being a good person and a good man you don’t need to worry about what may come up. I think if you are happy with what you are doing and you know you are doing the best you can do and you are doing a good job, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Q: There was an interesting moment during the recent Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Awards banquet where you were honored as Young Professional of the Year. You received the award from State Senator Jim Mathias, who is the man your father ran against for State Delegate and in 2010 for State Senate. (James lost both races by close margins) You spent good chunks of your adolescence and teenage years canvassing neighborhoods with your dad trying to beat this guy and here he is giving you an award. That was either super awkward or one of the many surreal moments in an interesting year for you. Which was it?
A: It was an honor to be recognized. Senator Mathias is actually a pretty good family friend. I’ve known him for a long time, and I went to my first Rolling Stones concert with my dad and Senator Mathias back when he was mayor. It wasn’t awkward at all. I see him around town. I see him out. He’s just a friend.
Q: Come on, it had to be a bit ironic?
A: Yeah, it was kind of funny looking back on it, but at the time, I didn’t think much of it.
Q: Let’s talk politics, this presidential campaign is filled with newcomers and self-proclaimed Washington outsiders. So, who you got? Who will be stealing all the headlines on election day like you did last year?
A: I’m not 100 percent sure yet, but I think I would like to see Marco Rubio.
A: I don’t know. People are able to relate to him. He comes across as more of an average guy. He’s not making statements like Donald Trump. He’s had problems, and I think people can see that and relate to it. He comes from a working class family. His mom was a waitress and his dad was a bartender. I’d just like to see that.
Q: Are you in this for the long haul? Is this something you see yourself doing when you are 40 or 50? Would you like to be Mayor someday, or perhaps go on further and become a Delegate or Senator?
A: Right now, I’m just getting used to the City Council. I don’t really have any set goals for where I want to be in 10, 15, or 20 years, but I do enjoy being involved in politics. I think it’s certainly possible that I could be involved in politics for quite some time. But, like I said, I do enjoy it, so I don’t think I’m going to be going anywhere anytime soon.