Mike Signer ’95 is a lawyer by profession, but he’s never shied away from pursuing a range of interests. He teaches college courses on political theory and writes books about history, including a 2015 biography of Princeton’s own James Madison, Class of 1771.
Late last year, Signer added one more pursuit: He was sworn in as mayor of Charlottesville, Va., a city of 44,000 people and home to the University of Virginia.
Running for office and teaching about politics are connected for Signer, who holds a Ph.D. in political theory. In classes, he tries to show students the ways in which the political system is broken, and how they can work to make it better. Public service, he said, is his chance to “walk the walk.”
Mayor is a part-time position in Charlottesville — though so far, Signer has devoted about 35 hours a week to the job. Like most Virginia municipalities, the city employs a full-time city manager, and the mayor and city council fulfill a role akin to that of a board of directors at a public company or a board of trustees at a university.
Signer’s campaign tagline was “One Charlottesville,” and in his first three months as mayor, he’s started working on key issues that include economic development; balancing growth with the historical character of the city; funding public schools and working with the city’s independent school board; and improving regional relations by partnering with colleagues in Albemarle county, which surrounds the city.
Signer said that his interests in public service and academia began in high school and blossomed at Princeton. In college, he started a local chapter of the Rainforest Conservancy, edited the Progressive Review, and served as a Mercer County field director for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. He also dove into political theory, learning from influential professors such as George Kateb and Paul Sigmund. “It was this really heady mix of ideas and practice,” he said.
Both prongs of his Princeton experience were in evidence when Signer spoke with PAW last week. In a half-hour conversation, he delved into Aristotle’s study of city-states, philosopher Hannah Arendt’s views on being “in the world,” and Francis Fukuyama’s writings on the virtues of trust. But he also spoke about the rewards of his day-to-day mayoral duties, including getting to know his colleagues over breakfast — a practice that he wishes were more prevalent up the road in Washington, D.C. “It leads to amazing results when you carve out the time and the trust to do that,” Signer said.