AUBURN — He drew attention as a 12-year-old in the Lewiston City Council chambers watching the council at work, as a 27-year-old elected to the Auburn City Council and as a 33-year-old elected mayor, the youngest Auburn had seen.

John Cleveland said he learned early, in politics, age doesn’t have to matter.

His maternal grandparents, originally from outside Quebec, had been drawn to the area by factory work. His father came up from Boston for a job in the shoe industry. Cleveland grew up in Lewiston, moved to Auburn before high school and graduated from Edward Little, Class of 1968.

He found himself surrounded by hardworking people and “it was clear to me that public policy affected their opportunities,” Cleveland said. “I saw a role for government being a positive influence in society.”

In 1977, he won a seat on the Auburn City Council, representing New Auburn in Ward 5, an area with deep French Canadian and mill worker roots. He fell about 30 votes short in his first mayoral bid in 1981 and won two years later, besting a former state senator and a city councilor endorsed by the outgoing mayor.

“I won two-thirds of the vote,” Cleveland said. “It felt a lot better than losing.”

Cleveland said he didn’t want to to treat the role as a figurehead position. He remembers putting in 40 hour weeks on the mayor’s $2,000 a year salary and working jobs around that.

“‘What do we do next, how do we resolve this problem?’ Both the parties are often looking right at you, ‘What do we do?'” Cleveland said. “You set the tone, you help set the vision, help set the agenda. Act as public spokesperson. You can help build confidence.

“People who say that there is no power simply don’t see it,” he said.

Cleveland followed four years as mayor with eight years as a state senator and another 10 as the register of probate for Androscoggin County. He hasn’t held public office since 2008 and doesn’t rule out doing it again.

He’s also run his own consulting firm, Community Dynamics Corp., working with the public and private sectors in planning and development, since 1989.

Despite decades of long hours — “A typical week was 80-90 hours. I’ve pulled back a little now. It’s 70” — Cleveland said he and wife, Debora, have made time to cheer on their two sons, both successful runners. He’s also sat on a number of boards.

Asked for advice for Jonathan LaBonte, Auburn’s new, now-youngest mayor, Cleveland offered:

“Set two or three clearly defined goals and focus on those two or three. (Anything more,) you stretch yourself too thin, even if you work more than 80 hours a week.”

Know someone everyone knows? We’re always looking for ideas. Contact staff writer Kathryn Skelton at 689-2844 or [email protected]

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