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Zeidler looks back on career as Williamsburg's first female mayor | Community Spirit

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Zeidler looks back on career as Williamsburg's first female mayor

WILLIAMSBURG — With a father who spent 12 years of her childhood as mayor of Milwaukee, Jeanne Zeidler knew that living under public scrutiny can strain relationships.

When she moved from Wisconsin to Williamsburg in 1971 to study history at the College of William and Mary, Zeidler came with a subconscious credo never to enter politics. On Thursday, she will conclude two decades of public service that began when she was elected to the Williamsburg-James City County School Board in 1990.

"I always said I'd never do politics because I knew leading a public life can be difficult on families," Zeidler said, in an interview Tuesday. "I wanted to study history and I started working in museums. I was lucky."

She spent 30 years immersed in local history, including nine at a small museum in Hampton before settling in to a 21-year stint as director of the Hampton University Museum.

When her son entered public school, Zeidler joined the PTA, then got interested in becoming a school board member.

"Seeing all these things happening, I began to want to follow the decision-making and the money," Zeidler said. "That led to being elected to the School Board, which then led to City Council."

In 1994, Zeidler ascended to a council seat and began a precipitous rise. Two years later, she was elected vice-mayor. Another two years and, in 1998, she would become the city's first female mayor. And there she stayed, never wishing to move up to higher elected office.

"I think the mayor of Williamsburg is 'up'," she said. "Politics on the local level are the closest to the people and you really get to see results. I don't want to use the word 'brutal,' but on this level the people you govern are your neighbors and friends and that can be difficult, but it is also very rewarding."

But being the political face of a city as character conscious as Williamsburg is not always handshakes and pats on the back, Zeidler said.

She has led the city through some of the most controversial construction projects in its history, including a downtown parking garage, the current Williamsburg-James City County Courthouse and High Street, among others. In the run-up to 2007, she chaired a committee in charge of throwing the country's 400th birthday party.

"I've always thought that as long as you're open to listening to everyone, you're not going to go too wrong," Zeidler said.

Most recently, she guided the city through an ordinance change relating to rental occupancy for William and Mary students who live off campus. When that was done, she helped broker a deal to plant the seeds for an arts district along Richmond Road that has gained broad popularity.

Zeidler is quick to spread credit to her colleagues and to city staff.

"I feel satisfied at what we have accomplished," she said. "And by 'we' I mean myself, the other members of council and our outstanding city staff.

End of a mayoral era

After more than a decade, Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler will step down Thursday. Two newly elected council members will be sworn in and a new mayor and vice-mayor chosen.

Zeidler's public career at a glance:

1990 – appointed to the Williamsburg-James City County School Board

1994 – elected to first term on City Council

1996 to 1998 – serves as vice-mayor

1998 – becomes city's first female mayor

2010 – declines to run for re-election

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