For a guy who claims he’s not a politician, Rich Buchanan sure made his mark in the political arena over the years in McLean County.
“People ask me what it’s like to be a politician and I say I’m not a politician,” Buchanan said. “I’m an unselfish, dedicated, public servant, and the longer I see and view politicians and their behavior, I don’t want to claim to be one.”
The 78-year-old Buchanan was involved in local politics in one form or another from 1971 when he was first elected to the Bloomington City Council until his retirement earlier this year after serving five-plus years on the McLean County Board. He served on the council for six years before being elected mayor of Bloomington in 1977–an election he won by garnering 62.5 percent of the vote. He served as mayor for eight years until a family illness caused him not to seek a third term in 1985.
“I wanted to run, but we had an illness in the family that was just pervasive, gut wrenching, so I didn’t run,” said Buchanan. “Anybody can be mayor, but not everybody can be a dad.”
Buchanan, who grew up in Clinton, served on the McLean County Board for a little over five years before complications from Alzheimer’s disease forced his resignation earlier this year.
“That was fun too,” added Buchanan. “Contrasted to being mayor, it was a cake-walk.”
Buchanan, who never considered himself a politician, said he was approached by a group of people to enter the political arena during a time when the Bloomington City Council consisted of five people and the mayor in an at-large form of government.
“The worse thing (we) ever did was go to a ward system,” he added. “I had one group approach me to run for City Council. Now why they ever thought that I could beat an 18-year incumbent and a 12-year incumbent, I don’t know. I went my boss’s boss, Roger Joslin at State Farm, who was the chairman of the Republican Party, and he told me I didn’t have a chance.
“(My wife) Judy was born with a campaign manager’s genes and I loved to campaign. I finished second and they were electing two, so I got elected," he said.
Buchanan prides himself on being a people person.
“I try to make it a genuine people person. I treat people then and now the way they need to be treated," he said. "There is no basic training for dealing with people. It’s called be reasonable. I’m conservative and I’m nonpartisan. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and very little of that should be driven by Republicans or Democrats and I don’t do that.”
Balancing Public and Private Life
He also said he learned a valuable lesson in his first year as mayor.
“It’s not a well-kept secret, but a mayor doesn’t have his or her own life. You do what your calendar says to do,” he continued. “I had been mayor less than a year and had young daughters. I came home one Saturday night after serving the city (until) midnight. I didn’t wake them up, but told them good night and I stood there in just total fear.
“I thought, what have I done to myself and my family? I had not seen those two girls awake in a week. I said something is wrong here. This is not what I signed up for.”
So he devised a technique to make sure family time was included in his schedule.
“The technique was (secretary) Mary Williams, who recently passed away. Without her I wasn’t much. What I did was when somebody would call and want me to cut a ribbon, go welcome a new pastor or whatever, I had Mary find out why they needed the mayor and what the topic was.
“I had her find out what time they needed me there. What time did they want me there, what topic did they want me to be responsive to and what time would I be free to go home and be with my family because it was my family night. Just like that, things changed. I would not have run for a second term if that had continued," he said.
Buchanan’s salary was $4,800 a year, and he said twice he voted against increases in pay because “I believe in the citizen soldier. We’re paying twice as much for mayor (now) as we should in my opinion,” he added.
Merging Bloomington and Normal?
Buchanan credits Bloomington business owner and McLean County Board member Nancy Froelich with helping forge one the biggest highlights of his mayoral stint.
“You can give her just about 99 percent of the credit for beginning the process of having these towns (Bloomington and Normal) learn how to work with each other. Save the other 1 percent for (Normal mayor) Richard Godfrey and Rich Buchanan,” he said. “She’s the one who got us together by talking to each other, but she had willing partners with Godfrey and Buchanan. She was the key. Without her, we would still be a divided entity.
“I remember a time when the two councils were gathered at Grady’s Pizza. You couldn’t make a formal motion, but I made an informal motion that the sun rise tomorrow. That’s all we could agree on. It was awful. It was almost a crime for the mayor of Bloomington to lead the charge to act as one city because we are one city. We’re a community.”
Buchanan also said his friendship with Godfrey helped matters.
“He and I were best friends. I couldn’t have stood it without Dick. We would travel together. I’d cut ribbons for him. He’d cut ribbons for me,” Buchanan continued. “We talked to each other. It’s amazing what problems you can avoid and what happens. Staff always did want to work together. I think we’re better off now.”
Buchanan also said he’s always been a strong proponent for a single metro government for the Twin Cities.
“You put the ballot in front of me now and I’ll vote to merge these two towns,” he added. “Give us 10 years and we’d save millions. There are a lot of metro cities. It’s just a matter of money. I believe we need to be one community.”
How does Buchanan think people would rate his performance as mayor?
“That’s kind of hard to judge,” he said. “I was never arrested and I didn’t steal any money. I made some mistakes along the way. You have to have some ego to be mayor, so I would grade my post-mayoral service very high. I give myself a B-plus. I didn’t do everything right, but I believe in a legitimate survey I wouldn’t get any lower than a B.
“I don’t have any regrets. I feel good about what I did. It was fun. It just turned me on.”
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Buchanan:
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