Bill Saffo has been the one constant in the City of Wilmington’s elected leadership since 2003. That’s when the real estate businessman, and son of Greek immigrants, was first elected to city council, joining the board along with Jim Quinn, Lethia Hankins and new mayor Spence Broadhurst. Council members have come and gone since then, but only Saffo remains.
“I just wanted to be part of a group of people that got things done,” Saffo says about running for a seat on council in the 2003 municipal election. “I felt that there were so many things we were fighting about, and it seemed like things weren’t getting done. I just felt that I could do better than that. I could be part of that process.”
Saffo will tell you that there is one project that sparked his interest in becoming a city council candidate. It concerns Pharmaceutical Product Development, a research contract company founded by Fred Eshelman.
“There was a vote around 1996 about bringing PPD, building them a new headquarters there where the (Water Street) parking deck was,” Saffo remembers. “That was unfortunately voted down. PPD left downtown, and downtown really suffered for about ten years there. That kind of left a sour taste in my mouth. I felt I could be useful at least. Thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and see what happens.”
Saffo says even when he joined city council in 2003, he had not set his eyes on the mayor’s seat. But when Broadhurst’s career took him out of Wilmington in 2006, fellow council members voted Saffo as the one to take over the mayoral responsibilities. It didn’t take long for the weight of the office to sink in. He talks about that at 6:45 of the podcast.
“I think the first awakening was when we started having the sewer spills,” Saffo remembers. “We had a significant sewer issue here in the community, and it started falling apart. The outrage from the community, I was the spokesperson for the city of Wilmington. I was the leader of the group, and people wanted action. I was communicating with the citizens. All of that coming on top of me was a pretty significant moment where I realized, this is different.”
Saffo defeated Harper Peterson to keep the job in 2007. He got 60 percent of the vote to win reelection against Paul Knight in 2009. Two years later, Saffo received 70 percent of the votes to easily defeat Justin LaNasa. He ran unopposed in both 2013 and 2015, and collected 84 percent of the vote against a relative unknown Todd Zola in 2017.
“It gives me chill bumps just to even think that I’ve been the longest serving mayor of a city that is 279 years of age,” Saffo says. “I had no idea that I was the longest serving mayor. I thought there had been mayors that served longer than me. I didn’t set out for this to be my goal. It just so happened that there were a lot of projects along the way that I wanted to see get done.”
Even though Saffo did not enter the political arena until his 40s, he had an interest in it as a young child. He talks in the podcast about passing out flyers for Jesse Helms in the 1972 senatorial race against Nick Galifianakis. Saffo graduated from UNC Wilmington with a degree in political science and thought about a career in managing political campaigns. But instead he chose to enter the family’s successful real estate business that his father started. Both of Saffo’s parents emigrated to the United States from Greece, his mother did not speak a word of English when she arrived in 1947.
“The first thing she can remember is checking into the Wilmington hotel on Front Street,” Saffo says about his mother. “She tells the story that when I was born in 1960, the first place they drove me down was Front street. Then she stops and thinks to herself ‘I’m a girl that emigrated to this country in 1947, and my son is the mayor of one of the most popular cities in the country’, She is very proud of that. They are both very proud of it.”
While you know him as Bill Saffo, that is not the mayor’s given first name. His full name is Vasilios Avgerinos Saffo. He talks about the reason he switched to Bill, and his memories of growing up in a Wilmington that is much different than the one he leads in 2018, in an interview that I think you will enjoy.
You can listen to the entire interview with Mayor Bill Saffo on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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