‘Struck by lightning twice’: Upchurch returns to mayor’s seat 27 years later

Mayor Tracy Upchurch in his office at Flagler College. Photo: Katie Garwood

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

When Tracy Upchurch left his post as St. Augustine mayor in 1992, he had no intention of returning. He had his sights set on the Florida House of Representatives, which he was elected to that same year.

Holding public office was something he’d always dreamt of doing – and he loved doing it – but his decision to step away from politics after his term ended in the state house in 1996 came with no regrets.

“I was very happy walking away from it,” Upchurch said. “I never envisioned being in politics again.”

Video by Katherine Hamilton

Last week – 27 years after his mayoral term ended – that vision changed when Upchurch was tapped by the city commission to fill in for former Mayor Nancy Shaver, who after a stroke and second breast cancer diagnosis, resigned her seat to focus on her health.

Upchurch said he was “humbled” to be considered for the position, and after consulting with his family, accepted the offer and was sworn in several days later.

“I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to kind of go back and do it again,” Upchurch said. “It’s not often in life you get a do over, and I feel like I’ve been struck by lightning twice.”

Given 10 days to fill Shaver’s vacancy before the governor appointed someone, commissioners began making lists to consider who could best fill the spot. Someone with prior experience as mayor would be ideal, said Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline. It was just a matter of finding a former mayor who was willing and available.

Sikes-Kline said dozens of people called to volunteer to fill the mayor’s seat, and some even had friends they wanted to refer for the position. But Sikes-Kline learned Upchurch was available, and she felt he had the skills to do the job.

Sikes-Kline has known him for years, and worked with him when he served in the state house. She always appreciated his “kind, considerate, thoughtful” nature, and his graciousness as a politician. The commission agreed unanimously and selected Upchurch to be mayor.

“I think Tracy will be a good even hand that will get us through what could have been a destabilizing period,” said Sikes-Kline, who’s served on city commission for 10 years. “I think that he’s got all of what it takes to stabilize and move forward … I think he’ll move very quickly to get up to speed on where we are and carry through until 2020.”

Upchurch said he’s had some catching up to do, and before his first official meeting of his second term, there were some “pre-game jitters” to work through. But there are some things he thinks will be important to discuss during his time as mayor.

The revitalization of the King Street entry corridor is something he’s stepped into, and the city is already holding public hearings on the subject. That project is an exciting and positive thing for the city, and will help resolve issues of mobility, which are caused by expansive growth in the area. That’s something many residents are concerned about, he said.

“We don’t want to kill the golden goose,” Upchurch said. “Saint Augustine’s a wonderful place and we just don’t want to love it to death.”

Upchurch listens to public comment in his first city commission meeting of his second term as mayor on March 11. Photo: Katherine Hamilton

But while those are issues Upchurch feels are important, there’s only so much he can do as mayor. According to the city charter, the mayor is really just another commissioner. They’re elected in the same way and hold the same voting power as the other four commissioners do. The only difference is that the mayor’s term is two years, they run city commission meetings and they often handle what Upchurch calls “Queen of England duties” – more ceremonial tasks such as ribbon cuttings.

He said many residents have the impression that the mayor is more of a leader in the city than they really are, but that’s in part because of how some mayors in the past, namely Shaver and Joe Boles, took on more of an “activist” role in the position. While Upchurch has no problem with that style of governance, he plans to bring something different to the commission table.

“I’ve never – when I’ve been in politics in the past – been a particularly agenda driven politician,” he said. “I was much more of a process driven politician, a little bit more boring, but more concerned about a good government, that we’re doing things the right way, that people have an opportunity to be heard, that people have an opportunity to participate, that we conduct the city’s business in a civil manner.”

Upchurch said he won’t quit his job as a professor and director of the pre-law program at Flagler College. If he did, he said “there would be nothing for me to do.”

After all, his involvement with the college is part of his continuous involvement with the St. Augustine community, where he’s lived all his life. He passes his elementary school on his way to campus every day, and he attends church across the street from Flagler’s Proctor Library at Memorial Presbyterian Church.

He, his father, and his children were all born at Flagler Hospital, as well as a few of his seven grandchildren. And both his father and grandfather served as St. Augustine mayor.

With his selection to the mayor’s seat, Upchurch again will have the opportunity to serve the city that’s played such a prominent role in his and his family’s lives.

“Really my entire life has been spent within about two miles of where we are right here,” he said from his office at Flagler College. “I feel very rooted, and a deep connectedness to this place.”

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