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Pensacola Mayors: Ashton Hayward

Dave Dunwoody
WUWF Public Media
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward (2010-2018)

In part four of a look back at Pensacola’s current and living former mayors, the first elected under the mayor-council form of government.

Besides being just 41 years old, Ashton Hayward became the first Pensacola mayor in generations who did not serve in the military; certainly, the first whose career included real estate, modeling, and who won the 2010 mayor’s race without serving on the city council — or in any other elected office, for that matter.

“I moved home back in, I think, ’03 and got involved in our community and had the good fortune to grow up in Pensacola,” Hayward said. “I just felt like Pensacola, being the Cradle of Naval Aviation, such an authentic and incredible city with a lot of history, we just really weren’t reaching our potential.”

He points to what he calls a lack of any collective movement to grow the city in “the right way.” In the aspect of both growing existing businesses and bringing in new ones, he says things were falling short.

“We have this great airport; if you live in the city limits or even [Escambia] County, you could be at the airport in 15 minutes to 10 minutes if you lived in the city,” said Hayward. “That’s a huge economic asset. How do we grow it? How do we get more routes? When you look at the industry to the east and to the west of us, we weren’t really focused on that. How were we working with Tallahassee and Washington?”

Despite not having served in elected office, Hayward describes himself as a “creature of politics,” having served on numerous appointed boards.

“I got involved in the charter change and campaigning for it; and after the citizens of Pensacola overwhelmingly supported that, I really started to think about [running] hard,” Hayward said. “I felt we needed somebody that was going to live it, breathe it, every single day, and it wasn’t just this, in theory, ‘I’m gonna be a politician.’ I really looked at it as a business.”

Hayward, the political rookie, finished second to incumbent Mike Wiggins in the August 2010 primary, then defeated Wiggins with 52 percent of the vote in the Nov. general election.

“The number one battle was going to be defeating Mike Wiggins, who had done a tremendous amount for our community, and was always someone who cared about our community,” said Hayward. “I knew rolling up my sleeves and taking risks was not going to be the problem for me, and knocking on doors was not going to be a problem for me. I had done that.”

Looking back, Hayward believes that being a political newcomer helped him to be settled into the seventh floor at City Hall. Pensacolians, as well as the rest of the country, were coming out of the great recession of 2008 and 2009 and were looking for accountability.

“People might have known my parents and my grandparents — that definitely helps, but there were a lot of people that I didn’t know personally; I think they were ready to take a risk to see if I really could do this,” Hayward said. “And I think it was more of a positive, they knew I had the energy. And I think they knew I might have not always had the answers, but I definitely had Pensacola’s interests at heart.”

Development of a portion of the Community Maritime Park — Blue Wahoos Stadium and the Amphitheater — are among the things that stand out from the Hayward years.

“Bringing ST Aerospace here — that’s going to be a huge win — UPS, getting the development of downtown going where it needs to be going,” he said. “Appointing the first African-American city attorney, a female, the first female fire chief, port director. We did some really terrific things.”

Add to that rebranding the city with a new slogan: "Pensacola: The Upside of Florida," which also featured stronger economic development efforts. But he concedes there could have been room for some “do-overs.”

“Hiring people — we needed to focus on having a vision of what ‘quality' was,” Hayward said. “That means a stormwater park; that means landscaping, that means changing street on Bayfront Parkway and Main Street. And when you get to the top, you have a new set of problems every day and you need the right people around you that can help you navigate that. You can’t know all the answers when you’re the CEO.”

One controversy during Hayward’s tenure involved the Pensacola Fire Department. He fired the chief and deputy chief after a report contained instances of a lack of judgment, antagonism for the city's human resources department, and poor leadership.

“In your heart and your mind, you get good advice and you have to execute, and I think leadership is about executing,” said Hayward. “When you get good data and good information and you trust those people, you’ve got to make a decision. And that’s where the saying comes from: ‘It’s lonely at the top sometimes.’ But, I wouldn’t have done anything different when it comes to the fire department.”

The “strong mayor” charter provides for a mayor to serve three, four-year terms. Ashton Hayward decided to leave office after two terms.

“There’s a saying that my grandmother from New Orleans always used to always tell me,” he said. “‘Ashton, never show up to the party too early and never leave too late.’ And I felt like we had accomplished a lot and I was ready to move on, and I probably started feeling that my last year and a half.”

After leaving office, Hayward joined the Andrews Institute and currently serves as president of the Andrews Research and Education Foundation. He sees challenges, and good things, in Pensacola’s future.

“Short-term, we need to continue with our growth; we have a lot of momentum and we cannot afford to slow down,” Hayward said. “Long-term, there’s close to a million and a half people west of Tallahassee. When I was fortunate to serve I would always say, ‘Pensacola is the driver.’ We drive everything: financially, legally, culturally, educationally, militarily, health care-wise. And we need to continue to be the hub in Northwest Florida.”

In our final report, we’ll visit with the man now sitting in the mayor’s chair, and get his take on what will be his lone term and his vision beyond.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.