Story By Scott E. Raymond • Photos By Lindsey Janies
Elected in March and sworn in in May of 2018, Mike Danahay is approaching the end of his first year in office as mayor of the city of Sulphur, La.
Asked by this writer if this is the most challenging job he’s ever had, Danahay replies, “Yes, it is; it’s challenging, but it’s fulfilling in many ways.”
Perhaps this statement best sums up Danahay’s current reflection as the relatively new mayor of this proud city.
Dressed in business attire, Danahay greets me in the City Hall lobby with a warm welcome, but I can immediately tell that he is a bit preoccupied with something else. When we get to a conference room for the interview he tells me about a main water line problem they are dealing with. He is obviously concerned but appears to be measuring that emotion with the knowledge that he knows it will get fixed.
Being mayor and dealing with problems, however big or small, isn’t Danahay’s “first rodeo,” as the saying goes. In fact, Danahay’s extensive professional background is very complementary to his position as mayor.
Cutting Teeth in Politics
The son of a stay-at-home mom and electrician dad, Danahay, 61, was born and raised in Sulphur. He says that although he never had any aspirations while growing up to be in the political world, he stayed informed because his dad, now 92, always enjoyed keeping up with politics.
“Dad always had a liking for the political world,” says Danahay. “It was kind of his hobby. Being raised in that, I was always astute to what was going on in politics, from the local all the way to the federal level. When I got older, I had a keen interest in it.”
Danahay got his degree in business from McNeese State University and went on to work in the office products industry for many years. Danahay and his wife, Daphne, were raising their young children, including taking them to sports activities, when the political world began working its way into his life.
After signing his daughter up for T-ball, Danahay was asked by the recreational director if he would be a T-ball coach. That experience led to another phone call, this time from a police juror asking if he would serve on the Sulphur Parks and Recreation Board of Commissioners, which he agreed to do.
“It was a good starting point,” says Danahay, “because I always tell people that when you start to deal with people’s children they get very passionate about education and recreational things. It taught me a lot. It taught me that you’ve got to be patient and you have to listen to the needs, concerns that other people have and try to find a solution to that. It was a good proving ground for me.”
Moving Forward In Politics
Danahay helped with a police juror’s re-election campaign. “So I had a little campaign experience under my belt,” he says.
Later, a police juror position became open, and Danahay decided to run.
“My wife and I talked about it, and our children were a little bit older at this time. The timing was right, and so we decided to do it. (This was in) 1999.
“It was a good campaign. It was hard, and you learn a lot about actually going out there and physically and mentally working very hard to get to that position. We were fortunate and successful in doing so.
“In 2000, I came on the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury … working with 14 other members and working with the public. At that level, you are delivering services that are really close to the people and listening to their concerns, trying to address those concerns, and learning that there are limitations in what government can do and having to convey that. Sometimes it’s not good news, but you learn how to cope with those situations. It was a great experience.
“In 2006, I was elected president of the police jury, which was right after (Hurricane) Rita. We were in the recovery phase of Rita, and it was a whole new challenge for me in doing that. We worked through (Hurricane Rita) and I got to work with some great people. I got to interact with a lot of (people representing different governmental agencies) and see what takes place at those levels where decisions are made and big decisions, at that. That was a very educational experience as well.”
In 2008, Danahay ran for and was elected as state representative, District 33, in the Louisiana House of Representatives. He ran unopposed and served until 2018.
“(It was) a whole new ball game being at the legislature,” says Danahay. “I always tell people that we handle everything from apples to zebras. So, it was a multitude of things you were doing. It wasn’t so much the ground-level services that you work at the local level, but it was very interesting because you really got to see some things that took place from a state level that you never would have otherwise.”
Danahay discusses some of the issues during his time in the legislature:
“The Great Recession came (in 2009) and that put a lot of pressure on the state. Financially, we went into this financial mode trying to make a budget work every year. I was on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles the Capital Outlay Bill. The pressure that we saw on Capital Outlay — Capital Outlay was almost non-existent at that time because of the lack of funds. (I was) a part of that budget process because a lot of it was more the financial end of it. (We) had to run a state and all the services they provide at the state level.
“In the legislature, I was told this when I got there, ‘You will find your niche, and what interests you and what you are good at.’ What you are better at, should I say. When I got there, one of the things we had to do immediately was redistricting. (The) redistricting process; how interesting that is, and it did become an interest to me.
“We worked through that process and I ended up having to do the BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) redistricting plan, so I had hands on in that experience.
“As we got down into my last term — I had been on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee for those previous eight years — the speaker of the house appointed me (chair) of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which dealt with the state ethics code and the state elections code, as well as other things we deal with publicly. That was a really good experience for me because it gave me a leadership role and it acclimated me to the things that they dealt with on a day-to-day basis as far as how government works. I really enjoyed that.
“I did leave the legislature a year early to run for mayor and was fortunate enough to be elected and come back into the local level.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Well, do you miss the legislature?’ And I’d say, ‘I didn’t miss what was happening to the legislature.’ I saw it come from a nonpartisan type atmosphere to strictly partisan and that was disheartening to me.
“I think as elected officials we should work together to try and better (things) for the people of our state and our communities. Public service should be number one and not politics.”
Mayor Of Sulphur
Having worked full-time in the office products industry for over 35 years prior to becoming mayor (the police jury and state representative jobs were elected, part-time positions), Danahay says that one of the things he has come to learn is that “you do something in the private sector in your career and you get pretty accustomed to it through the years, and it doesn’t deviate too much. Here, it’s a challenge in a multitude of ways in many facets. You are juggling many things at one time and so your abilities get tested.”
Danahay says he likes the fact that as mayor he sees city services delivered on a daily basis — fire, police, roads, drainage, etc. — whereas with the state legislature “it could take two to three years to accomplish what you set out to do. That’s what your focus is every day, and that should be the mission of a municipality, to provide those services the best that you possibly can. Some days it runs very smooth, and some days it gets kind of rough.”
The mayor says he is happy with what has been accomplished to date. He says they have a backlog of deferred maintenance projects that they are working on right now. He expresses frustration over the stretch of time it takes to “get it out the door quick enough,” but says “that’s just the nature of government.
“Government is not designed to move quickly, nor should it. I understand that, but it is kind of frustrating that there are multiple steps that you have to take to get there. It may take you a year to get a project out the door,” he says.
Danahay is quick to brag about the city of Sulphur and its people.
“I think that the city of Sulphur is the hidden jewel,” he says. “I think the people here make it a wonderful place to live. We’ve got a lot of things here that you wouldn’t normally see in a city of our size in other places. I think of that, and you look at the recreation and parks system — that’s one of them. The people here make it very enjoyable. They are very warm and welcoming people. Our schools are very good schools. So we are proud of all our educational facilities here. I just think it’s a great place to raise a family.”
In our conversation, I tell the mayor that I’ve heard time and again that someone moved away from Sulphur, then moved back at the first available opportunity.
“I’m always encouraging them to do so every chance I get!” he humorously replies.
Danahay says his management style is one of empowerment with his department heads. He says he gives them the tools to do their job and then holds them accountable. “And they have responded magnificently,” he says. “We are blessed to have the talented people we have here: my department heads, my supervisors, right on down to the guy that’s doing the job that most people wouldn’t do,” he says.
“I think a good public servant is a good listener,” Danahay says. “When dealing with the public, people come to you with concerns and those concerns are important to them or they wouldn’t be coming to you. Becoming a good listener is part of it … and if it’s solvable, we solve it, we work it.”
The Boom In Sulphur
Our conversation segues to the historic boom currently underway in Southwest Louisiana, which has impacted the city of Sulphur in a number of ways.
Danahay says that the positive part of the boom is that prospective new businesses look at certain drivers that bring them to a location, including population, the geographical area, what they can draw in customers from that geographical area, and the traffic count.
“Those are the drivers because those type of businesses that come here, especially from the franchise world, have to be sustainable and have to have so much sales within a certain time period to be profitable, and they’re going to come if it’s available. So if we have a housing build-out, which we are experiencing right now, that will add to that formula for them to come here. It is our job from the city standpoint, if they show interest, to give them all the necessary information and all the pluses of why it would be right to be here in the city of Sulphur.
“The boom is a double-edged sword. You want to see it. It creates a greater tax base (and) you do have more revenue to play with, but it also stretches your services. Now you are looking at expansion. We are looking at that, as well — to expand our boundaries. We’ve actually done some annexation, which puts more pressure on your services. You have traffic issues, you have law enforcement issues, you have fire services that you have to provide. So across the board it puts pressure on your services. And so, once again, you may get more funding, but you have to plow that back into those services immediately.”
The mayor says that traffic is the number one issue in the city and that businesses have implemented some things to help.
“The (business sector) has taken steps to do that. They staggered some of their start times for their employees in some places. They have made some efforts. It’s just the amount of people that we have working here right now exacerbates the problem.”
I ask Danahay if there is a way to plan now for when the boom is over.
“It’s (currently) a seller’s market; (after the boom is over) it’s going to be a buyer’s market,” says Danahay. “I remember talking to (then Lake Charles mayor) Randy Roach about growth — this has been several years back — and he kept talking about sustainable growth and that kind of hit home because that’s what we want to see.
“We’ve been fortunate so far because the timelines of those projects have gotten strung out, so we’re still in that boom phase, in the growth phase. He’s right, because there will come a time when the boom will be over and things will start ratcheting down. You’re going to see some things, such as in the housing market; the traffic will decrease; the retail market will be impacted. And from a governmental standpoint, we are going to be impacted, as well, because we’re going to lose some of that tax base. And I’ve cautioned my financial people here about that slowdown. I think we are going to see a dip here very soon, because some of the petrochemical projects are starting to start-up and phase down, and we’re going to start losing some of the temporary workers. You’re going to see the market change a little bit.
“From a governmental standpoint, we have to be cautious of that because there is a finite amount of money in government for what we do. And so, yes, we’ve had some pressures too, internally, because, for instance, wages are very high now because of the construction phase of it; they pay high wages, which puts pressure on our guys, our people, to have to look at competing in that (private sector) market, because we do compete against it somewhat. It puts pressure on us to up our wages, as well. But when that construction phase goes away, we still have this payroll amount that you can’t alter unless you start eliminating people. We don’t want to do that; we’ve got some very good people here, and they’re very talented and they’re very good at what they do. We don’t want to go down that route. But we also have to be cautious in that we can only peak to a point. That’s going to be the challenge that we will be facing, as well. Also, the services are still having to be expanded somewhat and that tax base is not there anymore. And so we have to be very cautious in how we do that.
“We have to kind of look ahead and say, ‘OK, five years from now it’s going to be here, and so between here and there what are our plans?’
“That’s why we really want to put those resources, those funds we are acquiring now, back into that infrastructure; first of all, because we have a backlog of deferred maintenance. If you build your infrastructure and it’s sound, you’re also going to get an investment. People are going to come in here and (say), ‘I need this, this, this and this,’ and (we’re going to say), ‘We have it.’ So if you put it back into those services, you can grow. It’s that sustainable growth we talked about. You can grow it from there, and that’s the whole idea behind that.”
Sulphur In Three Years
As far as quality of life, Mayor Danahay says that by the end of his first term, in three years, he would like to see growth having been realized in some of Sulphur’s yearly special events activities.
“One of those in particular,” says Danahay, is ‘Christmas Under the Oaks.’ It was and still is a vender-type festival experience. It’s gone beyond that. It’s a lot of entertainment and so forth. So we want to build upon that.
“The quality of life issues are just as important and we try to keep those family oriented as much as possible, and we do. Most of the festivals and activities that take place (in Sulphur) are family oriented. And we certainly want to have those, as well, for people who are looking to locate or are relocating from somewhere else. They look at those things, they look at the schools, they look at the festivals, the activities that take place in a community. Retail is part of that, the restaurant experience is part of that. We want to grow that (and) we have some opportunities to grow that. We are seeing corridor growth areas that we want to focus on. We’ve got some (opportunities) that are going to come online in the near future, and we want to focus on those just as well to bring that experience to all families.”
I ask Mayor Danahay to talk about the things in his life that are most important to him, both personally and professionally. He replies with the following:
“Personally, of course, it’s my family, always: my wife and our two daughters and our grandchildren — extremely important to me. And I convey that to the people here (at the city), that they have families and they’ve got to take care of their families first. This job is important, but it’s not so important that it takes away from your family, so always take care of your family.
“From a professional point, I’ve just been blessed being able to serve as a police juror, as a state representative and now mayor. It’s a blessing, it really is. I hope that I’ve done a fair to good job with what I’ve done. I look back at what I’ve accomplished and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and, hopefully, that’s made some people’s lives better.
“I’d just like to say, you hear me talk about the employees here in the city. They are really great people, they do a wonderful job and they are dedicated to what they do and I’m just so proud of them.”