Stephens, who was born in Ypsilanti and grew up in the Rochester area, moved to East Lansing when he began attending Michigan State University.
He studied political science and started an organization with a friend called Students for Sanders, in support of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, at the age of 19. The club reached about 900 members at its peak, Stephens said, while they worked to bring Sanders to MSU.
“We brought him to Michigan, where he visited Michigan State and U of M (University of Michigan)," Stephens said. "It started as a student club, and really, it ended up being just part of the campaign by the end of it.”
Sanders gave a speech at MSU’s Breslin Center on March 2, 2016. On the stage with him, in front of 13,000 people at 19 years old, was Stephens.
“I did his intro speech. … It got me a little bit of name recognition at that point in the area, at least to the point where people would call me the Bernie guy,” Stephens said.
But Stephens didn’t just want name recognition, he said. At that point, he said he wondered how he could pivot this into something for good that will be beneficial to a lot of people, not just his own ego.
Stephens decided that he had enough experience to run for local office.
When he was a 20-year-old junior in college, he announced his campaign for East Lansing City Council. He won as a senior and became the youngest city council member as well as one of the first students to have been elected to the city council.
Stephens said he saw his position as a way to represent young people, which he saw as an underrepresented group of people on city council, but also to enact real change.
“Young people should run for office, I think that we really should be taking hold of our future,” Stephens said. “But I think more importantly, local office is something that is going to affect your daily life so much more than other offices.”
Stephens gave the example of a neighbor reaching out to him with an issue that he could understand and address with relative ease.
“That's the dream, is to be able to just help people that quickly,” he said. “Certainly you don't get the prestige, and you definitely don't get the money, but it is the best way to help.”
After a few years, in November 2019, the council nominated Stephens to be Mayor Pro Tempore, which meant that he would become mayor following a vacancy of the position. For Stephens, this was an honor and a privilege, and he said he thinks his nomination of this role by a council that had years of experience between them meant that they had confidence in him as a leader.
Stephens had served as Mayor Pro Tem for under a year when Beier unexpectedly resigned. The City of East Lansing, still coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, had lost its mayor, city attorney and a council member in a single meeting, and it was Stephens and his council's responsibility to fill the positions.
Stephens was shocked. At one point during the meeting, he said that someone referred to him as mayor while asking if the council should take a break.
“I literally verbatim said, ‘Please don't call me that,’” he said.
The next day, he quit his second job to focus on the city full-time.
After filling the vacant positions, Stephens and his council turned their attention to the upcoming semester at MSU. He said it took a lot out of him, but also that he was only doing what he was supposed to be doing — serving the community.
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“It was service, that is what I was supposed to do, because I was the one in the seat,” Stephens said.
This service included being the target of a few thrown solo cups as he walked from party to party in the fall, explaining COVID-19 regulations and passing out masks.
Stephens said he would go knock on doors to talk to those that he represented, even though he never planned on running for re-election. He said that this was one of the aspects of the job that he enjoyed the most, being able to relate to the people he represented on a deeper level than email communication.
He said that of all the work he has done as mayor, he is most proud of the development of East Lansing’s downtown area.
“I'm a small part in a much larger group of people that made that happen, but as I walk downtown, and I see a family getting ice cream, along with college age students playing cornhole, and new restaurants and old restaurants packed to the brim with people, it makes me really happy,” he said.
Stephens said that he is also proud of the criminal justice reform the city council has accomplished in the past year. He referenced work on the city’s disorderly conduct code, including doing away with the distinction between exposing male or female breasts in cases of disorderly conduct.
Stephens also referenced the council’s creation of an independent police oversight commission in East Lansing.
“We're doing this one within a year's time frame,” he said. “That's pretty dang fast for government.”
Stephens said that the city council’s ability to accomplish these things within a year while also operating remotely speaks to the passion in the community.
“To push for change, you just need to have the people in the right positions to utilize that and then just run with it,” he said.
In another virtual city council meeting on July 13, almost exactly a year after the meeting that unexpectedly made him mayor, Stephens reflected on this moment and what it meant to him. He said that he was scared. He said that he was worried he wouldn’t be able to rise to the occasion in a city that he thought needed leadership. And he said that his family still sends him the photo of his shocked, wide-eyed face as a joke.
Minutes later, during the same speech, citing plans to further his education at Harvard Kennedy Schoolfor his master’s degree in public policy, Aaron Stephens resigned from his position of mayor.
“I can confidently state that I am beyond proud of what we have accomplished this past year,” Stephens said in the speech, which was later posted on his Facebook page.
Stephens submitted his formal resignation to the City Clerk's office the next day, and his resignation will be effective Aug. 11.
After his resignation, Stephens said he’s not exactly sure what his next steps will be, but his main goal is to help others.
“I don't think I'm going to run for office in the future,” Stephens said. “Things might change in a few decades, but at this point, I think I've had my fill for a little bit.”
Stephens said that he will always do something that he is passionate about, and he thinks that public policy is the best way to help the most people.
“Especially if you like the sound of your own voice, like I do,” he said. “My one natural ability that was given to me when I was a kid was the ability to talk, the ability to relate to people. … I think that I need to use that for something good.”
Although he is moving away, Stephens said that East Lansing is home to him and that he thinks he’ll return at some point. He described being the mayor of East Lansing during a pandemic as the most stressful job, but also the best job in the world.
He also said that he has no regrets.
“The God-honest truth is no, I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently,” he said.
This article is part of our 2021 Summer Mail Home Issue. View the full digital issue here.
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