Benny Zhang graduated from the College of William & Mary last year–then started as a city council member one month later! We talk about his unique first meeting and his pre-council meeting ritual.
Q: Your swearing-in meeting happened a little differently than those of most city council members. You’re packed into the old courthouse and the town crier yells, “god save the king!” What did you think of that?
A: Being a history buff, I think that was entirely cool. Being the first Asian-American elected to that office, I felt a little bit out of place given where my heritage came from.
Q: Being in Williamsburg for college for four years and walking through Colonial Williamsburg, did that make you feel out of place? Or was it just this moment where you thought, “this is too much pageantry for me?”
A: I think it was just that incident. You also have to see the picture: there is a golden mace [and] the reenactor talks about how, in certain southern states, that mace signifies that there’s a session for the government. But also they’d use it as a drinking cup! I was very tempted to drink from that mace with some beer.
Q: You got onto the city council one month after graduating from William & Mary. Were you concerned that becoming a city council member so soon would impact your chances of moving back to your parents’ basement?
A: [Laughs] Not necessarily. My family invested in a home in Williamsburg, which gave me the ability to campaign as, “I am a Williamsburg resident who pays local taxes, receives city services, who also HAPPENS to be a William & Mary student.” I guess technically in this house, I am living in my parents’ basement–
Q: Is that where you’re talking to me from?
A: Yeah, we’re talking from my home base!
Q: I love how millennial-centric this podcast will be!
Do you wish more students would show up at council meetings to rebut the complaints of residents?
A: Sure. Students comprise 43 percent of the city’s population. In public comment, it might seem totally one-sided. But not everyone that you wish was in the room are in the room.
Q: Was there any expectation that you would be the “students’ representative” on the council?
A: For me, definitely. I am that resident in Williamsburg and since I can empathize with other residents, I think they see me as more of a young professional.
Q: Have any of your friends who see you now in council meetings said, “Councilman Benny Zhang is different from the Benny Zhang we knew?”
A: Yeah, I think there is a degree of awe there. I will say, I have not changed my wallpaper on my iPhone–“never forget where you came from.” I’m just the same guy on that dais. I’m a little more serious because I have to. I got involved in city council [by] sitting in on meetings. I would go up the dais and say hi and bye to them. What I do now is I always arrive 30 minutes before a city council meeting and I go up to the audience before the meeting starts and try to shake everyone’s hand. That’s an interaction I wish I had when I was sitting in on council meetings.
Follow Council Member Benny Zhang on Twitter: @benming_zhang