Don Williamson, Flint’s colorful, controversial ex-mayor, dies at 85

Flint | Nick Manes

Former Flint Mayor Don Williamson died early Tuesday morning at the age of 85, according to a statement from Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton. Leyton said on behalf of Williamson’s family that the Democratic politician and businessman died of complications from a respiratory illness.

In a statement, Flint’s current mayor, Karen Weaver, described Williamson as “a hardworking public servant who served to the best of his ability and gave so much of his time and heart to this community.”

Another former mayor, Dayne Walling, said in a Facebook post that “it feels to [him] like a chapter is closing” for the embattled city. Walling lost his 2007 election to Williamson.

Williamson, a flamboyant entrepreneur whose endeavors spanned everything from owning a Minnesota racetrack to selling cars as a “consultant” to wife Patsy Lou Williamson’s ubiquitous Genesee County auto dealerships, was inaugurated as mayor in 2003 and served until 2009.

The millionaire replaced Mayor Woodrow Stanley, who had been recalled.

The city began its long financial slide during his tenure, which eventually led to it being placed under a state emergency manager. Williamson resigned rather than face a scheduled recall election in February 2009. He was succeeded by interim mayor Mike Brown and then Walling, who served until he was then defeated by Weaver in 2015.

The former mayor was best known for his colorful personal style, including a signature red-white-and-blue hard hat that he would put on while overseeing the city’s infrastructure and construction projects. Leyton described one such photo op in an interview with Flint’s local NBC and Fox affiliate.

Williamson’s tactics, including banning local newspapers from city offices, openly handing out cash to voters at his wife’s car dealership, and berating City Council members as “about as valuable as puke on a brand new carpet,” earned him a legion of critics as outspoken as the mayor himself. Williamson left his successor with a deficit of $14.3 million.

He was also deeply unpopular within the state’s Democratic Party, having maxed out his individual contributions to former Republican President George W. Bush and clashed frequently with various labor unions.

Williamson, for his part, was unfazed by the critics. He retired to nearby Davison Township, and in short order erected on his lawn an almost 10-foot tall bronze statue of himself.

The inscription at the bottom closes with a typically blustery, Williamson-ian epigram: “Success is the best revenge.”

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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