‘He ate three of his ties in a month’: California’s dog mayor celebrates a year in office

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A sandy-haired hedonist with a penchant for hamburgers and kissing babies – on paper, Mayor Max III might seem like your typical US congressman. In reality, he’s the only politician in the world who can close his mouth on command, according to his chief of staff (and owner), Phyllis Mueller.

She dangles a treat above his snout as he demonstrates. “Good boy, Max!” she says.

Since 2012, three generations of golden retrievers have held the mayoral seat in the unincorporated southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. Mayor Max III, who resembles a young, fluffy Tom Selleck, is the latest to be sworn into office.

Mueller claims that the spirits of the previous mayors, Mayor Max I and Mayor Max II, passed this mouth-closing trick down to Max III. “I just held the treat above his mouth and he knew exactly what to do, without any instruction,” she says.

It’s been a busy year in office for Mayor Max III, who just celebrated his first birthday with a party attended by roughly 1,000 guests. Over the past 12 months, Max has been making daily public appearances in the center of town, while also visiting hospitals, schools and nursing homes, attending to those in need of love. He has lain next to hospice residents during their final moments and has encouraged despairing people to carry on.

“It’s a fun way to do politics because we don’t do anything divisive, ever,” says Mueller.

The Maxes are far from the first non-human officeholders. In 1938, Kenneth Simmons, the mayor of Milton, Washington, nominated “Mr Boston Curtis” for Republican precinct committeeman. With no competition and no information provided to the voters beyond his name, Curtis was elected with a total of 51 votes – and then revealed to be a mule. Simmons, a Democrat, had effectively pranked the town, going on to say that voters “have no idea whom they support”. In recent years, however, animal politicians seem to have less of an agenda.

In 1997, the city of Anchorage, Alaska, elected a cat named Stubbs mayor, due to a dearth of non-furry candidates. The following year, Rabbit Hash, Kentucky – a census-designated place with a population of 315 – elected its first mayor, a mutt named Goofy Borneman-Calhoun. Elsewhere, beer-guzzling goats have held mayoral office across four generations in Lajitas, Texas.

Mueller, though, takes Max’s role extremely seriously. She believes he holds the solution for world peace.

“We try to emanate a loving energy towards everyone because positive energy leads towards life, whereas negative energy leads towards the opposite,” she says.

Since meeting in 1981, Mueller and her husband, Glenn Warren, have been passionate humanitarians. In 1979, Mueller founded Mueller International (now Mueller Worldwide), a full-service marketing agency whose clients include Porsche and Xerox. Mueller started the company with the intention of becoming a billionaire, and then donating her fortune to those in need.

“When we were high-rolling, we still always lived on about $100,000 a year. Even in years where we made several million, we always donated the rest away,” she says.

For a long time, Mueller believed her only valuable contribution to the world was financial. Then, in 1984, after purchasing her first golden retriever, she was sure she’d found the perfect vessel for her mission to achieve world peace. That realization came one afternoon when her young niece came into the room and abruptly squeezed the dog’s testicles. The retriever didn’t defend himself, nor did he even flinch. That’s when Mueller knew: “They’re extra special.”

Several golden retrievers later, Mueller, Warren and their elderly dog, Max, moved from Pasadena to Idyllwild in the summer of 2011. The timing was fateful: the town’s animal rescue center announced soon after their arrival that it would be holding Idyllwild’s first-ever election. Only non-humans were allowed to enter. “It shot me right in the heart like a religious experience,” says Mueller. A spiritualist who believes in past lives and a reality beyond the material flesh, Mueller says that Mayor Max was part of her “purpose line”. She campaigned hard for Max I, who won the election with an overwhelming majority.

Max I, Phyllis says, carried with him a “special divinity”. He looked his townspeople deep in the eyes, shook their hands, wagged his tail with pizzazz . “He’d funnel his love into you,” she says.

He served nine months in office, before dying of cancer in April 2013. His successor, Max II, who was sworn into office shortly after, suffered a similar fate last year. Mueller held him in her arms on the operating table.

“Come visit me at the house,” she whispered into Mayor Max II’s ear as he passed on.

When she arrived back at the house that night, Mueller claims that she saw Max II four times. The next morning, she opened her bedroom door and saw him lying at the top of the stairs.

Related: ‘He’d like to see peace on Earth’: how a dog became mayor of a California town

In the following days, she was hysterical with grief, unable to function. She briefly considered retiring the mayor for good. Then, after announcing his death on Facebook and Instagram, she began to understand the impact the mayor had had. She received thousands upon thousands of messages from fans in countries all over the world, often several paragraphs long. “They said he’d got them through Covid; some even said he’d saved their lives,” she says. Phyllis tried her best to respond to every one, but could only clear around 2,000 a day.

Five days into her mourning, she turned to her husband and asked: “So, do you want to get another one?”

Warren, as usual, agreed.

That same week, they began their quest to find Mayor Max III. They scoured the country for golden retriever litters, hoping to find a puppy that shared Max II’s handsomeness and enthusiastic nature. After extensive research, they eventually found the dog for the job and took the 300-mile (480km) trip to Utah that same Sunday to meet him. They revisited several weeks later, when the puppy’s eyes had opened, and believed they’d found their new mayor as he began chewing on Warren’s pants. They immediately brought him and sister Meadow, who serves as Max’s deputy, home to Idyllwild.

That home is the family’s only major asset. Mueller’s company now makes significantly less than it did in its early years. The cost of Mayor Max’s upkeep and their community outreach is significant. “If somebody wants to give me a donation, I’ll accept it,” says Mueller. “But Mayor Max, for me, has never been about making money. The very thought of it makes me cry.”

In their home at the top of a mountain, Mueller shows me around one of two tie closets for the mayor. “He has around 3,000 ties,” she tells me. “He ate three of them during his first month in office.”

Mueller is determined to keep the mayors in office for as long as she lives (she is, she tells me, only 72). “With the mayors, I want to remind people that there is good in the world. Every day, people do good things,” she says. “These dogs here, they are living angels, and they love you with all their heart.”