Josh Maxwell, Downingtown Mayor and County Commissioner Candidate
Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell, who is running for a seat on the Chester County Board of Commissioners, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up surrounded by family and friends in Downingtown, being a Boy Scout and member of the high school’s marching band, and his decision to stay local for college and attend West Chester University.
Maxwell also discussed his entry into politics, the people who helped him along the way, what he’s most proud of during his time as Mayor, and his decision to run for County Commissioner, as well as the issues he’d like to address if he wins.
Where were you born, where did you grow up, Josh?
I was born the oldest of four children in Chester County Hospital in West Chester. We moved to Downingtown when I was three years old, and I grew up on Jefferson Avenue there. My parents bought our house because it was in walking distance from the elementary school, the church, and the grocery store.
What did your parents do?
My dad worked at UNISYS in computers and later Cadence. My mother was attending community college when I was a kid before working full time at Chester County Hospital and the Turks Head Surgery Center.
What memories do you have of growing up in Downingtown?
One of the values of growing up in a close-knit town like Downingtown is that as a kid, I had instant friends. I could walk out my door and always have people to play with. I spent a lot of time biking and rollerblading in town and played a lot of football.
My mother made sure we went to church every Sunday, and I was a member of the youth group at my church. I went on mission trips, and I was part of the bell choir.
I played the trombone in the Downingtown High School marching band, played cello in the orchestra and was a Boy Scout for a few years. My mom wanted me to have a little background in everything. She kept me busy doing the right things. I was always surrounded by family and friends because my parents were always working. Upon reflection, you realize how valuable that is to have when growing up.
What was your first job?
I started working at the Regal Cinemas in Downingtown when I turned sixteen. Since my parents were working and had four kids to look after, I had to find a job that I could bike to. We got free popcorn and movie tickets. I absolutely loved it. It was one of the best jobs I ever had!
What lessons did you take from that job that stay with you today?
I really appreciated earning my own paycheck for the first time. I’ll never forget the first check for a hundred dollars made out to me! I was able to open my first bank account. It made me feel good about myself to be able to work and in a small way, support myself.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I played pond hockey on the ponds in Downingtown. In college, I played roller hockey. I’ve always been a runner too and ran the New York Marathon a few years ago. I played sports more as a form of exercise.
I remember when I needed my first stitches after playing hockey on a pond at Kerr Park one year. I walked the mile to the church where my mom was, covered in blood, to find her to get stitched up.
Did you have a favorite activity growing up?
There were six of us in a three-bedroom twin in Downingtown. Of all the things I was doing, I liked anything that took me out of the house. Whether it was a camping trip with Boy Scouts, a mission trip, or a marching band event, I enjoyed getting out of the house. It was a priority of mine to get out in the world, so I always wanted to go to college far away or travel the world.
Where did you go to college?
I went to West Chester University. I decided to stay close to home because my parents were beginning the process of divorce, and I wanted to be close to my younger siblings to be a support system for them. At the beginning of my junior year at West Chester, I moved back to the house I grew up in Downingtown to be there for my mom.
I was working full time, going to school part-time, and helping out around the house, driving my siblings around to school and practice. My mom was working full-time, so I wanted to help out. This allowed me to become fully engrained back into the town I grew up in. I began seeing Downingtown in a different light. I went from wanting to get out to feeling a sense that Downingtown was my hometown, and I had a purpose here.
I decided to get more involved in the community. I asked my newly-elected State Senator and West Chester professor Andy Dinniman to help me get involved, and I joined the Planning Commission. From there, I decided to run for Mayor at twenty-four years old.
When did you realize that you had something unique to offer the community?
There was a woman in my church who had a stroke, and she needed help moving her and her son to a new apartment. I was a youth deacon in the congregation then. I rallied my high-school friends to get their moms’ minivans, because everyone had a minivan at that time in the early 1990s, and we went to help her. We packed up her house on Mary Street and moved her into her new apartment in a single day.
I knew I wanted to help people in some way. I never thought it would be politics. My mom wanted me to be a pastor. While I was in college, I began taking a few political science classes. At the same time, the Iraq War was happening. I became very keenly aware that the best way to help the most people was public policy. I knew I wanted to work for an elected official or run for office myself. Whether it was passing a law, building a train station, or even just hiring the right police officers, I saw that as a way to help the people of Downingtown.
Who were the people who helped you along the way?
Andy Dinniman and Kathi Cozzone both reached out to me individually and offered to mentor me when I started out. They were the ones who were willing to pick up the phone in the middle of the night and answer my questions about things going on in the Downingtown community. I relied on them heavily to keep me updated because they had both been around Chester County politics for a long time and were very effective in their roles.
As far as the big break goes, my relationship with Chief Jim McGowan in Downingtown is right up there. He had my back when it counted most and I will never forget it. About a decade ago, when I was twenty-seven years old, I made a huge big mistake by going through a DUI checkpoint over the legal limit for alcohol.
I was just starting graduate school at Penn and had a great deal of excitement and success ahead of me. Instead, after going through the checkpoint, I felt embarrassment and shame for both myself and the community. I had been the Mayor of Downingtown for about a year at that point, and I felt so ashamed that I let the people of Downingtown down. I had to deal with that mistake, as well as the public pressure.
I met with Chief McGowan and asked him if I should resign. Chief McGowan told me not to quit, not to ever make the same mistake again, to be humble, and to continue doing great things for our community as I had been. I followed his advice, accepted the consequences, and after following the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program, the incident was expunged.
Chief McGowan was candid with me, and I thoroughly appreciated it. I was feeling incredibly low at that time, and I don’t know if I would have continued on without him being there to walk me through the consequences professionally and personally. He didn’t let me off easy, but he didn’t shut me down either. That’s the kind of leadership I admire and have strived to emulate ever since.
While as Mayor I was technically his boss when he was Chief, I wouldn’t make any decisions regarding Downingtown without talking to him first. He was a paternal figure to me. I was very sad when he passed away last year—it was a loss for all of us.
When you look back on your three terms as Mayor in Downingtown, what are you most proud of?
We do something regarding social causes every year. I wrote a law that requires police officers to be trained on all of the resources available at the domestic violence center within six months of their hire. That is an incredibly important thing we do, and we do something for the Domestic Violence Center every year, whether it be a drive or a 5K.
We encourage other communities to mirror that type of law and commitment as well. Men should start talking about domestic violence more. It’s something every community has dealt with. I’m very proud of our council and police department for taking on this initiative.
Economically, securing the funding for a new Amtrak/SEPTA train station in Downingtown and Chester Valley Trail connection. My parents bought their home for $80,000. This project will increase the value of Downingtown by 17%! There was $75 million in funding for that train station from the state. The connection to the Trail will be built with private funding.
That is a very meaningful impact on a middle-class community. People will see a return on the home they invested in, and give them a reason to stay here and raise their families here. Having had an impact like that on my community means the world to me.
Simply changing the perception of how people viewed Downingtown is another thing I’m very proud of. Going out in the community and talking to people about buying their home or opening their business here has been incredibly rewarding. When I was elected, I was in my mid-twenties, and I wasn’t very comfortable speaking in public. Through this position, I’ve really improved my people, negotiation, and marketing skills.
What’s the toughest call you’ve had to make as Mayor
The toughest call you have to make is firing somebody. Being Mayor is a part-time job, but I work with an amazing group of employees and police officers in Downingtown. You have to be thoughtful and direct when you make that decision. You realize you’re not just impacting that person or officer, but also their family. The Chief and I worked closely on being thorough and making those decisions together.
What made you decide to run for Chester County Commissioner?
I see our county at an exciting turning point, where so much can be done with revitalized leadership: expand transit, preserve our green space, support our seniors, heal the opioid crisis. As a millennial mayor, I also felt that I could bring the kind of energy to the position that we’ve seen animating so many citizens in the past few years.
When I was considering running for this position, I met with countless stakeholders – attorneys, elected officials, nonprofit leaders – and asked if they wanted me to be a part of a movement of change in the county. I listened to them, learned what I could do to help them, and decided to run, with my wife’s blessing, to be the young candidate who can promise and deliver.
Also, I got married last August to the love of my life. Going through politics, you’re always under a microscope. If you make a mistake, it is going to be “celebrated” by the other side. That’s just the way politics work. But having someone in my life I can come home to and can talk through things, it’s been incredibly amazing. She’s there to support me. Plus, she comes from a long line of Pennsylvania Republicans, so she understands a pretty broad range of perspectives!
If you’re fortunate enough to win, what significant issues do you want to address?
I want to connect all of our municipalities, specifically our downtowns, to public transportation. That means making an investment in SEPTA and doing what it takes to bring Regional Rail to places like Phoenixville and West Chester. We need to utilize private investments in those communities to preserve more open space and rural areas.
I want to connect all of our trail systems in Chester County and even create a bike-share program which would allow you to bike from one community to another.
I want Chester County to lead on the environment in Pennsylvania. That includes open space preservation, standing up for families affected by the pipeline, and building a clean energy infrastructure. We need to make sure our environment is sustainable and clean.
We are a county that has a lot going for it in terms of the economy. I want to be sure no one is left behind. I would like to have the best-funded Domestic Violence Center in Pennsylvania. I want to make sure our nonprofits are working hand-and-hand with their elected officials and influencers around the county.
I want to be sure we have affordable housing throughout Chester County. Seniors and low- or middle-class families are being forced from their homes due to high property taxes. We want to make sure people can live here and live comfortably.
Lastly, I want to ensure we have transparency and oversight throughout County government. We need to respect every tax dollar. I’ve been very open in Downingtown, even tweeting out our audit. If there’s an issue in the County, Republicans and Democrats need to come together to deal with it.
How do you spend your free time, Josh?
With my wife! She’s a writer, so I spend a lot of my time setting up her book events, getting coffee, or test-reading her new manuscripts. We do a little traveling when we can for long weekends to Lancaster or somewhere where we can have a quiet dinner and enjoy a weekend together. I also enjoy a Eagles game from time to time.
Finally, Josh, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if there’s a single piece of advice that I can point to. I will say, my mother is the closest person to being perfectly nice I know. She’s so generous and works so hard to support her family. She always just wanted my siblings and me to be good people. Even if we made a mistake, or did something wrong, she always said, “what matters to me is whether you’re a good person, and you treat people well.” I hold on to that.
Chester County Leadership profiles of the the three other Chester County commissioner candidates can be found here:
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to the Josh Maxwell Chester County Leadership profile.
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