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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Tale of how dog became town’s mayor

Puppy political dynasty stretches three generations

2 Photos
Naillah Benjell of Los Angeles greets Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III, otherwise known as Mayor Max III, the mayor of Idyllwild, during a public appearance.
Naillah Benjell of Los Angeles greets Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III, otherwise known as Mayor Max III, the mayor of Idyllwild, during a public appearance. Photo Gallery

Most politicians caught with their tail between their legs are voted out of office or run out of town, but not the mayor of Idyllwild, Calif., a small mountain community about 25 miles south of Banning.

Here the top dog is an actual dog — a 1-year-old, full grown American purebred golden retriever with the legal name of Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III. People call him Mayor Max.

He’s the third dog to hold office in Idyllwild, part of a tradition dating back to 2012 when Idyllwild Animal Rescue Friends came up with a novel idea for a fundraiser: a mayoral election in which no humans were allowed to run, according to Phyllis Mueller, 72, who serves with her husband, Glen Warren, 59, as the mayor’s co-chiefs of staff.

The animal election didn’t upset the local political establishment, since Idyllwild doesn’t have a human mayor of its own. The mountain town is unincorporated, with local political decisions handled by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

Animal candidates (and their human owners) had to live in Idyllwild or the nearby towns of Fern Valley, Pine Cove or Mountain Center. It cost a dollar to vote and people were encouraged to cast as many ballots as they liked. With 21,132 votes, Maximus Mighty Dog Mueller defeated 13 other dogs and two cats (and netted the animal rescue more than $31,000).

He was the first in a political dynasty now stretching three generations.

If you ask Mueller, the most unusual part of the whole arrangement wasn’t that it resulted in a canine mayor, but the fact that the process was nonpartisan.

“When you become the president of the United States, half the people in the country hate you on the first day — that’s not fun,” she said. “But it would be fun to be able to create a mayoral office without anybody pushing an agenda on you that you have to be one way or another.”

That’s not to say Mayor Max and his successors don’t serve a political purpose. Mueller — who runs a marketing firm in Idyllwild — says she interviewed business owners before the first animal election to learn about their wants: more traffic and thus more business.

“If I were mayor of Idyllwild and I told people that I was going to be downtown at 2 p.m. to meet the people, most people wouldn’t come and they certainly wouldn’t come every day,” Mueller said. “If I publish that Mayor Max is going to be downtown at 2 p.m. … hundreds of people will come because it’s interesting and unusual to see a dog as a mayor.”

There are public appearances in downtown Idyllwild on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends. Private appearances at schools, nursing homes, hospice organizations and businesses round out the calendar. The mayor has attended birthday parties and weddings, Mueller said. There’s no fee for a public or private event; though like all politicians the mayor accepts donations.

As the mayor-mobile turns off Highway 243 onto North Circle Drive, often with the mayor’s head sticking out the window, people are already lined up cheering and clapping.

One Monday morning, Mayor Max III showed up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new art gallery in town.

Before Mueller could get his tie on, Mayor Max tried to eat it. With some help, she managed to get the mayor into his professional attire before the gallery owner snipped a yellow ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors. (At events Mueller hands out novelty neckties — more than 12,000 a year, she said — and some 10,000 Mayor Max calendars.)

“Just by having his support, having his draw here, will bring more people to the gallery and help spread the word about the gallery in this community of Idyllwild so I’m grateful,” said Taylor Brechtel, owner/curator of Recht Gallery.

The first Mayor Max took office on July 1, 2012, but was diagnosed with cancer and put down in April 2013. Mueller and her husband acquired another American purebred golden retriever, who under the name Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller II took office as a 2-month-old puppy and finished out the term. According to Mueller, when it came time for the next vote, the townspeople came forward and said no more elections: They wanted Max to be mayor for life.

Mayor Max II served until July 30, 2022, succumbing to cancer at the age of 9. Mayor Max III began his term on December 9, 2022, at the age of 3 months.

His sister from the same litter travels in his entourage as vice mayor of Idyllwild, Meadow Mighty-Dog Mueller.