After recall effort, cancer, young mayor emerges wiser

HILLSDALE, Mich. – To say that Mayor Michael Sessions has had a rough year is an understatement.

First, he faced criminal charges for Internet pranks against his former campaign manager. That spawned a short-lived recall campaign. Then, just as things seemed to be settling down, Sessions got some devastating news.

The 20-year-old had testicular cancer and needed surgery right away.

“It’s been a bit of a hectic summer,” he said this month with a sly half-smile.

Sessions set off a media frenzy in the small college town of Hillsdale two years ago when, at 18 and still a high school senior, he ousted the mayor with a write-in election campaign.

Now cancer-free, he talks openly about his treatment and the ups and downs of city politics. But he’s more guarded about his future plans and how his time in office has changed him.

The cancer diagnosis forced the on-the-go Sessions to slow down, and he’s more contemplative about his life, his job and his family. But he said he still has a lot to accomplish in his last two years in office.

Sessions hopes to re-energize the downtown by changing rules so more people can live on upper floors of buildings. He also wants to get more young people involved in government.

“He’s never been afraid to try,” said Peter Beck, assistant principal of Hillsdale High School. “He’s an average kid with above-average aspirations. When he puts his mind to something, he gets it done.”

Just days after the recall attempt ended, Sessions was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Surgery to remove a testicle was scheduled immediately.

“Obviously, it was very emotional,” Sessions said. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

At first, Sessions didn’t want to go public with his diagnosis, but then decided he had no choice. Word was bound to get out in the small town. So, when he was asked to talk about cancer on a Hillsdale radio show with someone from the American Cancer Society, he said he’d do it, hoping it might help someone else.

“I wish it could have stayed private,” he said. “But I didn’t walk well. I didn’t look well. People were asking. And I thought I could raise awareness. I’ve chosen to be mayor. I have to face the public life. But there are times when I wish it was different.”

The cancer diagnosis wasn’t the first tough situation Sessions faced. In 2006, he played a role in forcing the resignation of longtime City Manager Tim Vagle. This year, he avoided felony charges by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor, malicious annoyance by writing. The case involved disparaging e-mails he sent about his former campaign manager and one-time friend, Brandon Thomas.

Sessions served 40 hours of community service and paid Thomas $850 in restitution. The two no longer speak to each other, and Thomas could not be reached for comment.

On Sept. 11, Sessions had a second surgery to remove lymph nodes to prevent spread of the cancer. He pushed to leave the hospital a day later. He’s healing more every day, and doctors tell him he has an excellent prognosis.

People who know Sessions say he is more mature and focused. Lorri Sessions said her son approached politics altruistically and learned some hard lessons. “I’d never want to relive this summer,” she said.

Beck, the Hillsdale High assistant principal, said, “He’s done things young kids do. He’ll make mistakes. But I see him being more careful in what he does and where he hangs out now.

“He’s the poster child for youth involvement.”