After 27 years in public office – the last 22 as Gulfport’s mayor – Mike Yakes is ready to hand over the reins.
The town’s outgoing top official, to whom many simply call “Mayor Mike,” often is credited with playing a major role in helping Gulfport transform from a sleepy fishing and retirement village into an eclectic arts destination. But Yakes isn’t one to turn the spotlight on himself.
“I’m not an ‘I-did’ guy,” he said. “There are five votes on the council. … The mayor is one of those votes.”
Residents and Yakes’ colleagues, past and present, see things differently.
Former councilmember Lynn Brown, who now serves as Gulfport’s de facto historian, said Yakes played a big role in reviving downtown in the early 1990s.
“Up until then, the downtown had really not been at its peak,” said Brown. “Now we have a really booming waterfront community.”
Yakes said he pushed to designate the area as a community redevelopment district, allowing the city to steer some property tax revenue into a fund slated for beautification – but that’s about it.
“What happened from there, I really can take no credit,” he said. “It was the people – the hard work of everyone. And it just took hold throughout the city.”
Yakes, 69, was born in Michigan but moved to Gulfport with his parents as a child, and he’s been here ever since. Politics didn’t come along for Yakes until after he turned 40, when he was well into a 38-year career in various roles at the Florida Department of Transportation.
“There were changes that I just didn’t agree with that were talked about,” he said.
Among those was possible development along the beach where he used to swim as a kid.
So he ran for City Council, and won. Five years later, he became mayor.
Yakes had an approach you don’t see all that much in politics these days, especially in Florida, Councilwoman Jennifer Salmon said.
“He is a mix of Miss Manners, Gomer Pyle and Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ “ she said. “He knows how to get things done, treat everyone with respect and check which way the wind blows before casting the fifth vote.”
Many of the things that now define Gulfport – the Catherine A. Hickman Theatre, an upgraded Gulfport Casino, the city’s rebirth as an arts hub and its embrace of the LGBT community – happened on Yakes’ watch and with his support.
To Sharon Butler, a mother of three, Yakes stood for families.
“He kept Gulfport Little League going,” said Butler, who helps run the league.
That kind of admiration among his constituents could have lent itself to a run for higher office, but Yakes never went that route.
“I kept so enthused with what we were doing,” he said. “Time just kept going, and I didn’t even know.”
Looking back, there’s one think he might have done differently.
“I really kind of regret that I never slowed down and made a bid for the House,” he said.
As a Democrat, though, moving into a highly partisan political arena where he would have been in the legislative minority in recent years might have been a challenge for someone who believes in compromise.
“I’m not in this as a Democrat, a Republican or a nonpartisan,” he said. “I represent everybody. I’m a low-key guy.”
Yakes said he’s retiring in part due to “cardiac problems” he has had in recent years and that he plans on spending a lot of time at a second home on the Withlacoochee River. His wife died in 2008, leaving behind four children and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He said he doesn’t plan on going back into politics anytime soon, but his fans hope he stays involved.
“He’s just been the perfect mayor for Gulfport,” Brown said.
It’s a reputation that appears to have permeated beyond the community’s boundaries.
“When I say I am from Gulfport, the one person most people know is Mayor Yakes,” Salmon said. “And they always speak with fondness for him.”
Gulfport voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect the city’s next mayor, who will either be City Councilman Sam Henderson or former councilman Bob Worthington.