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Hampton mayor working locally, globally

Paye Flomo

Hampton made international news in November of 2008 when the city elected Paye Flomo as its new mayor.

Flomo is the first native Liberian to be elected to a government office in the U.S., and some have suggested he's the first African-born American to be elected, he said.

Flomo's election was hugely popular in his native country.

"People were rejoicing in Liberia," he said.

His native government is so appreciative of Hampton and the U.S. that the Liberian president's special advisor is scheduled to visit Hampton in June to host a ceremony in Flomo's honor.

It's been a little more than a year since Flomo took the reins in Hampton, and it hasn't been easy.

"There have been difficulties," he said.

The nation's economic standing has taken its toll even on his small city.

There had been some controversy surrounding the building of the new city hall, a fabricated steel and concrete building designed to withstand F3- to F4-strength tornadoes. An upcoming project is also causing some dissension. Before the economy took a turn for the worse, the council approved plans for a new ramp onto Highway 52. Now some council members aren't too sure about the project, Flomo explained.

Flomo came to the United States in 1985 and became a citizen in 2001, the same year he and his wife moved to Hampton.

The son of a retired farmer, Flomo said that it felt natural to move into a farming community.

Flomo has long been impressed with the United States. He especially admired the U.S. Marines. He tried to join when he first came to the U.S., but was turned away because he wasn't yet a citizen. When he did become a citizen, he was too old to join, he said.

"I always wanted to serve my country," he said.

When he moved to Hampton, Flomo was welcomed by a stranger who told him, "Anything you want to do here, you're more than welcome," Flomo recalled.

He started volunteering in the community, and when a council member resigned in 2003, he applied and got the spot.

As mayor, Flomo is not only working to rein in spending while still developing Hampton's future, but he's also linking Hampton to Liberia.

With the new city hall, Hampton also built a new fire department. The department replaced some of its equipment, including a few fire trucks. In past years, old trucks were sold, usually to local farmers. This time, Flomo asked the city to sell them instead to Liberia.

"When I was in Liberia, there was no fire department," Flomo said. His last visit was three years ago.

He explained that fires there are fought with buckets of water, and while the United Nations has a presence in the country and offers some assistance, there's no knowing when they'll have to leave.

He is also working to do some fundraising in Minnesota for a Liberian fire department. With about 35,000 native Liberians in the state, if each donated the money they spend on lunch one day, they could raise enough to establish a minimal fire department, he said.

Flomo's political career isn't likely to end when his time as mayor is over. When he decided to run, he explained, he thought that he just wanted to serve locally. But in the past year he's realized he wants to do more, and plans to eventually run for other public offices.

His passion is education.

"I'm concerned about the children in this country," he said.

He wants children in the U.S. to be able to compete with others around the world, and said the U.S. should apply more funding to education and back off military spending.

"Why can't we focus some of our resources on our children?" he said.

But for now, he's just working to better Hampton.

"Things are tough, but things will get better," he said.