Alumnus, New Charlottesville Mayor, Takes Madisonian Approach to Law and Life

Mike Signer’s second book, a biography of the early life of his political hero, James Madison, is earning critical acclaim.

Despite having earned his law degree at Mr. Jefferson’s University, the new mayor of Charlottesville is a Madison man all the way.

Mike Signer, a 2004 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, was chosen in January by his fellow members of the Charlottesville City Council to preside over the city in which his law school alma mater is nestled – just two months after he was elected to the council.

Signer is also a one-time candidate for lieutenant governor, a former counsel to Gov. Mark Warner (now Sen. Warner) and the author of a recent popular nonfiction book on the fourth U.S. President, James Madison.

He said his approach of imparting and, as mayor, instituting reasoned guidance is styled after his presidential hero.

“The focus is on the ultimate advice – not just the law, but on the attorney as counselor,” Signer said. “So there’s in that what I like about Madison: the role of imparting guidance.”

Already as mayor, Signer has had to consider safety concerns related to a delayed real estate project on the Downtown Mall, early steps of planning for the Belmont Bridge replacement, and other redevelopment issues, from public housing to the West Main Street corridor.

He said local activists and an engaged city electorate make his job “cool.”

“Local government is the most exciting arena for people who care about government in this country,” Signer said. “I think if you are despairing of all the shrill cynicism at the federal level, or even at the state level, this job is really rewarding.”

Signer divides his time among his civic duties, teaching classes on Grounds as a lecturer in the the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, writing and researching his books, and running his boutique law firm – the not-coincidentally named Madison Law & Strategy Group, which focuses on regulatory and corporate law.

He said being able to juggle all of these things, however, has less to do with his political role model than with the simple concept of time equaling money.

“People are always mystified about, ‘How do you do so many things at once?’” he said. “The way I’ve been able to do it is because I’m an attorney. You have to keep track of your time. It’s not about talk. It’s about, ‘What’s the memo, what’s the advice, what’s the contract?’”

Signer’s time-management skills allowed him to delve deeply into the research of his second book, “Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father,” which was published last year to critical praise from The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and others. The biography of young Madison – up to age 36 – details his significant, and often overlooked, contributions as a Founding Father. (Madison was Thomas Jefferson’s close friend and protégé, and lived about 30 miles away from him, in Orange.)

Signer was recently one of three authors invited to speak at Madison’s 265th birthday celebration, to be held March 16 at the Library of Congress.

“The book is doing better than I hoped, better than I feared,” Signer said. “I revisit the hard-to-know figure through his youth because the legacy he gave us was the urgency of statesmanship in a well-functioning democracy.”

In addition to elected officials, living and historical, Signer credits the Law School for putting him on his current trajectory. At UVA, he served as president of the Virginia Law Democrats and helped found the school’s chapter of the American Constitution Society. He said Professor Anne Coughlin, now co-director of the Program in Law and Public Service, is most responsible for teaching him to think like a lawyer during his first year, and that Professor A.E. Dick Howard was his mentor in state law throughout his time at UVA. Signer was instrumental in helping Howard set up a legal fellows program at the Governor’s Office, which Signer himself participated in, working full-time as a UVA Law extern during the fall semester of his third year.

Howard officiated at the 2012 wedding of Signer and Emily Blout.

“One of the best experiences of my whole life was going to UVA Law,” Signer said. “I recall it as truly one of the happiest, most fulfilled, most congenial periods. I’ve become this passionate promoter of the UVA way of doing law school.”

Signer also holds a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University.

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Mary Wood

Chief Communications Officer University of Virginia School of Law