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The Oregon mayor's new clothes

He wears skirts and a bra now, but to the town, he's still Stu.

November 20, 2008|Kim Murphy | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

SILVERTON, ORE. — Stu Rasmussen promised a new administration if he was elected, and he's as good as his word: Silverton residents not only are getting a new mayor; they're also getting a new Stu.

Rasmussen, longtime manager of the local cinema, was also elected mayor in 1988 and 1990, and served four years -- but that was when he was wearing slacks and sport shirts to council meetings. The new Rasmussen -- who got breast implants a few years ago and began calling himself Carla Fong -- wears skirts, lipstick and high heels.

The thing is, Rasmussen's been a fixture in this small former lumber mill town so long, people tend not to pay much attention to what he's wearing.

Earlier this month, Rasmussen became America's first openly transgender mayor. His constituents say they elected him not for his looks, but because he promised to put a halt to the rapid development that has threatened Silverton's small-town charm.

"My first two terms, I was a very straight-looking guy," said Rasmussen, 60, a software engineer who has written on transgender issues. "Now, I write under the name Carla Fong, but basically I'm Stu in Silverton. Honestly, it would be too much trouble to retrain the whole town."

Rasmussen walks down Silverton's Norman Rockwell-like main street in a plunging purple top revealing impressive cleavage, with a tight black miniskirt, flowing red locks and dagger-like red nails.

He is stopped every few feet by people who want to shake his hand and congratulate him on his victory, in which he took 52% of the vote against 39% for incumbent Mayor Ken Hector in the nonpartisan election.

"To be perfectly candid, the incumbent . . . and I are not bosom buddies -- that was a bad choice in terms," deadpans Rasmussen. "Ken's heart is in the right place, but it's just when his mind's made up, that's it -- facts won't change it.

"What was it Alexis de Tocqueville said -- his mind is not like the fertile field onto which seeds fall. Ken . . . had a council that was easy for him to get along with because, when he didn't get his way -- well truthfully, his last name is Hector, and he just kind of lived up to it."

Rasmussen, who has served the last four years on the City Council, promises an era of "reasoned discourse" in the city "where everybody's going to be participating for a change."

He has pledged to help control the rapid growth that has seen new homes and an industrial park spring up in this town of about 9,600, and vowed to demand safety reviews of the dam upstream -- which he fears could fail during an earthquake and inundate the town.

Hector said that growth had slowed considerably in the last four years, and that the dam in question had been certified as being able to withstand an earthquake of 8.3.

"I grew up in Southern California, and you know as well as I do: If you're in an 8.3, you've got bigger worries than just a dam breaking," he said.

In years past, Silverton has been known mainly as the home of Bobbie the Wonder Dog, who got lost on a road trip to Indiana in 1923 and showed up back home in Oregon six months later, apparently having walked the 2,800 miles in between.

Then there are the annual Davenport Races, in which residents propel customized couches down Main Street in honor of Homer Davenport, a political cartoonist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was born just south of town.

"I like to say we're 40 miles and 40 years from Portland. Here's a place you dial the wrong number and you get in a conversation anyhow," Rasmussen says.

"It's a bucolic little town," said City Manager Bryan Cosgrove. "We're doing a lot of investments in our downtown, and we have funding challenges like any other city. As for the election, I've kind of stayed out of all the publicity, because it's not really about the city per se; it's about Stu."

Silverton appears to have come to terms long ago with Rasmussen's nebulous gender, which he describes as "25%, maybe 30% between" man and woman, and his "adoption of the twins," as the mayor-elect refers to his breast surgery. But he still manages to catch some people off guard.

"Guys come up to me in the bar and say, 'Hate to tell you this, but I saw this woman on the street the other day, and I'm thinking, great legs, nice tan, and she turns around and I go, 'Oh, my God, it's Stu!' " Rasmussen recounts in the deep voice that seems always softened with a trace of humor.

"If I could have a face transplant, it'd be perfect. A face like this, only a mother could love. But people overlook the face now," he says, glancing discreetly down at his tank top, "because there's all this other real estate."

Not long after Rasmussen debuted his new look, the City Council adopted a dress code mandating "business casual" at council meetings.

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