Michael Signer

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Michael Signer
Michael Signer, Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.jpg
Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia
In office
January 4, 2016 – January 2, 2018
Preceded bySatyendra Huja
Succeeded byNikuyah Walker
Personal details
Political partyDemocratic
Alma materPrinceton University (B.A.)
University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D.)
University of Virginia (J.D.)
ProfessionAuthor, attorney

Michael Signer is an American attorney, author, and politician who served as mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Signer is the son of Marjorie B. Signer, a communications director, and Robert Signer, a newspaper assignment editor.[3] He graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia,[4] and magna cum laude from Princeton University, where he edited the Progressive Review.[5]

He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law, where he was a Clerk at the Legal Aid Justice Center and Research Assistant to Professors A. E. Dick Howard and Michael Klarman. He was president of the Law Democrats, and co-founder of the UVA Chapter of the American Constitution Society. At UVA, he founded the UVA Coalition for Progress on Race, and went on to co-found the Center for the Study of Race and Law.[6]


Signer is the author of Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy under Siege (PublicAffairs, 2020).[7] The book is a first-person account of events before, during, and after the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, as a microcosm of the challenges facing American democracy today.[8] NPR's "All Things Considered" featured an interview with Signer about "Cry Havoc," where Signer said the "deepest theme of what Charlottesville is about" was "do we have the ability to have debate on the hardest issues or is one faction basically going to terrorize another into submission?" and that "the consequence of stepping out of the arena, of giving up — that's what allows societies, democracies to tilt toward authoritarianism." [9]

Signer is the author of Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father (PublicAffairs, 2015).[10] The book is about leadership and statesmanship that is also an intellectual and psychological biography of young James Madison and his rivalry with his nemesis Patrick Henry in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.[11] Signer presented a public lecture on the book at the Library of Congress in 2016.[12]

He is also the author of Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (St. Martin's Press, 2009).[13] The book chronicles democracy's historic struggle with the problem of demagogues, examines how political thinkers have grappled with the demagogue problem, and argues that constitutionalism, a robust culture of democratic norms and values embraced by ordinary citizens, is the best antidote to demagogues.[14] He has written about the topic of demagoguery in connection with Donald Trump for The Washington Post,[15] and The Atlantic.[16] and been interviewed on the topic by NPR's Morning Edition[17] and WNYC's On the Media.[18]

He has published articles, essays, and book reviews in the New York Times,[19] The Washington Post,[20] Time Magazine,[21] University of Richmond Law Review,[22] The Washington Post,[23] The New Republic,[24][25] and the Daily Beast.[26][27]

In 2006, he wrote an article advocating for a doctrine of "exemplarism" as a version of progressive American exceptionalism, titled "City on a Hill" in the inaugural issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.[28]

Law career[edit]

Signer in 2006

Signer is an executive and general counsel at a Virginia-based technology firm.[29] He served as counsel to then-Governor Mark Warner of Virginia.[30] He was founder and managing principal of Madison Law & Strategy Group, PLLC.[31] He previously served as co-chair of the Business Law Section of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association and chaired the Pro Bono Committee of the Young Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar.[32]

A voting rights attorney, he was statewide director for the 2004 election protection program directed by the Democratic National Committee. In 2010, he traveled to Panjshir Province, Afghanistan, as a member of a USAID-sponsored mission to monitor Afghanistan's parliamentary elections.[33] He founded and co-chaired the New Electoral Reform Alliance for Virginia.[34]

Public service[edit]

In 2018, Signer founded Communities Overcoming Extremism, a project designed to increase capacity among both public and private sectors leaders for confronting extremism, through generating alliances, increasing collective wisdom, and creating best practices. The project's sponsors and partners include the Anti-Defamation League, the Ford Foundation, the Center for American Progress, New America, the Fetzer Institute, the Charles Koch Institute, Georgetown University's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, the Aspen Society's Justice and Society Program, and the National Immigration Forum. The project's Board of Advisors includes Harvard professor Danielle Allen, New America President & CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Susan Bro of the Heather Heyer Foundation. The project convened a summit in November 2018 at Washington University in St. Louis featuring Gold Star parent Khizr Khan, U.S. Conference of Mayors President Steve Benjamin, former U.S. Senator John "Jack" Danforth, New York Times columnist Peter Wehner, and former federal prosecutor Mary McCord. A summit on leadership against extremism among private technology companies is planned for the summer of 2019, as well as a podcast highlighting individual stories and a final report.[35]

Signer has served as chair of the Emergency Food Network, president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association, and a member of the steering committee of the West Main Street Redevelopment Project in Charlottesville. He is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Center for National Policy. He is a principal and former board member of the Truman National Security Project.[32]

In the 2008 elections, Signer was foreign policy advisor to the John Edwards for President campaign.[36] He was later senior strategist on the 2008 Congressional campaign of Tom Perriello. Signer was senior policy advisor at the Center for American Progress, and later that year worked with John Podesta on President-Elect Barack Obama's State Department Transition Team.[37]

In 2009, Signer was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, receiving 21% of the vote.[38]

From 2009 to 2013, Signer was an appointee by Governor Tim Kaine to Virginia's Board of Medicine. He was a member of the finance committee for Terry McAuliffe for governor, and later served as chair of Governor-elect McAuliffe's Transition Council on Homeland Security.[32] Earlier in his career, he was legislative aide to then-Delegate Creigh Deeds. Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed him to the Council on Virginia's Future.[39]

Mayor of Charlottesville[edit]

On January 4, 2016, Charlottesville City Council elected Signer as the city's new mayor, succeeding outgoing mayor Satyendra Huja.[40] Signer took office the same evening.[40]

As mayor, Signer's four main priorities were innovation, infrastructure, governance, and equity. He led the City to rehabilitate the historic African-American Daughters of Zion cemetery with a special allocation of $80,000 from Council’s Strategic Fund.[41] He worked with the city council to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces to address controversies over Confederate statues in Charlottesville.[42] Charlottesville also hired the city's first African-American police chief during Signer's tenure.[43] In the wake of Donald Trump's first announcement of the "Muslim Ban," Signer brought together leaders including Khizr Khan, faith, and University leaders to declare Charlottesville a capital of resistance to religious intolerance and to propose support for immigrants and refugees.[44] Signer helped create Welcoming Greater Charlottesville.[45] and Council later enacted Signer's proposal to allocate $10,000 to the Legal Aid Justice Center to represent immigrants and helped create Welcoming Greater Charlottesville.[46]

Signer created a Mayor's Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology to link stakeholders in the Charlottesville technology sector.[47] The Council enacted Signer's proposal to double Charlottesville's spending on affordable housing, expanded the technology tax credit from five to seven years, increased public school investment by $2 million, and enacted protections for historic neighborhoods. [48] [49] During Signer's tenure, the city council also created an Open Data policy,[50] and required agencies to register voters to vote online.[51]

In the wake of the violent "Unite the Right" event of August 2017, the City, under Signer's tenure, collaborated with Georgetown University's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection to successfully sue over a dozen paramilitary groups under a provision of the Virginia Constitution to prevent them from entering the city again.[52]

During Signer's tenure as mayor, Charlottesville was named by Entrepreneur as the #4 City in the U.S. for entrepreneurship.[53]

Awards and recognitions[edit]

Signer received the annual Levenson Family Defender of Democracy Award from the Anti-Defamation League in 2017.[54] He is a member of the 2017 Class of Aspen Institute Rodel Fellows.[55] He was recognized by Forward Magazine in its "Forward 50" 2017 list of the 50 most influential Jewish leaders in America.[56] In 2018, he received the annual "Distinguished Alumnus" Award from the University of California Alumni Club of Washington, D.C.[57] In 2019, he was given the Courage in Political Leadership Award by the American Society for Yad Vashem,[58] the Rob DeBree and David O'Malley Award for Community Response to Hatred Award from the Matthew Shepard Foundation,[59] and the Jerold L. Solovy Freedom Award from the Anti-Defamation League Midwest.[60]

Personal life[edit]

Signer, who is Jewish, lives in Charlottesville with his wife and their twin sons.[61][62]


  1. ^ "Mike Signer, Mayor, City of Charlottesville". Retrieved January 31, 2016.
  2. ^ "Charlottesville City Council Elects Nikuyah Walker as Mayor, Heather Hill as Vice Mayor". Retrieved 2018-01-04.
  3. ^ "Emily Blout and Michael Signer". The New York Times. April 1, 2012.
  4. ^ "3 Dem Gubernatorial Candidates Clash in Richmond". Falls Church News-Press. 2009-02-15. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2009-02-12.
  5. ^ Thrasher, Cat (March 16, 2016). "Mike Signer '95, Lawyer, Scholar, Author, and Mayor". Princeton Alumni Weekly. Retrieved January 13, 2021.
  6. ^ "Built by Alums: 15 Years of the Center for the Study of Race and Law". University of Virginia School of Law. March 19, 2018.
  7. ^ Signer, Michael (2020). Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy under Siege. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-5417-3615-3.
  8. ^ "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy under Siege". PublicAffairs. Retrieved August 6, 2020.
  9. ^ "In 'Cry Havoc,' Former Charlottesville Mayor Details a Tragic Day". National Public Radio. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  10. ^ Signer, Michael (2015). Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-61039-295-2.
  11. ^ "A Conversation with Michael Signer: The Making of an Indispensable Founding Father". The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved May 16, 2015.
  12. ^ "Becoming Madison". Library of Congress. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
  13. ^ Signer, Michael (2009). Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-230-60624-1.
  14. ^ "People Power". The National. April 10, 2009.
  15. ^ "Here's What Demagogues Like Trump Do To Their Countries When They Take Power". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 29, 2016.
  16. ^ "Trump and the Danger of Passionate Politics". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  17. ^ "Democratic Activist Says Donald Trump Fits the Mold of a Demagogue". National Public Radio. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
  18. ^ "So You've Got a Demagogue". On the Media. Retrieved December 11, 2015.
  19. ^ "Charlottesville Will Move On". The New York Times. August 18, 2017.
  20. ^ "This Legal Tactic Can Keep Neo-Nazi Protests Out of Your City". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  21. ^ "The Electoral College Was Created to Stop Demagogues Like Trump". Time Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2016.
  22. ^ "Constitutional Crisis in the Commonwealth: Resolving the Conflict Between Governors and Attorneys General". University of Richmond Law Review. Archived from the original on 2014-06-05. Retrieved 2014-06-12.
  23. ^ "'Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit' by Dane Huckelbridge". Washington Post. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  24. ^ Michael Signer. "Michael Signer Reviews Robert W. Merry's "Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians"". The New Republic. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  25. ^ Michael Signer. "The Ironic Populist: How Herman Cain's Insurgency Marks the Beginning of a New Political Era". The New Republic. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  26. ^ "Why The Tea Party Won't Go Away And More Wisdom From Matt Kibbe". The Daily Beast. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  27. ^ "How to Beat the Demagogues". The Daily Beast. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  28. ^ "Michael Signer for Democracy Journal: A City on a Hill". Democracy Journal. Archived from the original on February 23, 2015. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  29. ^ "Michael Signer". LinkedIn. Retrieved February 23, 2019.
  30. ^ "Charlottesville's New Mayor Mike Signer '04 Takes Madisonian Approach to Law and Life". Virginia Magazine. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  31. ^ "Madison Law & Strategy - Michael Signer". madisonpllc.com. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  32. ^ a b c "About Mike". MichaelSigner.com. Retrieved February 23, 2019.
  33. ^ Signer, Mike (2010-09-09). "Election Protection in Afghanistan". Huffington Post.
  34. ^ The Washington Post. "A. Michael Signer". Archived from the original on October 4, 2012. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
  35. ^ "Communities Overcoming Extremism: the After Charlottesville Project". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved May 15, 2019.
  36. ^ "It's a Scary World. Don't Campaign Reporters Care?". washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  37. ^ Shipman, Tim (2008-10-18). "Barack Obama's team is briefed by Bush staff after warnings about a terrorist attack". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved February 28, 2011.
  38. ^ Virginia Elections: Results Archived 2009-07-13 at the Wayback Machine; accessed February 17, 2015.
  39. ^ "Mayor Signer Appointed to Council on Virginia's Future". NBC29. July 8, 2016.
  40. ^ a b "Charlottesville City Council Elects Mike Signer as New Mayor". WVIR-TV. 2016-01-04. Retrieved 2017-08-19.
  41. ^ "Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville Rededicated". The Daily Progress. May 29, 2016.
  42. ^ "Monuments to the Battle for the New South". Politico. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  43. ^ "Al Thomas is Charlottesville's first black police chief". c-ville.com. April 20, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  44. ^ "Signer Declares City a Capital of Resistance against Trump". The Daily Progress. January 31, 2017.
  45. ^ "Welcoming Greater Charlottesville". Retrieved February 23, 2019.
  46. ^ "City Council Seeking to Create a Welcoming Community for Immigrants". The Daily Progress. April 22, 2017.
  47. ^ "Warner Discusses Entrepreneurial Ecosystems". The Daily Progress. July 15, 2016.
  48. ^ "Signer Points to Successes in State of the City Address". The Daily Progress. January 17, 2017.
  49. ^ "Stacy Pethia: Charlottesville's Advocate for Affordable Housing". Medium.com. November 18, 2018.
  50. ^ "Charlottesville City Council endorses open data goal". Charlottesville Tomorrow.
  51. ^ Staff, News. "Charlottesville council votes for online voter registration". newsplex.com. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  52. ^ "This Legal Tactic Can Keep Neo-Nazi Protests Out of Your City". The Washington Post. August 10, 2018.
  53. ^ "Charlottesville Named No. 4 in the U.S. for Entrepreneurship". University of Virginia. July 27, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  54. ^ "ADL In Concert Against Hate". Anti-Defamation League. November 16, 2018.
  55. ^ "Aspen Institute Rodel Fellowship Class of 2017". Aspen Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  56. ^ "Forward 50: Finding Inspiration in the Year of Trump". The Forward. Retrieved March 13, 2019.
  57. ^ "9th Annual DC Cal Cal Alumni Club Annual Reception Featuring Michael Signer". University of California Alumni Club of D.C. June 14, 2018. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
  58. ^ "American Society for Yad Vashem to Host 2019 Benefit Gala". May 14, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  59. ^ "2019 Rob DeBree and David O'Malley Award for Community Response to Hatred Award". August 28, 2019. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  60. ^ "Jerold S. Solovy Freedom Award Dinner". December 4, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  61. ^ "Virginia Mayor Deluged with Anti-Semitic Hate After Speaking Out Against Rally Led by White Supremacist". People. May 16, 2017.
  62. ^ "Jewish mayor in Virginia faces anti-Semitic tweets in aftermath of white supremacist protests". Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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