October 22, 2021

The heights of power

Why are greater Cortland’s mayors so tall?

Shenandoah Briere/contributing photographer

Village of Homer Mayor Darren “Hal” McCabe, who is 6 feet, 7 inches tall, shakes hands with Village of Moravia Mayor Gary Mulvaney, who stands at 5 feet, 4 inches.

Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson and Donald Trump all have it in common. It’s not just that they were elected president of the United States, they are all taller than the average man.

They are 6-foot-4, 6-foot-3 1/2 and 6-foot-3, respectively.

Of the nine mayors — eight men and one woman — in the greater Cortland area four of the men are above average U.S. height, three are around the average height and one man is below. The only female mayor is an inch taller than the average woman’s height in the U.S.

The Guinness Book of World Records recently gave the title of world’s tallest politician to Brooklyn District 36 representative Robert Cornegy, Jr., who measures at 6-feet-7.

However, after the announcement, taller politicians came forward. North Dakota’s insurance commissioner, Jon Godfread, is 6-foot-11 3/4. Brad Sellers, the mayor of Warrensville, Ohio, is 7 feet and Yao Ming, a former basketball player and delegate in the advisory body to China’s National People’s Congress is 7-foot-6.

That many political leaders are tall isn’t a coincidence, said Greg Murray, a political science professor at Augusta University in Georgia and author of Caveman Politics. Evolutionary psychology is the reason people tend to elect taller people or put taller people in positions of power.

Hard to miss

It’s hard to miss Homer Mayor Darren “Hal” McCabe, who is 6-foot-7 and neighboring Cortland City Mayor Brian Tobin, who is 6-foot-4. They are the two tallest mayors in the greater Cortland area. However, both said they hope people haven’t elected them just because of their height.

“That is like being looked up to because I have brown hair, it’s not really something I had anything to do with,” McCabe said. “Plus, and this might sound strange, but I don’t actually see myself as a tall person. In fact, when I see other tall people, even if they are 4 to 5 inches shorter than I am, I think, ‘Woah, look at how tall that guy is!’”

While McCabe’s parents were both taller than average — 5-foot-4 for women and 5-foot-9 for men — he was the tallest by far in his family.

So, what makes McCabe remember how tall he is? A number of things: building structures, clothes shopping, furniture, cars and planes.

“I hit my head on things constantly and walk half-stooped over a lot of the time just as a precaution,” he said.

If he can find one, McCabe can sometimes get outfits at a big-and-tall store, otherwise he sticks to shopping online. The clothes aren’t the greatest quality, either, he said.

“My friends give me a hard time about how much I pack when we go camping, but then I have to show them that one pair of my pants take up as much room as three pairs of theirs,” he said.

McCabe said he used to book his own flights at a previous job and had to use Seat Guru to find seats he could fit in. And he’s strictly a Ford guy because he said they tend to have more room.

“I had a job a few years back where I needed to rent cars weekly and Hertz got to the point where they would just let me go out in the lot and try out cars until I found one I could fit in,” McCabe said.

He must make his own accommodations at his offices in Homer and Albany: “I just brought in some bricks and put my desk up on them.”

Evolutionary psychology

Murray said the concept of putting taller people in leadership roles dates back to the beginning of civilization and spans all cultures.

“This stuff seems like it shouldn’t matter, but then it does tend to matter,” he said. “People found that if they get an ally that can help them acquire the resources that they need and that if they are bigger, more physically formidable, then they have a greater chance at survival.”

“If you had someone of a bigger stature helping you, then someone who is smaller may not want to take you on,” he added.

Murray tested his theory in two studies. He asked U.S. and international undergraduate students across the nation to draw the ideal national leader and the typical citizen. His prediction that more people were likely to draw a taller national leader was true, with 64% of the subjects doing so.

“This is important evidence to evolutionary psychologists, because they argue that a universal behavior cannot be explained by people learning from their specific environment; therefore, evolutionary forces, not environmental- cultural forces, are the most likely explanation for the behavior,” he writes in Caveman Politics on Psychology Today’s website.

However, he also looked at whether tall people tend to push their way toward more powerful and leadership positions. He found that to be true, too — at least for men.

“Men who tend to be more physically larger in terms of height are more likely to think of themselves as being qualified as leaders and because they are more likely to think of themselves as being leaders they are more likely to put themselves forward as a leader,” he said.

Murray said he suspects this is because the person was surrounded by people who, well, looked up to them.

He also noted that people of a larger stature, including height, tend to make more money, have higher educations and achieve a higher status in life.

‘Adjust the microphone’

Tobin isn’t the only tall one in his family. He’s an inch taller than his brother. His dad was 6 feet and his mom 5-foot-9.

The neat thing about having another tall mayor like McCabe close by is that he doesn’t have to bend down to have a conversation.

“It’s like, ‘Oh this is what it’s like to be at the same height,’” Tobin said.

In case you’re wondering, he doesn’t mind getting things from the top shelf at a grocery store. In fact, he volunteers.

He hasn’t had to make too many accommodations for his height, but it does add one task to his political and official events.

“I’ve learned that the first thing I should do is adjust the microphone.”

There’s more than height

However, shorter mayors stress that it’s not all in the height.

Though she may be small compared to McCabe, Tully Mayor Melissa Flint-Morgan is actually an inch taller than the average woman in the United States.

She also has a nose ring and — as an owner of a local coffee shop — she often dresses casually for work, sometimes with pigtails, features that could overshadow her 5 foot 5 inch frame.

Flint-Morgan said her age, 34, and gender are more of a consideration in how she’s treated than her height.

“I always feel like I have to kind of just quickly say ‘It’s going great, I love being a leader in my community,’ then I need to give them a taste of some of my accomplishments I’ve done since becoming mayor, otherwise they think I’m on a learning journey that will never end, still getting my feet wet,” she said.

Moravia Mayor Gary Mulvaney, who’s been mayor for 10 years and was a village trustee for six years before that, said he was always been drawn to leadership roles, despite his frame. At 5-foot-4, he is as tall as America’s shortest president, James Madison.

The only thing height has stopped Mulvaney from doing was playing basketball.

“I never could make the team because I wasn’t tall enough, but it wasn’t a biggie to me one way or another,” Mulvaney said.

So he played football and tennis and his stature never interfered in people looking to him as a leader, he said.

“It’s never affected me one way or another,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of groups and organizations and everything else and it’s never come up.”

Senior Reporter Catherine Wilde contributed to this report.