In His Blood
Jeff Williams, mayor of a tiny town south of Las Vegas, battles economic and medical struggles with the same upbeat vigor
Three afternoons a week, Needles Mayor Jeff Williams drops his work at City Hall and makes the half-hour trip into Arizona for a critical appointment he knows he cannot miss — not even once. At these times he doesn’t meet with bureaucrats. There are no sessions with chamber of commerce, water, or air-quality officials, although he sits on all those community boards, and more.
With his doting 75-year-old mother, Deloris, playing chauffeur, Williams visits a medical clinic in Bullhead City, wincing as a nurse sticks him with a needle “the size of a garden hose” and the ominous machine by his side begins to whirr. For three hours, he undergoes an exhausting kidney dialysis procedure that drains, cleans, and replaces all the blood in his body. When he’s finally done, the 55-year-old Oklahoma native is so weary it’s difficult to stand.
Then his mother drives him straight home, where he has a quick dinner, puts on his pajamas, and drops into bed.
Or not. Sometimes, there are meetings to attend, people to meet, responsibilities he can’t ignore. The mayor never complains, even after three long years of the same tiring drill. Williams has kidney cancer. Not only that, he’s suffered from pancreatitis, pneumonia, and heart and kidney failure that has nearly killed him.
Williams is rail-thin, with thick graying hair he wears swept back, like a 1940s TV heartthrob. His voice is raspy. Deep lines run across his forehead. He has lost 40 pounds during his cancer battle. But he keeps going.
Ask anyone: Jeff Williams is no typical public official. He’s lived in this desert community since he was in the second grade. He got married here, raised three children, and doted on 13 grandkids, spending a decade as a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy before entering local politics 20 years ago.
This tiny town is in his beleaguered blood. Just 110 miles south of Las Vegas, close enough to feel the city’s gravitational pull, the town lies on the western banks of the Colorado River, named after a nearby set of jagged mountain teeth known as “the needles.” Most of the population is elderly, well past their working days. Needles is also geographically isolated from the rest of California — the next nearest town is 140 miles and two mountain ranges distant — which hasn’t helped its economic health. As of the 2010 census, some 30 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line.
Today, the downtown is marred by boarded-up storefronts, the quiet pierced by the whistles of the 100 or so freight trains that roll past the town on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines — sounds that take Williams back to his childhood here.
Over the years, he’s seen railroad and freight industries fail, slashing Needles’ population by nearly two-thirds, from 12,000 to fewer than 5,000. Nowadays, the traffic that used to stop here along old U.S. Route 66 has diminished. Recent years have seen more houses burned in fires than being built, more businesses closing than opening.
“This city was literally dying,” Williams recalls. “Nobody was being born here.”
As mayor, Williams wants to fix roads and refurbish the community center. He loves his hometown for its familiarity and camaraderie. He calls it a great place to raise a family, without traffic or gang violence, with one of California’s lowest crime rates. But will there be enough jobs for the next generation? That keeps him up at night.
Three years ago, doctors removed a mammoth cancerous tumor, leading to an exasperating wait for an available kidney transplant donor. Meanwhile, he undergoes the regular, fatiguing dialysis just to stay alive.
But his schedule as a small-town mayor is unrelenting. He takes calls while hooked to the dialysis machine. He hasn’t missed a single City Council session. On trips, he buys a fast-food drink and empties it right out, keeping the cup in case he gets sick behind the wheel. All with a smile.
“Jeff never, ever complains, ever,” says Pam Blake, a former Chamber of Commerce president. “He can be looking like death warmed over, and he doesn’t complain. He has had so many health setbacks, but he never gripes about anything. He’ll complain about progress in the city, but never about himself.”
Take his 2018 state-of-the-city address, which fell on the same day as a dialysis session. Williams was miserable — not because he had to give the speech, but because he was so tired, he couldn’t do it the way he wanted. He’d planned on an energetic pep-talk and PowerPoint presentation about the town’s budding economic recovery. Since California legalized marijuana, he’d stress, Needles had attracted a new crop of cannabis businesses that he hopes will add 2,100 new jobs.
But when he arrived at the Giggling Cactus restaurant that evening, he just didn’t have the energy. “I’d memorized my entire speech,” Williams recalls. “But I was so tired, I had to read it. I like to make eye contact with people, but I just couldn’t. I just wasn’t on my game that night.”
One morning, as he sits at the popular Wagon Wheel diner talking about his health and that of his city, a waitress refills his iced tea. “She was a student of mine in high school,” Williams says, referring to a law-enforcement course he taught. “Smart girl.”
Williams knows everyone in Needles. It’s one reason he entered politics, after serving as president of a girls’ softball league. “Jeff loves this town,” says Glenda, his wife of 36 years. “As long as I’ve known him, Jeff has talked about getting into local politics.”
In April 2000, at age 38, he was elected to his first term in the City Council. He won more votes than any other candidate.
He thrived in the role. As he mentored his children and grandchildren in football, car racing, and the church, residents came to him with their problems, knowing he would listen. He helped build a local youth skatepark with a $25,000 donation from professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, who attended the opening.
All the while, his physician advised that he keep a close eye on his right kidney. Williams had known the organ was ailing, he just didn’t know why — whether it was hereditary or, perhaps, he speculates, his long-term exposure to drugs as a sheriff’s deputy.
Then, in 2016, doctors found a cancerous mass on his troubled kidney that was bigger than the organ itself. His father had died of cancer that year and his mother “was wore out.” The news hit hard. “It was a kick in the gut,” he says.
Then vice-mayor, he figured his days might be numbered. So he did two things that were decidedly un-Jeff Williams.
He had his earlobes pierced, sporting two new flashy diamond earrings, twin symbols of a man reckoning with his mortality. He traded in his trusted Chevy Silverado pickup for a silver Camaro with a red racing stripe and the vanity plate “Jamn Jef.”
“Our mouths dropped,” Glenda recalls at the Wagon Wheel. “Jeff was never wild. He was never into nose rings or tattoos.”
Williams sips from his ice tea and smiles: “I’m still hiding my nipple rings.”
Time went into warp speed. Williams had the tumor removed and started kidney dialysis. In November 2016, he took over as Needles’ mayor.
His mother was against the move. Why not just concentrate on being a cancer patient? “Jeff does what he wants,” she says. “Being busy helps him.”
Medical expenses mounted with Williams’ $1-a-month mayoral salary, so with checks of $25, $50, and $100, residents raised $5,000 though social media. People whom Williams arrested years ago on drug and drunk-driving offenses have knocked on his door, asking what they can do to help.
Vice-Mayor Ed Paget, 80, has replaced Williams on some out-of-town trips. “I don’t know if I could do it, what he’s doing, as sick as he is,” Paget says. “But Jeff is dedicated. He cares about this town. Not even cancer is going to stop him.”
Sometimes, his younger sister Kathy recalls, “Jeff is so tired I cannot believe he’s standing, but the minute he sees someone, it sparks a big smile. No one would know he’s hurting,” she says. “But the minute they’re gone, he ages. He wants to be that people person. He doesn’t want anyone to worry about him.”
Brett Hodgin, Williams’ best friend from childhood, was unprepared for what he found on one visit home. “It just knocked me down,” he says. “Jeff was using a cane. He looked so frail. But he was going wide-open for the city.”
Recently, after being declared cancer-free for two years, Williams began looking for a kidney donor. Kathy was the first to volunteer. She underwent voluminous tests and paperwork and a procedure was scheduled. Williams was elated, just imagining a life without constant dialysis.
Then doctors ruled her out, saying losing a kidney would compromise her own health.
The family was devastated, and no one felt worse than Kathy. Since then, others have stepped up, including Kathy’s son, Williams’ own children, and Glenda. Williams doesn’t want anyone to risk their own health trying to help save his life.
“I don’t want to reach 90 only to find that a nephew has to go into dialysis at age 50 because I’ve taken one of his kidneys,” he says. “I couldn’t live with that.”
Others in town have also volunteered to be tested as possible donors. “I’m humbled that a stranger would go through that for me,” Williams says.
Back on Track
Meanwhile, the mayor stays busy.
“My Dad still coaches football with me,” says son Andy. “I’ve seen him exhausted from dialysis and still not lose one step. He takes his grandkids to NASCAR events in Las Vegas or Fontana. Worn down, beat up, he makes sure he’s always there for them.”
Williams sometimes gets disheartened. The constant dialysis sessions take too much of his precious time. “With this kidney crap, it’s frustrating to not be able to take care of business. If a developer comes to town and wants to build houses, I want to meet with him. I’ve had to miss meetings. It drives me nuts. There’s so much stuff to do, and I’m stuck to that machine three hours a day, three times a week.”
Even as he’s battled his own health, Williams has fought to get Needles back on track. To fix local roads and rebuild the community center, he’s using grant money and funds from the town’s new cannabis tax.
Last year, Williams expected Needles to reap $500,000 from the tax, but the figure turned out to be a whopping $1.2 million. And the biggest operations are yet to open, he says, which will make that tax base soar even higher. Presently, 14 cannabis operations are up and running, with permits for 87 more.
But Williams is shrewd. He realizes that pot might be a flash in the pan, so he is trying to diversify the businesses he’s luring to town, including plastics manufacturers and other big energy users that would be attracted by the town’s low land prices and electricity rates, which are one-third of other California locales.
And you can bet Mayor Williams has an eye on his legacy. He can already point to an unemployment rate that, at 2.2 percent, is the lowest in San Bernardino County. Since he took office, the town’s median income has risen $7,500, and in the last three years the average home value has jumped from $69,000 to $96,000. Jeff Williams plans to leave Needles better than he found it.
He’s also given up his earrings and plans to trade in the Camaro for another pickup. “I need six seats for the grandkids,” he says.
At the Wagon Wheel, Williams looks happy — the proud nucleus of both a family and an entire community. After all, there are new jobs to create, a city economy to revitalize, a tomorrow to plan. He wants to be around for all that.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Glenda says. “He promised me we’d see 80 together.”
As he leaves, Williams greets a longtime friend, who gives him a long emotional embrace. Then the mayor walks out the door, headed for another dialysis session.
Not exactly smiling, but determined.