The unusual story of how a dog became a town’s mayor

People line up to greet a golden retriever.
Naillah Benjell of Los Angeles greets Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III, otherwise known as Mayor Max III, the mayor of Idyllwild, during a public appearance.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Most politicians caught with their tail between their legs are voted out of office or run out of town, but not the mayor of Idyllwild, a small mountain community about 25 miles south of Banning.

Here the top dog is an actual dog — a 1-year-old, full grown American purebred golden retriever with the legal name of Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller III. People call him Mayor Max.

A golden retriever sits in a closet full of novelty ties.
Mayor Max III keeps a selection of ties inside his closet at his home in Idyllwild.

He’s the third dog to hold office in Idyllwild, part of a tradition dating back to 2012 when Idyllwild Animal Rescue Friends came up with a novel idea for a fundraiser: a mayoral election in which no humans were allowed to run, according to Phyllis Mueller, 72, who serves with her husband, Glen Warren, 59, as the mayor’s co-chiefs of staff.

Two people brush a dog.
Phyllis Mueller and her husband, Glen Warren, the mayor’s owners and co-chiefs of staff, tend to his grooming needs in their Mountain Center living room.
Mayor Max, a golden retriever, poses in Idyllwild.
Mayor Max III is the latest in a three-generation dynasty of Idyllwild mayors.

The animal election didn’t upset the local political establishment, since Idyllwild doesn’t have a human mayor of its own. The mountain town is unincorporated, with local political decisions handled by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

The planned bike lane would take a sliver out of a popular six-acre dog park. The dispute is part of a larger fight over the future of the Sepulveda Basin.

Nov. 6, 2023

Animal candidates (and their human owners) had to live in Idyllwild or the nearby towns of Fern Valley, Pine Cove or Mountain Center. It cost a dollar to vote and people were encouraged to cast as many ballots as they liked. With 21,132 votes, Maximus Mighty Dog Mueller defeated 13 other dogs and two cats (and netted the animal rescue more than $31,000).

He was the first in a political dynasty now stretching three generations.

If you ask Mueller, the most unusual part of the whole arrangement wasn’t that it resulted in a canine mayor, but the fact that the process was nonpartisan.

“When you become the president of the United States, half the people in the country hate you on the first day — that’s not fun,” she said. “But it would be fun to be able to create a mayoral office without anybody pushing an agenda on you that you have to be one way or another.”

That’s not to say Mayor Max and his successors don’t serve a political purpose. Mueller — who runs a marketing firm in Idyllwild — says she interviewed business owners before the first animal election to learn about their wants: more traffic and thus more business.

VIDEO | 00:33
Mayor Max III, mayor of Idyllwild.

Follow as Mayor Max III greets his constituents during his visit to Idyllwild.

“If I were mayor of Idyllwild and I told people that I was going to be downtown at 2 p.m. to meet the people, most people wouldn’t come and they certainly wouldn’t come every day,” Mueller said. “If I publish that Mayor Max is going to be downtown at 2 p.m. ... hundreds of people will come because it’s interesting and unusual to see a dog as a mayor.”


Two golden retrievers play with people in the back of an SUV.


Two golden retrievers greet a third dog from the back of a car.


Two golden retrievers

1. Joseph Samuels, 92, of Santa Monica is warmly greeted by Vice Mayor Meadow Mighty-Dog Mueller in downtown Idyllwild. The mayor and vice mayor regularly hand out novelty ties at public appearances. 2. Mayor Max III and Vice Mayor Meadow Mighty-Dog Mueller greet one of their own kind. 3. Mayor Max, with Vice Mayor Meadow, in the back of their mayor-mobile.

There are public appearances in downtown Idyllwild on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends. Private appearances at schools, nursing homes, hospice organizations and businesses round out the calendar. The mayor has attended birthday parties and weddings, Mueller said. There’s no fee for a public or private event; though like all politicians the mayor accepts donations.

As the mayor-mobile turns off of Highway 243 onto North Circle Drive, often with the mayor’s head sticking out the window, people are already lined up cheering and clapping.

 Mayor Max III during a ribbon cutting.
Mayor Max III, with owner Glen Warren, oversees Taylor Brechtel’s ribbon-cutting at the grand opening of Recht Gallery in Idyllwild.

One Monday morning, Mayor Max III showed up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new art gallery in town.

Before Mueller could get his tie on, Mayor Max tried to eat it. With some help, she managed to get the mayor into his professional attire before the gallery owner snipped a yellow ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors. (At events Mueller hands out novelty neckties — more than 12,000 a year, she said — and some 10,000 Mayor Max calendars.)

A golden retriever looks up with interest at a plate of candy.
Mayor Max III requests a closer look at chocolates being served to guests inside Recht Gallery. He does not charge a fee for appearances, although like many politicians he is willing to accept donations.
A woman poses with two golden retrievers.
Maison Parker of Orange poses with Mayor Max III, left, and Vice Mayor Meadow during a public appearance in downtown Idyllwild.

”Just by having his support, having his draw here, will bring more people to the gallery and help spread the word about the gallery in this community of Idyllwild so I’m grateful,” said Taylor Brechtel, owner/curator of Recht Gallery.

The first Mayor Max took office on July 1, 2012, but was diagnosed with cancer and put down in April 2013. Mueller and her husband acquired another American purebred golden retriever, who under the name Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller II took office as a 2-month-old puppy and finished out the term. According to Mueller, when it came time for the next vote, the townspeople came forward and said no more elections: They wanted Max to be mayor for life.

You may think you chose to read this, but Stanford scientist Robert Sapolsky would disagree. He says virtually all human behavior is beyond our conscious control.

Oct. 17, 2023

Mayor Max II served until July 30, 2022, succumbing to cancer at the age of 9. Mayor Max III began his term on December 9, 2022, at the age of 3 months.

His sister from the same litter travels in his entourage as vice mayor of Idyllwild, Meadow Mighty-Dog Mueller.

Smiling visitors greet golden retrievers.
Michaela Watkins, Susan Orlean and Emily Halpern meet with the mayor, foreground, and vice mayor in Idyllwild.

The novelty of a canine mayor has brought the mountain town broader attention. Mayor Max has nearly 100,000 Instagram followers, and almost 50,000 followers on a Facebook account that updates his daily whereabouts.

But it’s also a major investment of time and money for Mueller and Warren, who shepherd the mayor and his entourage — all golden retrievers — to his events, and cover much of the costs themselves.


“I like the message of a golden retriever, which is unconditional love,” Mueller said.

Golden retrievers jump on a kneeling man.
Alex Tang of Sierra Madre visits with Mayor Max and Vice Mayor Meadow during a visit to the Mueller home.

Mayor Max III is a labor of love for me and we’re not going anywhere as long as he’s loved and adored the way he is. As long as we believe that we’re really helping so many people around the globe live a happier life, I’m not going to end it.

— Phyllis Mueller

A golden retriever at a kitchen sink with a stuffed dog nearby.
Meadow Mighty-Dog Mueller, the vice mayor of Idyllwild, climbs up next to the kitchen sink at her home in Mountain Center.