December 23, 2020

Liz Lempert’s Eight Years As Mayor Draw to a Close

By Anne Levin

When Princeton Council gathers for its annual reorganization meeting on Monday, January 4, it will be the first time in eight years that Liz Lempert will not be presiding as mayor. Lempert steps down officially on December 31, and new mayor Mark Freda, a fellow Democrat, will take her place on the dais.

Lempert’s tenure has been eventful, to say the least. It began in 2013 with consolidation of the former Borough and Township. It concludes with the ongoing challenge of managing Princeton’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way, issues from parking to sustainability to affordable housing to over-development have dominated Council’s agendas, almost always with spirited commentary from the public on different sides of the issues.

“There have been challenges, for sure,” said Lempert during a telephone interview. “But we also benefit from the fact that not just Council, but members of the community, get involved. People recognize that Princeton is a special place. People want to see what’s best for the town. They really want to do what’s best. There is not always agreement as to what that is. But I think most people come to the table with pure intentions. If you remember that, it helps get you through when people are butting heads.”

Lempert, who is 52, grew up in San Mateo, Calif., in a politically-oriented family. Her mother was mayor, served on the school board, and “was very proudly the president of the local League of Women Voters,” she said. “So I grew up in the back of the room with my coloring book during meetings. It was before email or anything online, so I remember having these massive mailing parties. There were shoe boxes with addresses on them, and we were there, stamping and licking the envelopes.”

Her older brother, too, was in government, at 28 the youngest person to serve in the state assembly. Despite the political pedigree, Lempert opted for journalism after graduating from Stanford University. But politics began to get her attention after she moved to Princeton with her husband, Princeton University Professor Ken Norman, now the chair of the University’s Department of Psychology, in 2002. In 2007, Lempert got involved in the Obama campaign, co-chairing Mercer4Obama. She is credited with increasing the number of volunteers from a dozen to over 3,000. She served on the former Township Committee from 2008 to 2012 before being elected mayor of the merged Township and Borough.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I feel like my personality is really different from my mother. I’m not one of these people who ever envisioned myself to run. Maybe it was being in Princeton, and getting engaged in the Obama campaign. It was different from what I knew. It made me think of politics in a different way. So much of it was community engagement, working with a group of people to affect change. That was what appealed to me. But I know I must have absorbed my early experiences without realizing it.”

Considering challenges she has faced as mayor, Lempert rates consolidation at the top of the list. “In some ways, we had to start from scratch,” she said. “Or we had to be really intentional about how we wanted to set up so many of the big departments, because we were coming from two different ways of going about things. We had to think about which traditions and which norms to use; how we were going to work together. And there were financial benchmarks we needed to hit, and deliver on the promise voters had voted for. It was an enormous group effort, and I was very lucky to have the Consolidation Commission and the Transition Task Force to do so much.”

Reaching an agreement on the affordable housing obligation was another daunting undertaking. “We really worked to navigate meeting the obligation we had,” Lempert said.” “But we weren’t just viewing it as a number. Since we were building housing, the question was how do we do it and locate it in areas that make sense, and leverage that density to really benefit the community? That was the challenge.”

Lempert’s first term overlapped with the Obama administration. Her second was in the time of Trump. “Obviously, you have very different policies coming from the federal government,” she said. “A challenge we faced was, how do we be a welcoming community? How do we make sure that we all understand what the role of local government is, and make sure every member of the community feels like the local government is there for them? And if they need help, can they feel safe coming to us?”

Grappling with the pandemic has dominated the last year of Lempert’s administration. She is grateful for the help local government has had from the local community. “Between the health department, human services, and all of our community partners, the response to COVID has been amazing,” she said. “The community has been so generous. Rental assistance programs, the resiliency fund for local businesses, partnering with the [Princeton] Seminary for quarantine housing, and wraparound services for anybody that needed the help — whenever we made a call to anybody for help, the answer was pretty much always yes. I am not taking the credit. It was the community coming together and helping each other, and that was a wonderful thing to see.”

Turning to Zoom as a replacement for in-person government meetings has been an adjustment. But the results have been surprising. “I don’t know if it’s all because of Zoom, but there has been a political awakening here in the past year,” Lempert said. “Like any tool, it has positive and negative connotations. But in terms of participation, it has been amazing. People who normally wouldn’t be coming to a Council meeting are tuning in. They are more diverse, and they are younger. Zoom makes it easier for people who have kids to attend. So it’s more accessible. Of course, there are downsides to not being able to meet in person. There is something about being in the same room with everybody when you’re trying to hammer out a compromise that is better, and we miss that. My hope is that going forward, there might be some sort of hybrid. Princeton won’t be the only town trying to figure this out. It’s exciting to think about being able to open things up and have more people participate, not just in Council meetings but in Board and Commission meetings too.”

Lempert is especially proud of accomplishments done in collaboration with Sustainable Princeton. “We did the Climate Action Plan, the solar field on the landfill that Bernie Miller led when he was Council president, and were able to preserve over 40 acres of open space,” she said. “I’m also proud of Access Princeton, which we launched and which has been a great service. I’m proud of the consolidation of the two police departments, and so much of the credit for that goes to former Chief Sutter and Captain Morgan, who is now Chief Morgan. They really created a culture that has been open and progressive and community-focused. I’m also proud of the fact that we were ahead of a lot of the national conversation making clear a policy when it came to immigration, that local police were separate from ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. We had a lot of success with combating wage theft. And I’m proud of the designation of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as a historic district. It is important to recognize the historic contributions of the Black community.”

With two daughters to raise, carving out family time was a priority during Lempert’s time in office. “At times it was hard,” she said. “But one of the advantages of being mayor was that I was able to set my schedule a bit more. I tried to do a lot of my work between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. when my kids were at school. From 3 to 7, I would be home and make dinner; then go back for evening meetings. I was able to structure my day that way often. But there is no way I would have been able to do this without the support of my family. It made my kids more independent. Everybody learned to cook and do the laundry.”

So what’s next?

“I’m still exploring options at this point,” Lempert said. “I definitely want to take a break for a bit. There are so many issues I really care passionately about that I’d still like to work on in some capacity.”

As for running for office, “I don’t think so,” she said. “I think being mayor is probably the best job there is in politics, especially in a place like Princeton. I spend zero time fundraising. It’s a small enough community where you can see the impact of your work. And people really know one another. It’s easy to pick up the phone and bring people together whatever the challenge might be. And you can’t have gridlock at the local level. A lot of the posturing and other things that make it difficult for well-intentioned people serving in federal or state government doesn’t happen at the local level. You can cut to the chase and work on things.”