Calmness and continuity: the story of Princeton mayor Liz Lempert

By Jamal Burns
St. Louis, MO

Liz Lempert sits in a beige conference room in Princeton’s municipal complex. The room is utterly silent, besides the faint hum of central air conditioning. But the calmness of the room belies persistent tension in the Princeton community, whether about the environment, the cost of housing, or racial prejudices on Princeton University’s campus.

Lempert, 46, is the first mayor of the newly consolidated Princeton Township. But she hasn’t always been in politics. She started her unconventional journey in journalism, as an editor for the Stanford Daily, and later, as a graduate student at Boston University. “I thought I was going to go into print [journalism] because you gravitate to what comes easy to you, and I always loved writing,” she said.

She went on to work in the technology sector and to take time out of her career to raise her children. In 2008, she found herself helping Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in New Jersey. That same year, she was elected to the Princeton Township Committee, and in 2012 was elected mayor of Princeton’s new consolidated government with 64 percent of the vote.

Lempert spoke in a quiet but powerful voice as she conveyed her acute awareness on a plethora of issues in the Princeton community. At the top of Lempert’s list of concerns was gentrification. “[People of color are] struggling with the amount of development,” she said. “Housing prices have gone up so much, [leading to] demographic change.”

When asked about Princeton University’s racial and social dilemma with Woodrow Wilson, she noted,  “How do we have this person whose name is all over the place without knowing the history?” When asked if Wilson’s name should be removed from campus buildings, she clasped her hands close to her body–as if afraid to say something incorrectly. Ultimately, she did not express an opinion one way or the other.

Even when she’s discussing the most controversial issues, she remains calm, projecting continuity in a community that’s rapidly changing.

What was a leader like this going to do after politics? “I don’t know,” she joked. “I’m running for re-election.” Her challenger this November will be the Republican commercial real estate developer Peter Marks.

What she seems to love most is Princeton’s unique history. “You can trace your history back five generations or more,” she says with a smile.

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