By Allison Scharmann
Liz Lempert, mayor of Princeton, N.J., is the kind of politician who chooses her words carefully. She’s coming to the end of her first term and four years filled with controversial battles including gentrification, wage theft, infrastructure, and other issues that reflect the town’s changing demographics.
A former journalist, Lempert jumped into politics with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and served as Princeton Township Deputy Mayor for four years. Since being elected mayor in 2012, she’s governed a town that’s experienced growing tension amid urban development and gentrification, especially in neighborhoods consisting largely of people of color.
“Housing prices have gone up so much, and the value of just the property itself even without a home on it has gone up so much, that it’s starting to have a real impact on the demographics in the community,” Lempert explained, furrowing her brow.
In 2016, the mayor designated Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as the town’s 20th historic district, saving the predominantly African-American neighborhood from local real-estate developers. She spoke proudly of her controversial decision, but recognized there’s still a long way to go in protecting the interests of people of color and Princeton’s middle class.
The mayor recently held hearings on the growing instances of wage theft in the town’s immigrant communities. Nearly a dozen victims showed up to voice their concerns, some speaking through translators. “We realized that we had the power to do something about it,” Lempert remembered. “We helped pass a law that changed lives.” The town council passed legislation to revoke the licenses of landscapers engaging in wage theft.
However, Lempert became visibly frustrated when it came to dealing with state leaders in Trenton: “I just find the state of New Jersey politics to be sad and frustrating and infuriating.”
“They’re not funding road projects and we have a bridge that’s falling apart,” continued Lempert, referring to the Stony Brook Bridge, a historic landmark built in 1792. The Christie administration has put a statewide freeze on infrastructure funding, stalling necessary repairs to the bridge.
This November, Lempert is running for re-election against a local real-estate developer, Republican Peter Marks. Strongly favored to win, Lempert says she is focused on making sure residents feel welcome.
“Oftentimes it’s some of the people who’ve lived here the longest, especially people of color, who feel like they don’t belong, and it’s both so sad and totally unacceptable,” she concluded.