Liz Lempert: an unconventional politician
Liz Lempert, the first mayor of the consolidated Princeton, can seem more like a community organizer than a politician. Nevertheless, Lempert — a mother and local advocate who became known in the community through her involvement with the Obama campaign — has risen to the top of Princeton local politics in just five years.
Prior to politics, her experiences were diverse, including journalism, programming and volunteering for the 2008 Obama campaign.
Though she comes from a political family, Lempert said she didn’t harbor political ambitions growing up. During her childhood, Lempert’s mother once served as the mayor of San Mateo, Calif., and her brother is now involved in California state politics. Lempert instead pursued other careers until she entered Princeton local politics five years ago.
While a student at Stanford, Lempert said she was certain she wanted to be a journalist. She served as science editor of the Stanford Daily. Washington Post reporter Mike Laris, who was editor-in-chief of the Daily at the time, said Lempert was a source of calm in an often stressful newsroom. He described Lempert as “organized and responsible, with a good sense of what’s important.”
Laris recalled a story Lempert wrote in the aftermath of a major earthquake that examined the earthquake-readiness of the school’s buildings and received criticism from school administrators.
“That was sort of her style, to write about something that was important and not to shy away from people criticizing her for that,” he explained.
After graduating from Stanford — where she earned a B.A. in history and a B.S. in symbolic systems — Lempert worked briefly as a programmer for an artificial intelligence project in the Bay Area. When she moved to Boston with her husband, who was a graduate student in psychology, she returned to journalism.
While earning a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University, she interned at a National Public Radio-affiliated environmental news program, “Living on Earth.” She was hired by the program after earning her master’s and worked there as a producer for over a decade, first in Cambridge, then from Boulder, Colo., where her husband was a postdoctoral researcher, and finally from Princeton once her husband began working for the University.
“One of the great things about that show was it was more like an old-fashioned NPR show where we really tried to use the medium to its fullest,” Lempert said of the show, which she explained taught her to enjoy radio as a storytelling medium. “Sometimes you listen to something, and it would just take you right there.”
One of the things she enjoyed most about the job, she explained, was the experience of motivating and working with reporters.
“I realized that 99 percent of it is just finding really great reporters and making the editing experience productive and enjoyable so that at the end you both felt that it was a better product, but in a way that they felt like it was still their voice and still their story,” Lempert said.
When she moved to Princeton, Lempert continued to produce the show from home for a short time but said she preferred to work in an office setting. She then took charge of an outreach program hosted by her show’s production company to bring lessons in radio production to middle- and high-school students in rural and inner-city schools throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Lempert coordinated the program and worked individually with some students to edit their projects for national air. The experience, she said, was “really rewarding.”
After both of her daughters were born, Lempert stopped working for several years. Though she remained politically active through Save Our Schools-NJ, a parents’ advocacy group that she helped found, Lempert rose to prominence in the local political scene through her involvement as a volunteer organizer for President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Inspired by Obama’s biography "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race," Lempert attended the campaign’s Camp Obama volunteer training in the summer of 2007. Although she’d originally imagined volunteering in a more media-oriented role, she quickly got more than she’d bargained for. Because most of New Jersey’s Democratic political organizers were already firmly committed to the Clinton campaign, she said, there was a dearth of experienced organizers who could work on Obama’s behalf. Soon after, Lempert found herself co-leading the campaign’s efforts in Mercer County.
“I threw myself into it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a really exciting campaign to be a part of,” Lempert said of Mercer County campaign, which she led from the months before the primary until the general election in November. Under her leadership, the Mercer County chapter grew to over 3,000 members by the time of the election.
“She was the volunteer recruiter, motivator, and she was great at both,” explained Jeff Laurenti ’74, who worked with Lempert as co-coordinator of the Mercer4Obama campaign. He added that she showed a rare ability “to hold people’s loyalty and commitment, sustain their engagement by both a sympathetic ear and a quick response to concerns. Those are ingredients that you would think would be normal in politics, and they’re not.”
Lempert’s work during the 2008 presidential race was noticed by both the local Democratic party and the Princeton Township Committee. When a vacancy appeared on the Township Committee in December 2008, the local party tapped her to fill the spot.
Councilman Bernie Miller, a former committee member who voted to approve Lempert’s nomination in 2008, described her leadership style as “very collegial, but decisive” and particularly adept at communicating with others. “When she needs to talk with people, she seeks their thoughts, their opinions,” he said.
Lempert was re-elected to a second term on the Committee and became Township deputy mayor in January 2012. She was overwhelmingly elected mayor of the consolidated Princeton in November 2012.
In the first few weeks of the consolidated government, Lempert’s husband’s affiliation with the University became controversial as a potential conflict of interest that could interfere with her governing. At the first meeting of the town council on Jan. 14, several Council members criticized Lempert’s decision not to recuse herself from the Council’s discussion of the University’s annual payment in lieu of taxes, known as the PILOT. Some other members of the Council saw this action as a potential ethics violation because Lempert’s husband is a professor at the University.
While Lempert did not vote on the issue due to the mayor’s role as a non-voting member of the Council, she did not formally recuse herself from the Council’s discussion of the issue. Nor has she recused herself from negotiating the matter: While serving in the Township government, Lempert voted to approve the University’s PILOT agreements in both 2011 and 2012, the Princeton Packet reported. Her mayoral campaign website lists her role in negotiating the University PILOTs in both years among her other accomplishments in the Township government.
While Councilwoman Jo Butler abstained from the vote because she felt that ethical guidelines had been violated, she said at the meeting that Lempert’s own character was “beyond reproach.”
“There’s some things that the new municipality needs to get worked out,” Butler said, explaining that she would like to see a greater examination of conflicts of interest in the new municipality. “In the former Borough, it’s something that we’ve dealt with quite a bit. I don’t think they’ve had the same degree of issues in the Township.”
Despite the controversy, Lempert does not see her husband’s employment as a conflict of interest for the PILOT issue, she explained. Lempert said that she does not plan to recuse herself from the issue in the future.
“There is no conflict,” Lempert said, noting that because her husband is a tenured professor, the PILOT would in no way affect his career or compensation.
Lempert’s position as a mayor with personal ties to the University is not unusual for the local community in historical terms. Former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed and former Township Mayor Dick Woodbridge ’65 both had wives who were employed by the University. Decisions to recuse oneself due to conflicts of interest are made on a case-by-case basis. In recent years, the issue has arisen more frequently in the former Borough, where University lecturer Heather Howard served on the Council, than in the former Township, Butler explained.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of the Feb. 6 article "Liz Lempert, first mayor of unified Princeton" misstated a quotatiion by Councilwoman Jo Butler. She said Lempert's character was "beyond reproach." The 'Prince' regrets the error.