Leighton Newlin is running for a vacant seat on Princeton’s Town Council in the 2021 election. Previously, he served as chair of the Princeton Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. He is running unopposed.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: So I want to start with a very broad question: why local government?
Leighton Newlin: Tip O'Neill said a long time ago, “all politics [are] local.” And if you think about it, looking at what's going on on the national level, nothing could be more important than that attitude and paying attention to local issues and government at this time. There's not a whole lot we here at Princeton can do about what's going on in several states in the United States to circumvent a vote of Black and brown people and people disenfranchised. But here at Princeton, we can make a difference in the lives of the people who live here on a local basis. I have for most of my adult life been a champion for the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where I was born and raised, the 20th, now Historic District in Princeton, and the home of the African-American and Italian-American communities. This is where I have been planning my community advocacies for the people who live in the neighborhood. And I felt the time was right, given what's going on on the national level and even on a local level, not to just look out for the individuals and families that live in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, but all the citizenry, all 33,000 people that live here in Princeton.
DP: You've done a lot of work in criminal justice, in small businesses, and you've been Chair of the Princeton Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. So what do you think is the biggest issue facing Princeton right now? How do you want to solve it?
LN: Let me first start by saying that Princeton is not broke. Are there some things we can do better? Yes, there are. But there are a host of issues that will be important to Princeton going forward. Probably first and foremost is our human infrastructure, how we fulfill our moral obligation to each other as citizens. I believe that Princeton can be a world-class town, not just because of the University, but because of, as I said, how to fulfill our moral obligation to each other as citizens. We have an obligation to provide safe and affordable housing. That will be a major part and portion of focused growth going forward. Straight, no chaser affordability in our town.
The fact that in our town, generally, taxes have risen prohibitively over the last 12 years and in particular, in the Witherspoon-Jackson, historically African-American neighborhood. My taxes have gone up, have tripled in the last 12 years. So my fear is that if Princeton does not change its current trajectory of disabling low and moderate-income homeowners and bringing in line property taxes, that in the next 20 to 30 years, we will stand the possibility of losing our diversity, both figuratively and literally. And also losing the soul, figuratively and literally, of Princeton in the next 20 years, so that we could be in danger of not having a town that has real diversity or real inclusivity. We might have a town, if we're not careful, that has no middle class, and few people of low income and the rest, just very, very rich people.
I would hope that during my time on council, and even after that we can address the issues that are around diversity, inclusivity, social justice, and social equity, which are all major issues that need to be dealt with in the not-too-distant future of Princeton. In addition, we have climate resiliency, which will be a very big issue. And also, I think a big issue is that children of color get quality education, and I would also like to see that more children of color matriculate through vocational training and college programs than we have had in the recent past.
DP: What challenges do you see, if any, on addressing these issues?
LN: Well, the challenges, as I see it, are that Princeton readily has the bandwidth, the intelligence, and intellect. What I want to challenge the citizenry of Princeton with is to expand the bandwidth of willingness to perform those actions and activities that level the playing field for everyone in Princeton, not just for some of the people here at Princeton, but for all of the people here at Princeton.
One of, I think, our most significant challenges is to take a look at our partnership with the University, Town, and Gown, to have a greater understanding that as the University goes, the town goes, and as the town goes, the University goes. Certainly, as Princeton University has to continue to build or be and become a world-class institution, they are going to have to draw upon world-class educational talent and professor talent. And professors of color among all educational realms are not going to migrate to Princeton if indeed the town lacks any level of diversity or social equity program. So that is, I believe, a critical issue, to address in the partnership. And also I believe what's most critical about the partnership is that with the University's help, we can build the human and social and sustainable infrastructure that we need to take us into the future.
DP: If a University student wants to become more involved with the town, what would you say to them?
LN: Get involved. University students are real savvy. They got Google, they got access to information everywhere, and we have boards and activities and as a matter of fact, I have been in touch with several University students over this past year. We were working on sort of incubation ideas and activities, where they reached out to people from the local community. And I think as we do more of that and to embrace, in particular, many of the young kids and young people that go to the University who are people of color to let them know that there is not only the University here in Princeton, but a vibrant community all over this town and that it is begging for people to get involved, to make a difference in all kinds of social activities with regard to hunger issues, educational issues, vocational training issues, social awareness issues.
There are opportunities for individuals that attend the University to get involved in the town that the University calls home. Because, as you know, the history of Princeton University along with Princeton Theological Seminary is high in deeds of slavery, of Jim Crow-ism, of bigotry, and of racism. And those are challenges that I believe the Princeton University student body should be aware of and should be able to meet head-on during their four or however many years they spend here and call this home.
DP: My final question is one that's very prevalent on campus and you can answer it however you'd like. The question is: why Princeton?
LN: Well, I’m a native son. Born and raised. I could not live here if it were not for my grandfather, may he rest in peace, Clarence, nicknamed Fox, Madden who had the wherewithal in 1939 after arriving in Princeton from the slave plantation in South Carolina to work hard, to help build through Matthews Construction Company employment, the infrastructure of the University and the infrastructure of Princeton. To buy a home here at 230 Birch Avenue where I'm speaking to you from. But because Princeton is my home, Princeton is where I was born, and where I received one of the greatest elementary, middle school, and high school educations I think, on planet Earth, and after graduating from high school here had the opportunity to go to Lincoln University, the first HBCU, historically black college and university, in the United States of America.
I live here, I'm a native son, I still live here, and Princeton can be that city on a hill. You can be a world-class city with world-class infrastructure and world-class people. But again, we have the bandwidth, we have the resources, we have the intellect. What we need to push is the willpower not just for some people, but for the people here in Princeton, to stand tall and to understand that this city can be recognized as much for its infrastructure, for its human infrastructure, for the way we deliver services to each other as citizens in this community, as much as it is as a world-class international university.
And that's why Princeton. It's local, it’s grassroots, it’s where I was born and raised, and I owe Princeton a lot, and that’s why I decided to take a try at being a member of the city council. And I owe my ancestry to my grandfather and those African-Americans and Italian-Americans who purchased infrastructure and who called the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and community home. They deserve representation that takes us into the future. And I believe I have the requisite skill set, to do it, and to do it with humility and humanity.
DP: Is there anything final you’d like to say before your election?
LN: I suppose just this. I love this quote, it’s Victor Hugo. He said, “Being good is easy. What is difficult is being just.”
Charlie Roth is a news contributor for the “Prince.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @imcharlieroth on Twitter or Instagram.