Shake Hands and Say Hello
My politics got a liberal boost when I left for college in upstate New York — it was, after all, 1968. After graduation, I worked in New York City kitchens and kicked around for a couple years in Europe, the Caribbean and California before returning to New Jersey and earning a PhD in psychology at Rutgers.
Annick Elziere: It is my pleasure to be speaking with Mayor Warren Cooper, newly elected in a little town resting on the banks of the Delaware River in New Jersey. A town called ‘Frenchtown’ which faces Bucks County, Pa.
Mayor Warren Cooper: Hello Annick. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Annick Elziere: Mayor Cooper sounds so official, may I call you Warren?
Mayor Warren Cooper: I prefer it.
Annick Elziere: Thank you. “Be the change you want to see in the world” said, Mahatma Gandhi. On November 8, 2011 you became part of a change. Congratulations. What does your family think about your new responsibility as the new leader of your town.
Warren Cooper: My children think it’s pretty cool. Ria is 33, Max is 24, both live in New York City now. When they were growing up the family lived just over the border in the neighboring municipality, sprawling Alexandria Township, which has no real town center. So they’ve always thought of Frenchtown as their hometown. Their mother and I are divorced, but she still lives in Alexandria and they come to Hunterdon County to visit pretty regularly. My dad, who is 84, held the bible during the swearing-in ceremony and my sisters and their families were there, too.
Annick Elziere: It must have been a very special day for you and your family. There is so much to ask you, Warren that I am not sure where to start. Let’s start from ‘back then’. You earned a PhD in psychology at Rutgers University in NJ and the Pres. and CEO of Celebrity Deli, Inc., a family-operated food service operation (New York style) delicatessen restaurant, takeout, catering, mail order in Edison, South Plainfield and Warren, New Jersey and today you are mayor of a very cute and small town. What an exhausting but very interesting life journey!
Warren Cooper: Looking back I see a kind of pattern in which I get deeply involved in something, but if I don’t recast it somehow, I tend to get bored before long. So, although I headed the family foodservice business for 23 years, I kept changing things, starting one or another kind of new endeavor every five years or so.
Annick Elziere: Change is good. I would agree with that. In 1984, you moved to a small farm on the Everittstown-Frenchtown Road, a mile from town, raised two children and got involved in the schools like so many did because schools loved having parents being involved. Then you served on the Alexandria Township school board and got involved here and there, same as many parents in those days. Then in 2005 you sold your restaurant business to work as a reporter at the Hunterdon County Democrat, a weekly newspaper serving Hunterdon County, New Jersey. What inspired you to take this path and why not another one?
Warren Cooper: Happy accidents. I wanted to be a food writer after selling the last restaurant, so I took an adult education class in community journalism. The teacher was the editor of the Hunterdon County Democrat. He told me (and about half the other students in the class) that the paper didn’t publish restaurant reviews. A month later he hired me as a stringer to cover a small town in the county. A couple months after that I came on full time.
Annick Elziere: One door closes, another one opens... Many would say all roads lead to Rome. Each chapter of our busy life prepares us to next, somehow. Is this how you see it?
Warren Cooper: When you put it that way it sounds plotted — as though being mayor is the last stop on the journey. I don’t see it that way. To me, each is a rest stop that offers a new view of the landscape... and lots of choices for where to head next.
Annick Elziere: You are an open-minded man. I like that. Would you consider yourself a politician? Do you identify yourself with or campaign for any political party or, partisan movement? I’m just curious because today’s fundamental challenge to all people and nations is the attainment of the unification of mankind. It seems that real social progress waits upon attainment of this new level in the development of human civilization in order to bring more security and peace.
Warren Cooper: That’s a great set of questions, Annick. I don’t see myself as a politician — I rarely attend partisan political events and, although I ran as a Democrat, I didn’t make a big deal about it during the campaign. I intentionally didn’t take any money from the County Democratic Committee during the campaign so I wouldn’t be beholding to the party. While I might agree with your high aims, I don’t think about “all people and nations” very much. I’m just concerned about Frenchtown, its people and its future. While the big picture impacts what we do here, there’s really no way to influence the big picture in any significant way. If we in Frenchtown can take care of ourselves without doing harm, we’ve accomplished a lot.
Annick Elziere: Absolutely. Current political instruments are limited and particular, whether they are national, racial, cultural or ideological. Can governments make a difference in the life of others and bring change upon the world without being involved into politics?
Warren Cooper: I’m old enough to remember Armstrong’s words when he set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” It’s hard to know what will ultimately come of what we do. The idea is to keep your eye on where you want to be someday in the future and do now what seems to be the best way to get there.
Annick Elziere: The mayor’s leadership role is very different from the president, no doubt about it. We all, more or less, have said once or twice in our life time ‘I wish I was the mayor of my town.’ Did you ever feel this way when you were young and did you choose to run for mayor last year or did it just happen?
Warren Cooper: That’s a two-part question to which I’ll give a two-part answer. First, I began having the thought that I could do a better job than most government officials after I’d covered a lot of them as a reporter. When it came to the former mayor, I first tried to find someone else to run against him — when no one was willing, although many agreed that a change was in order, I decided I had to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak.
Annick Elziere: I have no doubt that you are going to do a terrific job. Just like any other career it takes many skills. Not everyone has the capability to be a good, honest and active mayor. Would you say it is the same as being the chairman of a group of people and as such, consider what is necessary to make the group run successfully for the well being of entire Community. Do you feel comfortable in your new role?
Warren Cooper: In some ways it is like being the chairman of a committee, but not in all ways. I was president of the nine-member board of education in Alexandria Township for six of the nine years I served. Being mayor is like that — at Borough Council meetings anyway (although the mayor doesn’t get to vote unless there’s a tie.) But in a small town like ours, being mayor has a big public relations component — or should. The borough is small, just a bit more than one square mile. Although it’s not square in shape, it’s mostly walk able, which is something I find very appealing. So I walk around town a lot and see people every day who want to talk about how wonderful Frenchtown is — or what needs improvement. I like people and I like that contact, so it’s a good fit for me.
Annick Elziere: You are a real people person and that is what Frenchtown needs. Concepts such as participation, involvement, engagement, communication and others are very important. You probably have to be a great listener and not opinionated showing good behavior while being the promoter of civic and institutional pride. Representing the residents of your town is a huge responsibility. What are your thoughts on this? Are you excited about the future of Frenchtown?
Warren Cooper: Again, two questions packaged as one: I think I’m a pretty good listener, but I have to admit I am very opinionated, too. I have a vision of the future of Frenchtown — which I think most residents and business people share, although they might articulate it differently — but I try not to be heavy handed about it. I think Frenchtown has an incredible future. We are a very small and very caring community. Geographically and socially that will work to Frenchtown’s advantage as the price of oil rises and begins to more and more determine how we live our lives. Americans have to become more self-reliant and we have to learn how to depend on one another and help one another. Frenchtown is already half-way there.
The community is made up of artists and craftsmen and women, of teachers and lawyers and doctors and plumbers and electricians and roofers and every other profession and trade. We have created one community garden and are about to launch a second. Being part of a 30-mile bike path along the accessible Delaware River means we’re a destination for the kind of recreation and tourism that will thrive in the coming era. Our restaurants are diverse and of high quality. Our shops are locally owned and offer unique products that can’t be found in shopping malls that offer the same stores and products you can find anywhere... and we’re friendly and welcoming. I’m very excited. We are a diverse community but caring for one another is the glue that holds us together.
Annick Elziere: What are the most challengeable duties or tasks for the mayor and who decides what goes on the agenda of the council meeting? What occupies the town officials this year? Could it be the budget, crime, diversity, seniors, jobs, environment and others… It is like putting a big puzzle together?
Warren Cooper: When I took office in January 2012 I asked Borough Council to begin meeting twice a month rather than 12 times a year as it had under the previous administration. I argued that we have much to do and that taking a month off between meetings was getting in the way of accomplishing things. Members of council serve without compensation. They’re all volunteers. (The mayor gets a small annual stipend of $6,400.) As you can imagine, not everyone was happy about that, but they agreed to give it a try. We immediately found ourselves confronted by a massive financial crisis. The prior administration had managed the budget quite poorly (in my opinion) and we ended 2011 without a dollar in reserve. Not only were we broke, but we were actually in the red, more than $50,000 in debt. On top of that, we had only collected 92% of the 2011 property taxes that the previous administration determined was necessary to run government. Frenchtown’s budget is miniscule compared with most towns, just $2 million. But the uncollected taxes represented about $365,000 of that. Solving that problem — and making sure that we did so in a way that didn’t plague us next year was the major challenge. It forced us to withhold cost of living increases from our small borough workforce. To show my solidarity with them, I cut my own stipend by 6%.
I’ve pledged that Frenchtown would never find itself in that position again... and we’ve agreed to start the 2013 budget process in July of this year, rather than wait until January of next year as was done in the past.
We spent the first few months developing an official municipal website, which the borough had never had before. It launched on April 1. We’ve established three committees designed to bring residents and business people into the process of solving the three most pressing problems facing the town: creating safe streets and roads, finding ways to continue revitalizing the down town area and re-casting how we determine sewer fees to make them more fair. That last is of critical importance as the town has just begun a $13 million, two-year project to replace our 45-year-old sewage treatment plant. Taken together, those three issues were most on people’s minds during the campaign... so it seemed natural to invest a lot of time and energy starting out by addressing those things first.
But, you are right, Annick. It is much like a putting together a puzzle. While those are the big things, they’re not the only things. If we don’t pay attention to smaller problems they’ll become big problems tomorrow.
Annick Elziere: Thank you for sharing this. It makes it so much more interesting when everything is transparent and no personal conflict. Frenchtown, a pretty quiet Borough located in beautiful Hunterdon County, New Jersey has had various names in the past. It was ‘Alexandria Ville’, ‘Sunbeam’, and then baptized as ‘Frenchtown.’ Why so many names? If a German Settler came to town, would it be called ‘Germantown’, today? In 1794, Thomas Lowrey (a Flemington speculator) sold his lands to a Paul Henri Mallet-Prevost, a Swiss fugitive from the French Revolution. He and other early settlers were French speaking, leading some to be calling the place ‘Frenchtown.’ Is there any a celebration day for Mr. Mallet-Prevost or is it just past of history? When did the town become a Borough?
Warren Cooper: The borough was incorporated in 1867, I believe. There’s no specific celebration for M. Prevost, although, for fun we celebrate Bastille Day. As for our previous name... I intend to launch a little online blog about happenings in Frenchtown that I’ll call, The Frenchtown Sunbeam. I already have the URL address for it. That won’t be this year, but it’ll happen.
Annick Elziere: It is kind of ironic to celebrate Bastille Day in Frenchtown since P.H. Mallet-Prevost was a Swiss fugitive escaping the guillotine during the French Revolution. To continue, in 1853, the Belvidere Delaware Railroad contributed to the growth of the town and that Steam-powered industry became widely developed, but around the 1860’s, mills were converted into large factories. Then you had a huge Brick Store, a Porcelain factory and the establishment of the Milford plant of the Warren Paper Company. Not to forget that the area was also well known for the poultry industry. The town also saw the birth of three major hotels. What happened to all those industries? Is the Borough of Frenchtown working on a plan for consolidation and extension meaning bringing more jobs to town?
Warren Cooper: Well, I don’t think Frenchtown can be blamed for rumbling along the same track of history as the rest of the industrialized East. Manufacturing has mostly disappeared across all of America. Frenchtown has become a blue-and-white-collar town where most of the people work within the county, and many work in town itself as teachers, shop keepers, etc. The great recession has hit Frenchtown less hard than other places, but we do have many people out of work and struggling. It’s not government’s job to solve that problem, but it is our job to help — and we’re working on it. Borough Council has been debating a variety of proposals that could give some of our residents a hand. We’ll have to see how that works out.
Annick Elziere: Women are not being represented on the Borough Council. Aren’t women encouraged to run for office in Frenchtown, NJ?
Warren Cooper: Council appointed a woman to replace a member who resigned at the end of 2011 and I hope they’ll add another woman when we replace another man who resigned last month. The trouble isn’t finding talented and capable women to serve, the problem is finding anyone, man or woman, who has talent, energy and ability and who also has the time. That time commitment is the most difficult hurdle for many people. For women who work full time and shoulder a great deal of family care-giving and home-keeping responsibilities, the challenge to find the time is even greater. Still, I think women often bring a perspective to the Council’s work that men don’t typically have. Fro that reason, I hope to increase the number of women on Council during the course of my term in office.
Annick Elziere: Mayors, wonderful leaders of communities come in all shapes and colors. They come as young as nineteen years old. In 1983, Brian Zimmerman holds the “Youngest mayor ever” title (he was eleven years old when he took office in Crabb, Texas.) In 2008, John Tyler Hommons was nineteen years old when he began his term in a city of about 40,000 people in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. My question is, “Can anyone hold a mayoral office? What does it takes to be elected mayor?”
Warren Cooper: Being a mayor requires two qualities: being electable and being able to govern. These don’t always overlap in the same person. Being able to govern requires that the mayor be a leader. S/he has to have a vision and has to be able to communicate that vision and get others to buy into it and to work to achieve it. Sometimes being electable requires only that you be willing to put yourself out there.
Annick Elziere: What makes Frenchtown so beautiful and special, today?
Warren Cooper: Frenchtown is special in a number of ways. Chiefly it’s the people, and the various sub-communities they comprise. But the feel of the town is an important factor, too. Frenchtown is an enormously welcoming and friendly place. The proximity of the Delaware River, the small downtown business district and the geography of the place (we’re in a pocket where five separate roads end or start) all play a part. Frenchtown has the feel of a small town from the past century with its old architecture, small tree-lined streets and neighborliness. People hang out on their porches and “visit” in ways that were familiar to our grandparents and while it’s possible to walk from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes or so, it rarely happens during the daytime when people on the street stop you to talk and pass the time.
Annick Elziere: Warren, do you have any word of encouragement to all young people out there who are very discouraged with what they see around the world and have no hope for a great future?
Warren Cooper: No. There is nothing that can encourage people who are on the outside looking around the world unable to find hope for the future. The only antidote for despair is to get involved. The world may change for the better without you, but you won’t notice if you’re not involved. Fret less, do more.
Annick Elziere: That is a great way to put it. Thank you so much for your time, Warren. It was a great honor to be talking with you. The picturesque town looks almost perfect, the mayor seems wonderful and active, the community exciting and the future very promising. I wish the Community of Frenchtown all the best. Congratulations again on your new responsibilities.
Warren Cooper: Thanks for the opportunity, Annick. Come back to Frenchtown soon – if not to live here, at least to visit. You’ll love it here.
Frenchtown, NJ Official Website: frenchtownboro.com
Warren Cooper For Mayor: warrencooperformayor.com (Interview banner from Mayor Cooper's website)
- Bill Brokaw: blog.brokawphoto.com/
- John Stringfellow's: Frenchtowner.com
- Veronique de Groot: VeryUniqueCakes.com
- Peter Ehrlich: pdephotography.com
- Dick de Groot: dickdegroot.com
Historic Images of of Hunterdon County: westjerseyhistory.org