Monday, June 22, 2020

Cherry Hill's Four Greatest Mayors - Plus One

In photo above, from left: Cherry Hill Mayor John Holden, NJ Assemblyman Thomas Shusted, State Senator Lee Laskin, New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, Cherry Hill Mayor and Assemblyman John Rocco and Cherry Hill Councilman Howard Gall (who also served as Mayor for a time) at the Cherry Blossom Parade on Chapel Avenue in the 1980s.

From the time Delaware Township changed its name to Cherry Hill in 1961 till now, quite a few mayors have come and gone.
Some served under the old weak mayor form of government where the mayor was chosen from among a five-member governing body. Others served under the present strong mayor system where the mayor is duly elected to that specific office and seven other individuals are elected to township council. Some even served under the old system during a period when members of the governing body rotated the mayor's office among themselves with each member serving for a year.
Regardless or how or when they served, here, in chronological order are our choices for the four greatest mayors in the modern history of Cherry Hill, plus one.

1)  Mayor John T. Holden
Mayor Holden served from 1971 till 1975. He swept into office on a Democrat-backed bipartisan slate that ended 20 years of solid GOP rule. These were truly boom-boom years for Cherry Hill -- a period of rapid growth and development virtually unprecedented in the Philadelphia region. During this time, Holden governed with good cheer and tireless dedication. He single-handily put Cherry Hill on the map, leading a drive to change road signs, federal government designations, post office protocols, census rules and road maps so that Cherry Hill became its own clear, easy-to-identify and find community with clear boundaries. The change benefitted other townships throughout the state and nation. Holden's administration also saved a record number of acres from development, (preserving needed open space) and built countless playgrounds and tennis courts. He worked hard to professionalize government operations and the growing township government staff.

2) Mayor John A. Rocco
John Rocco was a high achiever from the get-go. At 28, Dr. Rocco became the youngest school principal in Cherry Hill history. He quickly established a name for himself as a beloved, innovative educator. Coaxed into running for town council in 1975, he led his ticket to a resounding victory and was chosen as mayor, again at a relatively young age. Presiding over Cherry Hill during the fire that devastated Garden State Park, he led the town during a time of continued growth and upheaval. John Rocco's appeal knew no party boundaries. Running as a Republican in a Democrat region was no barrier to him because his sensible, practical approach to problems and issues won him the votes of independents and Democrats alike. A former collegiate soccer star, Rocco was a team-builder and bridge-builder and these qualities seemed to come natural to him. He quickly built a hugely effective political organization and went on to be elected to the New Jersey State Assembly where he became a respected, nationally-recognized leader.

3) Mayor Susan Bass Levin
In the modern history of Cherry Hill, no one has served longer as mayor than Susan Bass Levin and few have been as successful in more endeavors than this accomplished attorney and savvy politician. She served as mayor from 1988 till 2002 as her Levin Team scored one impressive victory after another. She was unquestionably the driving force behind the construction of the state-of-the-art Cherry Hill Library ("The Heat of Town") and built legendary ties to Cherry Hill's vital network of civic associations and community groups. Levin was gutsy, raising taxes when she deemed it necessary and reaching across partisan boundaries to cultivate allies no matter their politics. She later served as First Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANY/NJ). A Democrat, Levin also was Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), serving in the cabinets of Governors Jim McGreevey, Dick Codey, and Jon Corzine beginning in 2002. She went on to join Cooper Health System as President and CEO of the Cooper Foundation. In a word, formidable!

4) Mayor Bernie Platt
Bernie Plat served a mayor for a year in the late 1970s under the rotating mayor arrangement. But he didn't really flex his muscles until 2002 when he was elected mayor in his own right and went on to serve for nine years in the job, retiring at age 77. Few people knew more Cherry Hill residents by their first name than this amiable local funeral director. A shrewd business owner and dedicated family man, Bernie poured his heart and soul into the mayor's job and it was clear he loved every minute of it. As mayor he presided over a period that saw the transformation of the Garden State Park area into a thriving mixed-use development attracting top name retailers and high-end condos, apartments and townhouses. He also worked with Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (owners of the Cherry Hill Mall) to bring about a multi-million dollar renaissance that redefined the mall and attracted Nordstrom and top brand eateries to Cherry Hill. It was actually quite breathtaking and it saved the town's lucrative "golden triangle." Still, through it all, Bernie remained the same folksy, genial personality he always was --  with a willingness to play hardball when it came to putting his hometown first.

Plus one: Deputy Mayor Fran Burnstein
Frances Kirsenhbaum Burnstein. That was her full name. You don't hear her very much about her anymore. But she was a trailblazer and one of the first women ever elected to township council, serving as deputy mayor under Mayor John Rocco. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she moved from Long Island to Cherry Hill with her family in 1963 and proceeded to get involved in the life of the community. She fought hard to eliminate the troublesome old traffic circles at the race track and Ellisberg intersections. When she couldn't get the state to move quickly enough to at least reconfigure the race track circle, she put together a band of volunteers to clean it up and plant tulips and shrubs in the middle of the monstrosity.  Her efforts were written up in the New York Times. Later, when the circle was eliminated, she sold off commemorative pieces of it to raise money for the Cherry Hill Chamber of Commerce, which she founded. Fran Burnstein was a dynamo. Under her leadership, in less than a decade, the chamber had its own office and was a stalwart advocate for its more than 1,000 business members. A Republican, Burnstein later crossed party lines to endorse Bernie Platt when he ran for mayor in 2002. 

What did these five have in common?
They all put Cherry Hill first; they all sought common ground when tackling big issues; they all viewed themselves as problem-solvers; they all kept close ties to the community and grassroots influencers; they all kept a keen focus on the Big Picture; they all knew and understood every nook and cranny of the town and they were all willing to toss partisanship aside to get something done. And one more thing: as far as I could tell they were all quite open and above board. They were no mere placeholders, that's for sure!
Boy, could we use some of their qualities right now!

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