The College Democrats of Stevens invited Dawn Zimmer, Mayor of Hoboken, to their last general body meeting of the semester to discuss her experience as a woman in politics.
Mayor Zimmer began the event recounting her entrance into the local political arena. “Some people think you need to be a lawyer to be mayor,” she said. “but that was not the case for me.” Zimmer, whose background is in communications, spoke about how her concern for a proposed development in Hoboken prompted her to seek a position on the City Council. “I was concerned about the level of development, parking space […] and about whether our council person was listening, which clearly wasn’t happening,” said Zimmer.
After being a stay-at-home mother for five years, Zimmer decided to make a run for it and won a City Council seat by five votes, which was challenged after the initial results came through. After serving as a council person for one and a half years, she realized that “the only way to get things done is to have mayor and council [work] together”; shortly after, she decided to run for the position on a platform that was deeply committed to adequate park space, flood alleviation, and financial stability. Although each member of her running council team was elected, Zimmer lost to her opponent, Peter Cammarano, who resigned after receiving intense public pressure when he was found to be a part of a major international money laundering conspiracy. Zimmer—known to her friends as the “accidental mayor—at the time was the City Council President and by law assumed the acting mayor position. A special election was held and Zimmer finally took her position as the executive head of Hoboken.
Unbeknownst to her, Zimmer became not only the first female mayor of Hoboken, but also the first female mayor of Hudson County. She believes her male colleagues from other cities are “scared” of the fact that she is a woman. “I didn’t rely on a machine to get elected,” said Zimmer. “I am not dependent on someone else, and I know my decisions are in the best interest of Hoboken residents.”
Zimmer notes that her interactions with other Hudson county mayors have improved, considering that she is now through her second term; however she prides herself on being the “person in the room questioning all the decisions.” As a former stay-at-home mother without experience in law, Zimmer notes that people viewed her as “nice but way in over my head.” Instead of letting the power of public criticism defeat her, Zimmer chose to use unwarranted sexism to her advantage. “People have underestimated me, but it has actually made it easier to achieve what I set out to do for the residents of Hoboken,” said Zimmer.
For women interested in politics, Zimmer believes the challenge lies when it comes to understanding that “it can get nasty.” “I have a couple of survival strategies,” said Zimmer, who admits that she never reads the blogs. “It is really about women finding their passion and letting go of the noise and nastiness that unfortunately does exist.”
When asked about work-life balance, Zimmer noted that it is difficult, but feels fortunate to have the support of her husband and two sons. “It has been a great experience for [my sons],” said Zimmer. “I always say they’re getting a better ethics education here than they would at Harvard!”
Students also asked Mayor Zimmer about her concerns from the national administration. Zimmer responded with her worries regarding climate change. “Our city, state and country are all at risk for climate change, and to me, that is the most important issue we need to focus on,” said Zimmer. Although there has been a push from the administration to roll back many of the EPA’s efforts, Zimmer believes “a lot of change is happening in our city and [the administration] won’t be able to roll it all back.”
Zimmer ended the program with a call to action to Stevens students looking to get involved within the city, encouraging anyone one interested to attend a city council or zoning board meeting or to get involved in the design process of a soon-to-be installed resiliency park in northwest Hoboken.
Stephen Cornwell, Secretary of College Democrats of Stevens, found Mayor Zimmer’s visit to be very insightful. “The best part of Mayor Zimmer’s visit was her message about fighting—never stopping to stand down when something was being done that you don’t agree with,” said Cornwell. “She had to fight for her office, and she had to fight for the respect that she now commands […] I think the Stevens community can take that message to heart: in a school of endless promise, it’s the ability to fight back when your values are challenged that makes you truly important.”