Bert Steinmann rarely writes a speech. Comfortable in his own skin, the mayor of Ewing, New Jersey prefers to learn about a topic and rely on memory rather than a script. And there is no topic he is more familiar with than his small town on the outskirts of Trenton.
“There is no place I would rather call home than Ewing,” Steinmann (D) wrote in his 2013 Mayor’s Message on the town website.
Steinmann has lived in Ewing for 55 years. He did not run for mayor for the benefits. Instead, he sits behind the mayor’s mahogany desk because he loves the 15 square mile town where he has spent his life. In fact, he donates a portion of his salary as mayor to organizations such as the Mercer Cancer Society and the March of Dimes.
Born in the Netherlands, Steinmann’s family immigrated to the United States when he was young. His family lived in Trenton for several years before moving to Ewing in 1959. The Ewing that he and his two siblings romped around in as children has since evolved.
“It has changed drastically,” said Steinmann, dressed in a crisp black suit, square glasses perched on his his nose.
But then again, so has Steinmann.
After earning his associates degree in engineering from Trenton Technical Institute, he studied political science at Rutgers University before dropping out after two years.
“Well I had a family,” said Steinmann, sitting at the conference table in his office. The sound of his desk phone ringing does not distract him. He found a job as a construction worker and eventually climbed his way to a business manager position. As his children grew, Steinmann became frustrated with some of the town’s policies and practices, particularly the poor maintenance of public parks.
“If you want to do the complaining, then you have to do something about it,” said Steinmann. He was appointed to the township recreation commission and eventually won a seat on the town council, of which he later became president. After a decade on the council, Steinmann determined that to create change he needed to be top dog.
“The guy at the top has all the power,” he said.
An assertive councilman, Steinmann earned a reputation for speaking his mind. The Trentonian called Steinmann “a real Ball buster,” because he did not shy away from telling former mayor Jack Ball (R) to accept responsibility for the flaws in his municipal budget.
A no-nonsense man, the mayor, two years into his term, has learned that being a leader looks simpler from the outside. Responsible for approximately 35,707 residents, he now views issues with “a different set of eyes.”
Compromising was vital when navigating the tenuous relationship between Ewing residents and the College. When Steinmann ran for mayor he vowed to take a hard stance against underage drinking and public urination, prevalent in the area surrounding the campus.
“I think TCNJ is an asset to Ewing,” said Steinmann, whose son attended the College. “You guys have a lot to offer.” Unfortunately, he explained, “a few knuckleheads,” ruin the College’s reputation with the townspeople.
Ewing residents, especially the senior citizens living near the College, have complained about rowdy students urinating on their lawns, holding drunken parties till the wee hours of the morning and noisily walking from school to off-campus residences.
Steinmann has ordered police officers to strictly enforce the law. But the mayor, who remembers when Ewing had more fields than buildings, said he is not out to get students. Quite the contrary, he said that he is concerned about the safety of students walking back and forth between off campus houses at night. He encourages students to use the buddy system and walk in groups, but be respectful of the residents surrounding the school.
“His approach is very respected,” said Kevin Baxter, Ewing council vice president. “I admire the way he is not afraid to be a leader.” Baxter noted that Steinmann has opened the lines of communication between the College and town, something former mayors failed to do.
Steinmann believes that the relationship between the College and town is “50 percent better than what it was.” Council President Hilary Hyser and the College president R. Barbara Gitenstein have created a partnership to foster positive relations between the College and Ewing.
But the College is not Steinmann’s only concern.
The mayor makes it his business to maintain the image of his suburban domain. He regularly drives around town and notifies public workers when the trash is overflowing or one of the 14 Ewing parks could be cleaner.
At first, workers were frustrated with his attention to detail. Today, workers have developed a respect for Steinmann, and the dedication he shows to his job.
“They think I’m a stern guy, but a fair person,” said Steinmann, the man who could have invented the steely expression. He said that his fairness has changed the attitude and productivity of his administration for the better.
The mayor plans to create a Ewing that is not only beautiful, but economically strong.
“I’m happy to say that we are now in a really good spot as far as business goes,” he said. Since his election, Fortune 500 companies, such Church & Dwight have opened locations in Ewing.
“Ewing is a workingman’s community that still has a lot in it to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Steinmann, who with his wife, raised his three children in Ewing. “It’s been good for me.”
Steinmann will be 68 years old at the end of his term in 2014. Although, he’s feeling his age, the mayor does not intend to slow down. He plans to keep moving his legacy as mayor forward. His only regret is that he did not begin his political career at a younger age.
“Certainly,” he said, “no one can say that I sat on my ass.”