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Ellen Davenport Comes Home from Trenton

The soon-to-be-former secretary of the state senate and former Maplewood mayor has served her community in almost every way. What will she do next with all that energy, experience and expertise?

On January 12, the Senate of the State of New Jersey will have its reorganization. In that process, former Governor Richard Codey of Essex County will leave his post as Senate president to be replaced by Senator Steve Sweeney of Gloucester County in South Jersey.

Codey has two more years to serve in his senate term, but the change has a very direct impact for one very prominent Maplewood resident. Ellen Davenport will be leaving her post as Secretary of the Senate.

For the past six years, Davenport has served under Codey as senate secretary. And for two years before that, she served as the Senate's Supervisor of the Bills. The positions are appointed by the senate president and Sweeney will be selecting his own secretary.

Davenport is philosophical about the change, saying she has a good relationship with Sweeney and that he is a "nice guy."

And Davenport won't be departing immediately. She has agreed to a transition period to get the new secretary (Kent St. John, formerly a reporter with NJN public television and radio) up and running, a testament to the good relations she maintains within the senate and the respect that senate members, including Sweeney, have for her competency.

When Patch met with Davenport on a recent December morning at the Bagel Chateau, Davenport had just had the office repainted for the incoming secretary—a truly thoughtful and professional gesture.

As senate secretary she has been the chief administrative officer of the senate since 2004. As secretary she writes and keeps the journal of the senate and is reponsible for the minutes of the senate. The journal is the hard bound factual accounting of senate activities—which are many. It's been kept since the first New Jersey senate was convened in 1778. 

Davenport is clearly very proud of her job and very proud of the New Jersey senate. "It's the second oldest continuously used state house in the U.S.," she noted of the building.

But it's the legislative body itself that she truly esteems. "This is a dream job, a wonderful chance to be involved in state government. You get to watch laws being made. It's a privilege."

Before her days in the Senate, Davenport was making law in Maplewood. Newcomers may not know it, but Davenport was mayor from 1994-1997.

As Maplewood's first and only female mayor, Davenport had fun breaking some barriers. She remembers a visitor wandering into her office in Town Hall looking for the mayor. "Is this his office?" the visitor asked. "No, it's hers," answered Davenport.

Davenport was on the Township Committee during some extraordinarily transformative years for Maplewood—1990 to 2002. Those years saw the institution of Mid-Town Direct service and the beginning of a sea change in Maplewood's population and fortunes.

Major issues and accomplishments of that time enumerated by Davenport include: bringing the jitney to town ("We had the first jitney in the state," said Davenport), successfully defeating NJTransit's plans to build a parking garage in Maplewood Village, and the creation of the Community Coalition on Race and its efforts to market the town for what it was. "We knew this was a great community. We realized the value of what we have. It had nothing to do with the color of your skin," said Davenport, rather, it was about "common goals."

Davenport even cited the incredibly volatile issue of the revaluation at the end of her tenure as an accomplishment. 

"It was the first in 19 years," said Davenport and was long overdue. She noted that the current head of the County Tax Board has put property revaluations "back on track." (Newark had gone 45 years without a reval said Davenport.) She predicted that this approaching round should be "less onerous" for Maplewood residents.

But she acknowledged the disaster that is property taxation in New Jersey. "We have this horrible system of property tax. But as long as you have it, you need to do it right."

Backlash from the revaluation was harsh, and is often blamed for current Mayor Vic DeLuca losing re-election in 2002 (Davenport chose to retire at that time). Again, Davenport is philosophical. "It goes with the territory. Government is difficult. But it is good for people to question it. If you don't pay attention you get what you deserve."

Davenport also said that government became more transparent during her tenure on the Township Committee. "We negotiated a cable contract with Comcast to make Township Committee meetings live. Before I got on, everything was done in executive meetings. I got it out in the public meeting."

Davenport was born and raised as Ellen Maher in the Roseville section of Newark (that's southeast of Vailsburg). She lived at home through her college years, working on a degree from Kean University (where she eventually ran the alumni association for 7 years and was on the board for 20). After college, Davenport moved to Bloomfield where she got a job teaching 5th grade in Bloomfield's public schools.

When she moved to South Orange to live with her sister, she met her husband Donald who was a Millburn native. Upon marriage, they compromised and chose Maplewood.

Eventually, Davenport found it easier to work in Maplewood while raising her two children (Donald, now 38, and Susan, 35). From 1983 to 1999, she ran the Back of the Mill plant shop (now Millstone's). "It was wonderful," said Davenport, who noted that during her tenure as mayor the shop became known as "Town Hall South."

Her history as a joiner and as a person who got things done led her into public life. "It's a labor of love," said Davenport, who admitted she had always been interested in politics. It's in the blood: Her parents were district leaders in Newark when she was growing up there. She also noted that her "Irish obstinancy" was an asset for public life.

So what is the indefatigable Davenport going to do next?

"No idea," said Davenport.

But, she said, people have ideas for her. 

 

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