LUCK AND HARD WORK by Ellen Donker
Ellen Davenport reflects on a life in politics
Ellen Davenport makes it seem easy. Lucky for Maplewood, Essex County and the state, she has been a presence in local politics since she located here with her husband, Donald, in 1968, serving as mayor of Maplewood and then secretary of the New Jersey senate. Those are pieces of a varied career that have kept Davenport energized and involved her entire adult life.
I sat down with Davenport, eager to hear about her involvement in politics, especially as a woman who had served in the Democratic party from the 1970s through 2011.
For Davenport, growing up in Newark during the ’50s, politics was a constant in her life. She has many memories of her parents helping out in local races and recalls her mother putting her to work to make telephone calls when she was 11 years old, advising her to follow the script. She said, “Try to sound older and don’t giggle.”
Davenport started her career as a teacher after graduating in 1964 from Newark State College (now Kean University) where she was president of the senior class. She laughs when she recalls how she had to quit teaching when she became pregnant. This was the ’60s and women were simply not allowed to work past three or four months of a pregnancy. (Things have changed!) While her two children were growing up, she assisted in other local campaigns and ran the Back of the Mill plant shop at the former Pierson’s Mill Garden Center from 1983 through 1999.
From 1990 to 2001, Davenport won election to Maplewood’s Township Committee and served as mayor from 1994 through 1997. Notably, she was the first and only female mayor in Maplewood’s history. When I asked her if she felt it was difficult to be a woman in politics she says, “There was a lot of opportunity for women. I think that’s why in the Essex County Democratic Party you were given a lot of latitude. You weren’t just ignored because you were a woman.”
Davenport found her years on the township committee to be very fulfilling. Still, she said, “There’s no getting away from the fact that you can’t please all the people all the time. And I think I used to be a thin-skinned, whiny little kid, but you certainly do develop a thick hide when you’re in politics. You can’t get offended by everything people say.”
After finishing multiple terms on the township committee, Davenport joined the board of Family Connections. She also began a journey to Trenton, serving as supervisor of bills for the senate in 2001-2002. When Richard Codey became president of the New Jersey senate he asked Davenport to join him in Trenton as secretary of the senate in 2004, a post she held for six years. In November 2004, Governor McGreevey resigned from office and Codey was appointed in his place. She says, “It was wild. It was so much fun.” It was also hard work. She admits to always doing her homework, being prepared and meticulous to a fault.
But an attitude of service is the lens through which she views her time in politics. And it surely must be why she continues to put her bright mind to work in the community. Currently, Davenport is co-director of the Dickens Village committee, serves on the board of directors for the Maplewood Village Alliance and is treasurer of the Maplewood Library Foundation.
Davenport is humble in summing up the impact of her career, especially on the next generation of women. She says, “I was very lucky to have been able to serve,” adding, “I think I’ve been very fortunate that I kind of just ran into good people at the right time.”