Get to know ... Ellen Lautenberg, Democratic Town Committee chair, RTM member
WESTPORT — When Ellen Lautenberg was a young girl, her father asked her what she thought differentiated Democrats and Republicans.
Noticing her father’s question stemmed from his own desire to hash out the difference between the two parties, Lautenberg returned the question to her father, and remembers he said the difference was Republicans were pro-business while Democrats looked out for the public interest.
Since her father was a businessman, Lautenberg thought he must be a Republican, but he responded “No.” Lautenberg’s father, Frank Lautenberg, would go on to serve five terms as a Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey before he died in 2013, at age 89, the Senate’s oldest member.
Throughout his nearly 30-year tenure in Congress, Frank Lautenberg championed legislation that established a national drinking age of 21, banned smoking on commercial airlines and doubled Amtrak’s subsidy. Informed by her father’s interests in the public interest, Ellen Lautenberg, now 60, has charted her own path in politics as chair of Westport’s Democratic Town Committee and a member of town’s Representative Town Meeting.
Like her father, Ellen Lautenberg’s path towards politics wasn’t straightforward. She grew up in Montclair, N.J., while her father worked as chief executive of the payroll firm Automatic Data Processing. Although he financially supported Democratic candidates most of his life, Frank Lautenberg didn’t hold political office until won the New Jersey Senate seat in 1982 at age 58.
Ellen Lautenberg attended Clark University in Wooster, Mass., where she studied English. After college, she didn’t know what to do, so she took an entry-level position on the trading floor of the investment banking firm Lehman Brothers. Ellen transitioned to work in human resources at the company, where she stayed for a decade until 1990, when she left to attend law school at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Ellen entered law school because she desired a more public service-centered career, but shortly after she graduated and took the bar exam in New York and New Jersey, Lautenberg met and married her husband, Douglas Hendel, who lived in Connecticut and managed his family’s business in New London.
The pair landed on Westport as a compromise between their respective lives and, for a few years, Lautenberg commuted into New York City to work on a volunteer basis for New York Legal Service. However, she later abandoned the plan after her son was born in 1995 and a daughter two years later.
As a young, stay-at-home mom, Ellen threw herself into volunteer opportunities in town. She volunteered at Temple Israel’s preschool, where her children attended, and then on the temple’s Board of Trustees. When her kids entered Long Lots Elementary School, Ellen joined the Parent Teacher Association and later served as co-president of the Bedford Middle School PTA and on the executive board at Staples High School.
As her kids got older, Ellen hoped to expand her volunteerism beyond education to include environmental and public health topics and, in 2015, she ran for and won a spot on the Representative Town Meeting.
Ellen also chairs an advisory board at the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai in New York, an organization she became involved with a decade ago. The center primarily studies chemicals in the environment and their effect on children’s health, and Ellen wanted to bring the knowledge from this work to Westport through the RTM. On the RTM’s environment committee, Ellen is working to ban the use of crumb rubber in town’s turf fields because empirical evidence links crumb rubber with cancer and respiratory ailments, she said.
While Ellen’s interests in environmental and public health bear similarities to her father’s congressional work, she said over time she realized her heart truly aligned with Democratic Party’s policies and adopted them as her own.
“It’s going to cost us a lot more to have to play catch-up or clean up the air and water because people will be sicker, and we will not have made the inroads into the green economy the way we should be,” Ellen said of her thoughts on environmental policies.
Ellen’s leadership of the Democratic Town Committee was less deliberate, and came after the committee’s vice chair resigned and she filled in. Then the chair resigned, and Ellen took the helm last year.
As head of the DTC, Ellen said it’s important for each member to express their individual choices — the DTC did not vote as a bloc at the state nominating convention, while creating a unified platform of the party’s values.
Political polarization, which she said has trickled down from the national to the local level, is a big concern.
“I don’t like to see the extremes in either party, and I would really like to see Democrats who can work across the aisle and focus on what we can get done and not just oppose or obstruct or be extreme in our positions,” Ellen said.
With the Democratic Party in a period of change and many Democrats participating in politics for the first time, Ellen said her role at DTC has been crazier than expected, but she’s happy to do the job.
“It’s a very interesting time to be involved in politics. Both on the national level, locally and statewide, there’s a lot going on. I think it’s important to be involved from the perspective of doing the best you can to control your own destiny and not just let other people make the decisions,” Ellen said.
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