Profile: A Driving Force Behind AAA of New Jersey’s Backing for Gas-Tax Hike

Meir Rinde | June 17, 2015 | Profiles
For Cathleen Lewis, looking out for Garden State motorists and serving as mayor of Lawrence Township are all in a day's work

Cathleen Lewis
Name: Cathleen Lewis

Age: 36

Titles: Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations for AAA of New Jersey, and mayor of Lawrence Township, Mercer County.

Why she’s important: As a spokeswoman and legislative advocate for the automobile club, Lewis is a prominent voice on transportation and motorist issues. In the past few years she has often explained the AAA’s support for a controversial hike in the state gas tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, which is expected to run out of money for new projects in 2016. She’s also mayor of Lawrence, which in 2012 asked voters to override the state’s cap on property-tax levy increases over Gov. Christie’s opposition. (The override failed.)

How she started: Lewis is originally from Queens, New York, but grew up near Boston. In high school she was fascinated by big infrastructure projects and planned to be an architect, but switched to journalism at Rutgers, where she was managing editor of the Daily Targum. After a college stint covering the New Hampshire primaries she changed her mind and went into politics instead, working on one of the earliest voter databases during New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s first unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2002.

She returned to New Jersey for an outreach job in Rep. Rush Holt’s office, where she met her future husband, then worked on a few local campaigns in Monmouth County. She got a job with the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, briefly directed intergovernmental affairs for Gov. Jon Corzine, and served as a spokeswoman and legislative liaison at the Motor Vehicle Commission. She joined AAA in 2010.

Why a higher gas tax: Lewis says it’s the only realistic way to raise the $1.6 billion or more in annual funding needed for bridge, highway, transit, and other projects. “There’s little pieces that we can do that will bring in little pots of money,” she said. “But it’s not going to get you to the same place. That’s what we’ve done for a decade: We’ve let these tiny little fixes come in and said we’ve fixed the problem when we haven’t.”

She acknowledges that raising the current 14.5-cents-a-gallon tax is not very popular. In 2013, the AAA found for the first time that more than half of its members surveyed opposed an increase. But Lewis argued that the organization’s focus on road access and safety means calling for additional revenue.

Sometimes, when members consider the AAA’s advocacy role, “they want us to keep roads as inexpensive as possible. On some policy points we do that,” she said, citing the example of tolls. “But one of the big pieces I have taken on in the last few years is to make sure that our members understand what’s going on in Trenton when it comes to transportation funding and why it’s necessary for there to be a larger investment.”

Navigating politics: While her early interest was in infrastructure itself, she’s now most fascinated by its power to shape society and the challenge of getting the government to act on needs that everybody recognizes.

“The funding pieces are the most interesting, and it’s part of where my passion is,” Lewis said. “It’s amazing the things that can be made possible by infrastructure. By not funding infrastructure we’ve created a number of different problems, and we’ve also limited our ability for growth.”

“If instead of spinning our wheels for a decade about, how are we going to fund the roads, we could have been doing amazing projects that actually change people’s lives on a daily basis — that change the economics of New Jersey, that can help residents, can help businesses. If we were able to think about those big projects, think about how much better New Jersey could be,” she said.

Driver safety campaigns: Lewis and AAA have worked to bring attention to the dangers of distracted driving, fighting for a law creating tougher penalties for texting or using a cellphone while driving (except hands-free devices), which the governor signed last year. They also pushed for new child car-seat regulations that became law last month. Lewis herself is a certified car-seat technician, having taken a 40-hour course on the different types of seats and car installation systems. She’s also spoken at many high schools about safe driving habits for teens.

A trial by fire: Lewis served on Lawrence’s zoning board and planned to eventually run for office. She was also dissatisfied with the town council. “I would read the paper and be like, ‘But they should be doing this! Or why aren’t they doing this!’” she said. “It was sort of, put up or shut up.”

She won a council seat in 2012. At her first meeting with the township manager she was told that, due to a post-recessionary decline in tax collections, the town’s surplus was in danger of disappearing. Lawrence was one of two towns that year to attempt an override of the state’s two-year-old, 2 percent cap on tax hikes. Christie urged voters to reject the increases, saying, “They gotta find other things to cut.”

The override was soundly defeated in a referendum, council rejected a trash-fee proposal that residents had criticized, and the town ended up laying off police officers and other employees, privatizing police dispatch services, and making other spending reductions.

“We did not have a good couple years. We got beat up a lot,” she said, referring to the council. “And I learned a lot from it. While I don’t think that I would have requested that that be how I learn about municipal government, I think it’s been useful in a lot of different ways.”

Happier days: The drop in taxable properties that created the budget hole subsequently reversed, said Lewis, who was selected for the rotating two-year mayor position in 2014. There was no tax increase this year and the township has hired new police officers. In a recent speech Lewis highlighted Lawrence’s rapid growth, which includes Bristol-Myers Squibb’s new 650,000-square-foot office park.

Future ambitions: Lewis said she’s enjoying her work on the urgent transportation funding battle, but would consider running for the Legislature some day.

“Part of why I ran for office is because I wanted things to change. In my day job, I see lots of ways in which things can change,” she said with a laugh. “I’m never at a loss for things in Trenton that I can go down and say, ‘Hey, we should be doing this.’ Any time I see the opportunity for there to be change, I would look for ways to do that, so I wouldn’t cut anything off at the moment. But I’m also very happy where I am and doing my job.”

Family: Lewis met her husband, Paul Penna, when they both worked for Holt. He went on to work in state government and Democratic party organizations; he is now a campaign consultant with The Blue Lab, a Democratic campaign incubator. They have two daughters, age 4 and 20 months. Lewis said that having her first child helped motivate her to run for office.

“Part of that is showing her that you can do all of these things,” she said. “They’re very involved. They’re very used to going to events and meetings. Not only is that good for them, but I also try to send a message that this is how we need to be encouraging of more women coming through the ranks, whether it’s in elected office, or just really at a policy and political level making sure that women feel that they have a seat at that table.”

Still writing: With her family and work obligations, she says the only hobby she has time for is writing her Mommy Mayor blog for the MercerMe website. Recent posts have discussed her exhaustion at being a working mom, the implications of having a woman president, girls’ body-image issues, vaccination, and civility in politics.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight