The Rising Influence of South Orange Mayor Sheena Collum in New Jersey State Politics

by

A self-described “policy wonk, political junkie, and perpetual diplomat,” Collum balances her continued work as a local leader with her new positions and increasing responsibilities throughout the state.

0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jack Citarelli’s ears were burning.

South Orange Village Mayor Sheena Collum was discussing the State Planning and Redevelopment Conference taking place in early June. As Executive Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, Collum is putting the final touches on a gubernatorial roundtable which will include Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop, Newark mayor Ras Baraka, state senator John Bramnick, and former state assemblymember Jack Citarelli.

Collum is right in the middle of an impassioned thought about the relationship between state and local policies when Citarelli calls her cell. But Collum wants to finish her thought before she jumps on a call with him.

“You want to ensure that everything is coordinated among all agencies, administrations, and that all towns are moving in the same direction so that we avoid issues with silos,” she says. The subject matter is one of many topics that she’s hoping will be explored by the gubernatorial candidates.

In 2017, HistoryNusantara sat down with Collum over detox drinks at The Dancing Blender in South Orange. At the time, she was two years into her first term as Village President, a title which was changed to Mayor in 2024. Now well into her third term, Collum is sharpening her state-level credentials as she frequently travels from her South Orange home to both New Brunswick and Trenton. Although she regularly traverses the state, she shares a deep belief in making sure those state-level policies effectively represent the interests of South Orange.

Collum remains the same self-described “policy wonk, political junkie, and perpetual diplomat.” However, she now balances her continued work as a local leader with her new positions and increasing responsibilities throughout the state.

“I think our next governor needs to be a mayor.”

In 2023, Collum endorsed Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop after he announced his candidacy. He subsequently tapped her to serve as his campaign’s senior advisor for Housing and Economic Development.

“Sheena is like a force of nature. I happen to think she is one of the most talented mayors and executives in the state of New Jersey. South Orange is very, very fortunate to have her, and there’s a lot of reasons why I feel that way,” Fulop tells HistoryNusantara. “Her knowledge of development and policy is really second to none. She’s practical, she’s pragmatic, she’s thoughtful, and she’s solution oriented. She’s not really a just pie in the sky type of person. She’s about results and getting things done.”

“I was really floored by his election to begin with – and that he ran off the line,” Collum says of Fulop. “He was an outsider. He did not have the establishment support, and that’s something that I really value — seeing somebody who’s so committed realizing that it’s a challenge, it’s an uphill battle. He was ultimately elected in Jersey City, and now you see he’s doing the exact same thing running for governor. […] There were already a lot of philosophical similarities of what we think about democracy.”

[L-R] Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, Mayor Sheena Collum, and Elnardo Webster at Village Hall in South Orange.

From a policy perspective, Collum and Fulop share a unified approach to affordable housing. “[Fulop’s] housing and economic development strategy is almost identical to the way that we do things in South Orange – with South Orange being of significantly smaller scale,” says Collum. “He understands the dynamics of inclusionary affordable housing. Jersey City was the first town to have an inclusionary affordable housing zoning ordinance, and South Orange was right behind that.”

Collum aligns with Fulop’s belief that an experienced mayor would serve as an effective governor. “I think our next governor needs to be a mayor – a mayor of a local government who understands that the impacts of what happens in Trenton trickles down to us 100%. Every piece of legislation has an impact,” she says. “And he’s made himself 100% accessible. I try to mirror that on a smaller level in South Orange, that mentality of ‘Alright, we’ve got differences. Let’s sit down. Let’s meet. Let’s talk about it’.”

“Wherever you are in the housing spectrum or what type of advocate you are, a consistent theme is that you’ve had conversations with Sheena and you respect Sheena. She has an amazing ability to communicate tough policies with groups, which I think is a gift that is underappreciated,” says Fulop.

The Jersey City mayor cites the sale of South Orange’s Village Hall as a way to discuss Collum’s consensus building acumen. “My first exposure to Sheena was when she had the idea of selling Village Hall,” says Fulop. “When people told me that at the time, I thought there’s no way that anybody will be able to get that done. Just the pushback on the idea of selling or separating from [South Orange] is something that — politically — I didn’t think anybody could get achieved. Fast forward five years. I had a meeting with her in that building and she was able to get it done.”

The 564 municipalities of New Jersey

In 2023, Collum was elected to the Executive Board of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities (NJSLOM). “I have been on the Land Use and Environment Committee for several years. When I was asked to step up and to be a member of the executive committee, I was happy to do so because I love networking with other mayors,” says Collum.

Considering the league is made up of representatives from all 564 municipalities in New Jersey, she’s able to network with mayors and officials throughout the state.

“She’s omnipresent,” says Mike Cerra, Executive Director of NJSLOM. “Sheena obviously has expertise in terms of the planning issues and development issues – both professionally and through her mayor’s hat. But she also has a streak of pragmatism and real-world experience that balances what is the ideal and what is achievable.”

Collum boasts a significant amount of experience working across party lines – which is part of her philosophy of governing. “I find that there are very small differences on issues that impact New Jerseyans, that separate Republicans from Democrats,” she says. “A lot of us are talking about the unfunded mandates. We’re talking about energy tax receipts being returned back to the municipalities. We’re talking about the investments in transportation and what that’s going to look like into the future. A lot of it really comes down to things that we deal with on a daily basis, that all residents care about, that really don’t have a slant one way or another – but just ways to make government more efficient and responsive to our taxpayers.”

Her work with NJSLOM demonstrates her consistency of stance on the issue of affordable housing. “I’m thinking of legislation that would have had the unintended consequence of driving up the costs of affordable housing construction and make it more difficult for municipalities to comply with their court settlements. [Collum] was one of the leading voices in the state pushing back on that and working with us and a coalition,” says Cerra.

What third term Sheena would tell first term Sheena

While her title changed from Village President to Village Mayor, Collum highlights the lessons she has learned throughout almost a decade on the job. “Third term Sheena would tell young Sheena that things are going to move slower than you want, and it’s going to drive you insane. Coming in, you think about all the inefficiencies in government and the ways that you can try and save taxpayer dollars. You bring this idea of innovation, and then very quickly you realize that there’s bureaucracy everywhere you go,” she says.

With great candor, Collum revisited some of the more difficult moments during her second mayoral campaign. “During that [2017] interview, we talked about the efficiencies that could be found between two neighboring towns that already share a school district, and then you realize — on paper — everything looks great. I had not calculated in my younger mind how much politics will influence the decisions that we’re supposed to be making every day, and not to allow that to get in the way of good government,” says Collum.

Collum’s work on the South Orange-Maplewood Fire department merger – now the South Essex Fire Department – received significant pushback from the fire unions. During her campaign for her second term, the South Orange Fire Department sent a flier to South Orange homes, placing the blame on Collum for “falsely promis[ing] unrealistic cost savings” while “impairing our ability to respond to multiple, simultaneous incidents.”

“I got absolutely pummeled by unions,” Collum says. “I’m so grateful that the community had my back, because so much can impact local elections, and you need to have the community support or else special interest groups can get rid of you almost instantaneously, despite showing that you can do things better.”

“Nobody really goes as bold as they should, because the politics are very hard with regards to dealing with unions, dealing with constituents,” adds Fulop. “The fire unions came after her. But she won her second term overwhelmingly, despite all of that pushback.”

Verizon, the Board of Education, and racoons in the yard

Those familiar with Collum’s presence on social media know the she is extremely responsive to the community’s requests. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a municipal issue, a county issue, or a state issue, or a federal issue,” she explains. “It could be your mortgage payment. It could be Verizon. It could be a raccoon in your yard. It could be about all the board of education related issues. They will contact me, they will copy me, they will tag me on social media. More often than not, I welcome it because it means that people know that I’m responsive and that I like to follow up.”

“It’s not just about getting together with fellow elected officials,” adds Cerra. “[Sheena] is able to collate an agenda, identify priorities and advance the agenda. Through her perch as mayor, as a leading board member and through other advocacy, she’s heard well beyond the boundaries of South Orange and well beyond the boundaries of Essex County.”

So what’s next for Collum? Mayor Fulop has big plans for her.

“She’s a tremendous asset for our campaign and I’m lucky to have her involved,” he says. “She is a primary policy advisor and a point person on housing issues. I hope that if she would be willing — and I’m successful – she would join me down in Trenton.”

Related Articles

CLOSE
CLOSE