Cahn traded 'perfect life' for challenge of being Cherry Hill mayor

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Chuck Cahn is to be sworn in next week as Cherry Hill mayor. Cutting the township's bureacracy is high on his agenda.

Summers cycling in Europe, leisurely afternoons at his sprawling stone mansion deciding between a John Grisham novel and 18 holes of golf.

Chuck Cahn seemed to be living in a middle-aged man's paradise, seven years removed from selling his $30-million-a-year office-equipment company.

So why is he about to take over as mayor of Cherry Hill?

"We don't have an answer either," quipped Fred Berlinsky, Cahn's friend and president of the real estate firm Markeim-Chalmers.

Cahn, who at 56 doesn't look so far removed from his days playing defensive end at Cherry Hill East High School, has heard this question plenty of times.

It's not unusual for businessmen to look to politics for their second acts, to take what they picked up trading oil futures - or, in Cahn's case, selling photocopiers and scanners - and try to apply it to government.

With his plans to cut the bureaucracy at township hall, which he says is hurting business in Cherry Hill, Cahn fits that model. And if his plans work out, Cahn, a Democrat, said he would think about pursuing higher office in Trenton, maybe even Washington.

"Everybody viewed me as having this perfect life, playing golf, traveling," he says. "But I like a challenge, and this is a challenge."

Cahn's entry onto Cherry Hill's political stage this spring raised eyebrows, because many in local politics had never heard of him.

In Cherry Hill, running for mayor is a process that usually begins years before declaring one's candidacy and involves long hours sitting on advisory boards and schmoozing with civic groups, said Roxanne Shinn of the Barclay Area Civic Association.

Cahn is a prominent member of Temple Beth Sholom, which also has produced Cherry Hill's current mayor and the two before that. But he had never gotten involved in politics. The closest he came was going before the planning board in 2005 when he was knocking down two homes to build his 12,393-square-foot mansion.

"I never heard of him before his name popped up before the election," Shinn said.

After graduating from Rutgers in 1977, Cahn planned on going into the pharmaceutical industry as a salesman. But his mother, who he said was the first woman to graduate from Purdue University's engineering program and who worked on an early rocket engine, urged him to go to work for Stewart Industries, the office-supply company his father founded in the late 1950s.

Over the ensuing decades, Cahn worked to expand the business, offering new computer technologies. By 2004, he said, the once-modest company had eight offices in three states, including contracts with around 250 of the nearly 600 school districts in New Jersey.

Then a Florida company, which would itself later be bought by Xerox, came calling, and Cahn sold the business for an undisclosed sum.

Cahn said he had always been interested in government but had never thought of running for political office until one morning this year, when he read that Mayor Bernie Platt was stepping down.

He and his wife of more than 30 years, Stephanie, started talking about it. Cahn was enjoying spending more time with their teenage daughter and two older children, but he needed something else, Stephanie Cahn recounted.

"I never imagined Chuck in politics," she said. "But when I thought about it, Chuck doesn't get his feathers ruffled too easily and he loves working with people. He always sees both sides. Those are great traits for someone in government."

The Cahns are friends with former Mayor Susan Bass Levin, who was elected to four terms and later served in the cabinets of three governors.

Levin and Cahn met for lunch at Ponzio's, the township politicos' lunch spot, and Levin warned him about the time consumed by being mayor, and of being accosted by residents griping about potholes and traffic while she was trying to buy cold cuts at the deli counter.

"I gave him the good, the bad, and the ugly," Levin said. "But he's unflappable. When you tell him, here are the downsides of things, he doesn't scare."

With Platt stepping down, the conventional thinking was that a prominent local Democrat such as Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash or Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt would run to lead the heavily Democratic town.

But when they didn't step forward, it was Cahn who got the nod from the county Democratic organization, led by Cooper University Hospital board chairman George E. Norcross III.

There were "Chats With Chuck," where, over coffee residents told him what they thought needed to be fixed and asked questions. In the afternoons, Cahn would walk the town's myriad neighborhoods, knocking on doors, until it was time to go home for dinner.

"It was August, and it was hot. I would be drenched going up to these people's homes," Cahn said. "But I got to know the town in a way I didn't before. I walked neighborhoods I didn't even know existed."

His message was simple: While Cherry Hill might have fared relatively well during the recession, it has too much vacant retail space and too many half-filled office buildings. That depresses tax revenue.

His friends in the business world, like Berlinsky, bemoaned to him the cost and time involved in bringing new businesses to Cherry Hill, as to other New Jersey towns. Cahn said he would streamline the processes for permits and approvals and would serve as a liaison to the business community.

In an interview, he declined to give instances in which Cherry Hill has lost business because of slow approvals.

As a Democrat in a town where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2-1, Cahn cruised to victory against lawyer Steve Buividas. The question now is whether he can actually accomplish what he's set out to do.

Much of the bureaucracy is the result of state mandates - covering everything from the environment to fire exits - that could be nearly impossible to get around.

And his pledge to expand bicycle lanes and pedestrian access is the latest in a long line of such promises, so far unfulfilled. The sprawling suburb largely remains off-limits to all but the bravest cyclists and walkers.

But, supporters say in a common refrain, Cahn knows how to get things done.

Berlinsky, who comes from an old political family in South Carolina, said whether Cahn is able to rise in politics as he did in business will depend largely on how he does in the next four years as mayor.

"To move up the ranks in politics depends on what kind of story you have to tell," Berlinsky said. "Will he have successes to talk about in Cherry Hill? Only the future will tell that."

 


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.