What Noam Bramson thinks about ice pops, gourmet dining, and the rebirth of the Queen City.
It’s an unseasonably warm spring afternoon when I visit New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson in his spacious wood-paneled office at City Hall. “I’ve been craving an ice pop all day,” the 36-year-old Bramson says after introductions. “Can we talk and walk?” Oh, why not. We exit via a rear staircase—I felt as if I am entering the Batcave—and stroll down North Avenue to his favorite palateria, La Flor de Michoacan, where Mayor Bramson greets the servers by name. He opts for a coffee-flavored ice; I have raspberry. Somehow it seems totally natural, slurping ice pops with the youngest council member, and now mayor, in New Rochelle history.
If you searched central casting, you couldn’t find a more fitting mayoral candidate. While of average height and trim build, the charismatic Bramson has a presence about him: he’s an affable yet serious politician, with a decidedly boyish charm mixed with a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Jimmy Stewart earnestness. He knows his city cold, rattling facts and figures off the top of his head in perfectly developed sound bites: 2,000 new units of housing, one-half million square feet of retail space, 250,000 square feet of office and hotel space developed or under development over the past 10 years.
Bramson comes across as the Queen City’s biggest cheerleader—and he is. “Within our borders, you will find every kind of heritage, tradition, experience, and circumstance,” he says. “Neighbors, classmates, friends, all work together to build a common future. I’ve always felt that serving New Rochelle is a very special privilege and responsibility.” Yes, he really talks that way—every word measured, every sentence perfectly parsed.
Indeed, it was his way with words that first caught the attention of his wife, Catie Stern, a clinical pediatric neuropsychologist. “Some friends of mine were at a wedding and Noam was toasting the newlyweds,” Stern recalls. “Something about the humor and thoughtfulness of his toast impressed them and they thought we would hit it off.” Stern was living in Rhode Island at the time, but agreed to meet the man who impressed her friend the next time she was in New York. She did, they clicked, and the two began a long-distance relationship.
“He proposed to me on a mountain top,” Stern recalls. “I thought his back pack was a little much for a day hike, but it turns out it was loaded with a gourmet lunch he had prepared”—olives and cheeses, and egg salad with salmon sandwiches. For dessert, there were chocolates. Stern reached in the box to select one and found another tiny box instead. “His first question was, â€˜Will you marry me?’ The second, â€˜Will you move to New Rochelle?’”
The couple live with their two children, Jeremy, two and a half, and Owen, nine months, in the Beechmont neighborhood of New Rochelle in a small split-level home.
Bramson is a first-generation American, born and raised in New Rochelle. His Polish-born parents were refugees during World War II who met in Israel in the 1950s, married, and moved to the U.S. Bramson’s mother still lives in the New Rochelle house in which he was born; his three older brothers live in Northern Westchester.
The youthful mayor discovered early on that public service was his calling. When he was just 10 years old and a student in one of the last graduating classes at Roosevelt Elementary School (it’s now a condo), Bramson was invited to participate in the Model Congress Program. “It was my first exposure to debate about issues and I knew right then that I wanted to go into public service,” he says.
His keen interest in public issues and his inherent affinity for debate and public speaking were obvious to his classmates even in high school. “I met Noam working on Model Congress and he truly cared about the issues we were debating,” recalls classmate Daedre Levine, who now lives in Australia. “It was always clear that power was not the motivator; changing things was. Of course, Noam did not mind the power that does come from winning, particularly when we played Risk, which he played maniacally.”
The mayor is also an excellent poker player. “I can personally vouch for his skill at poker,” says Jeremy Sherber, a high school pal who today lives in Manhattan. “After a few years pretending that I could go head-to-head with Noam at a poker table, I finally came to terms, during a late-night tournament for his bachelor party, with the fact that he is impossible to bluff out of a competitive hand.”
Sherber also recalls his friend’s debating skills from Model Congress. “Students took turns making speeches, pro and con, for an hour after school. As the hour would wind down, he’d stand up for one of the last five-minute slots of debate. He’d repeat each side’s arguments more succinctly than they’d been made originally, then present his own opinion simply and convincingly. Even at that young age, he had such a rare grasp of the issues and a clear way of illuminating them—and no trouble bringing others along with him.”
Bramson graduated 11th in a class of 600 from New Rochelle High School with enough advanced placement classes to breeze through Harvard in just three years as a government major. He received his master’s degree in public policy from Harvard as well. While there, he was involved in student government and volunteered in several political campaigns.
“His passion for politics was crystal clear in college,” remembers Lesley Carson, who met Bramson at Harvard. “I hadn’t met anyone who was so sure of what he wanted to do with his life at such a young age. While most of us were changing from philosophy to dance to medicine, he never wavered from his commitment to that path.”
Bramson returned to his roots in New Rochelle after college in 1995, and, at age 25, was elected to the New Rochelle City Council. He won his subsequent election bids in 1999 and 2003, garnering more than 70 percent of the vote. In January of this year, he was appointed by his city-council colleagues to serve a one-year term as mayor, a full-time position paying $63,500 a year, filling the vacancy created by the election of former mayor Tim Idoni to the office of Westchester County Clerk. Last summer, he formally announced his intention to seek election on the Democratic ticket to the mayor’s office.
Does Bramson’s youth affect the way he governs? “Age is far less relevant to public service than ability, quality of ideas, responsiveness, and common sense,” he says. “While my age is sometimes viewed as a point of interest by residents and colleagues in government, it is generally a non-issue when it comes to any substantive interactions. People want to know what you think and what you can do, not when you were born.”
As council member and now mayor, Bramson has been part of a team that has brought about a dramatic revitalization of downtown New Rochelle—more than $1 billion has been pumped into the economy in the past 10 years. “The next four to five years will be the most significant economic and physical changes in the city,” he says, pointing out of his window toward the new Trump Plaza rising in the distance. “This will bring in a new scale and vibrancy to the city, changing the streetscape and skyline. It’s a very interesting time for New Rochelle—there are a lot of wonderful things going on.”
Just a few years ago, one thing that was going on, a proposed IKEA store, did not please many residents. The plan was to build a 308,000-square-foot building in New Rochelle’s City Park neighborhood. Resident Elyse Fields was impressed with the way Bramson reached out to her community during this time. “Most of my neighbors were opposed to the plan,” she says. “Noam actually sought us out and explained all sides of having a big-box store in the neighborhood. He organized local meetings, several in my home; he held open Q&A sessions, and was very upfront in what was going on. Although he was unable to tell us what his vote was going to be, he was very open to listening to all sides, including the few pro-IKEA people. In the end, he voted with his constituency and said no to IKEA which made my neighborhood very happy.”
David Hochberg, the former vice president of Lillian Vernon, remembers how Bramson welcomed the company when it relocated its headquarters from Mount Vernon to New Rochelle. “Within a week, he called to welcome us as a new corporate citizen—he was the only councilman who did,” Hochberg says.
Not everyone is a Bramson fan, but you have to scratch pretty hard to come up with a vocal opponent. The one lone Republican voice on the council belongs to Michael Boyle, who turns out to be a fan, too. “I’ve known Noam since high school and believe him to be the most sincere and issue-oriented official in New Rochelle, if not the entire county. Even when we disagree, he ends with an agreeable policy.”
Agreeable and accessible—Bramson even has his home phone listed on his website. “The moment we moved in together, I knew that I needed my own phone line,” his wife says. “People will call if they have traffic concerns, if they notice a street sign down, or questions about leaf pick up or the construction downtown.”
Stern acknowledges that, as his wife, all of these interruptions are sometimes challenging—so much so that, when they go to the supermarket together, they shop with separate carts. “He’ll bump into someone at the fruit aisle or the meat counter, they will tell him their concern, and he’ll pull out his Palm Pilot,” she says. “Once something is on his list, it gets done.”
She admits she sometimes resorts to email to get house matters on his list. “I love that he loves what he does, that he takes a serious job very seriously. My job is to make sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Sometimes I have to say to him, â€˜Your Honor, could you please change a diaper?’”
Bramson may be available to his constituents 24/7, but he isn’t always on the job. He enjoys historical nonfiction (Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is a recent read) and he listens to progressive rock, like Cold Play and U2. Stern introduced Bramson to the joy of the New York Times crossword puzzles; now they make photocopies so they can each have their own. “He’s better than me now,” Stern laughs. “He can even do the puzzles on Friday and Saturday, which I can never do.”
Fine dining is his biggest self-indulgence. “I’m a very frugal person,” he confides. “My suits are all a few years old. I drive a Saturn and live in an extremely modest home. But I do love a good meal.”
Especially in his favorite town. He loves “everything on the menu” from MacMenamin’s Grill, the ceviche at Cholo’s Kitchen, the sushi at Karuta, Indian cuisine at Coromandel, Rangoli and steaks at Moe’s, and, of course, the ice pops at La Flor de Michoacan. He also enjoys cooking, and, according to Eileen Songer McCarthy, his senior advisor for policy development, he’s pretty good at it. “Having Noam cook a meal for you is a fabulous treat,” she says, “and eating a meal out with him can be an adventure.”
Daedre Levine remembers dining experiences with Bramson. “Noam is a real foodie, and his meticulousness does not pertain only to politics. Back before we all had children, Noam would get the Zagat’s restaurant guide at the beginning of the year, highlight the restaurants he wanted to go to, and work through them one by one until he had sampled all the chefs and locations he wanted. His choices in that arena, just like his decisions in matters of policy, were always on target.”
When asked if he is interested in higher government positions, Bramson says he has no plans beyond the mayor’s office. “I feel very privileged to serve our community at such an exciting moment in its history and hope that I can continue making a positive contribution,” he says. And that, many residents believe, is good news for New Rochelle.