Don't hit Harry and Bernie Platt with another dead-voter joke. They will laugh, but politely, and only because it would be impolitic not to.
The Platts, you see, run Platt Memorial Chapels, right on Cherry Hill's border with the bedroom burg of Voorhees, N.J. But as of Election Day, the Platts, father and son, began harboring higher hopes for harmony along that border. Bernie Platt is the new mayor of Cherry Hill, while his son, Harry, won his council race in Voorhees and was reelected mayor by fellow council members.
"I announced early in my campaign that there would be no dissolving of borders," said Harry Platt, 37. "Then only one of us could be mayor."
As far as the U.S. Conference of Mayors can determine, the Platts are the only father-son team to serve simultaneously as mayors of adjoining towns. And Cherry Hill and Voorhees are not two-bit way stations.
Cherry Hill, at about 70,000 people, is the third most-populous Philadelphia suburb and South Jersey's shopping hub -- the Cherry Hill Mall being the first enclosed shopping center on the East Coast when it opened, in 1961. Muhammad Ali once lived in Cherry Hill, as did such varied folks as disgraced financier Michael Milken, singing idols Frankie Avalon and Al Martino, and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), when he pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies. Voorhees, at 28,000 people, is a bit less prominent, but it is where the National Hockey League Philadelphia Flyers train, and thus has been the bedroom community for many professional athletes.
Because of their business, though, the Platts have been prominent in the towns for years, particularly in the large and influential Jewish community. There are six synagogues in Cherry Hill alone, and the last three mayors, including Bernie Platt, have been Jewish.
"But I want to stress that all my constituents are living," said Bernie Platt, 68, who, despite his profession, seems never to have been caught in a news photograph without his toothy smile. To all, he is never Mr. Platt, but "Bernie. Please, always Bernie." He grew up in what he said was a resolutely nonpolitical family in West Chester, Pa., a Colonial town about 20 miles west of Philadelphia.
"I do remember stuffing envelopes for Harry Truman in 1948, but that was about it," said Platt, who, like his son, is a lifelong Democrat. "I don't even remember if he won Pennsylvania, that's how inconsequential it was." (Truman lost to Thomas Dewey in Pennsylvania.)
After running his funeral business for a few years, Bernie met a lot of folks in Cherry Hill who said he would be a good guy to run for council. Bernie found local politics irresistible and served for a dozen years on council and Camden County's Board of Chosen Freeholders. He actually served for a year as mayor in 1978-79, when the incumbent mayor left the job and he, as council president, took over.
In the 1990s, though, Bernie Platt went back to his business full time, but then Harry got bitten by the political bug. By that time, he was also in the funeral business. In fact, he lived in an apartment above the funeral home while attending nearby Mercer County Community College. Boyhood friends were moving to newer split-levels and ranch houses in Voorhees, the next suburb out from the city.
"I had really never had an interest in politics, even with my dad. In fact, all I remembered when I was a teenager is that it took him away from home most nights," said Harry Platt. "But, well, I moved in and got married, and got interested in the issues."
In Voorhees, the mayor is elected by the people as a council member and then elected by fellow council members. The mayor's job is part time and pays only a few thousand dollars a year.
In Cherry Hill, it is a full-time, directly elected job paying nearly $70,000 a year. Bernie Platt said he would take only half his salary and cut down on his work at the funeral home to be a full-time mayor. He was actually elected for only a year, since his predecessor left three years into the term to become New Jersey's community affairs commissioner.
Camden County, in which Cherry Hill and Voorhees are located, has something of a legacy of funeral director mayors. In Haddonfield, which borders Cherry Hill's other side, two recent mayors ran competing funeral homes. A few towns down, in Clementon, a father and son ran both the funeral home and the town government as mayors in recent years.
"I think it's a natural," Bernie Platt said. "You are a kind of public person in the funeral business, which is serving people in their time of need. You have to be aware of people's emotions. And you are intensely local. I'm surprised there aren't more of us doing this."
Bernie Platt's big issue this year is what to do with the massive Garden State Race Track parcel. The track, once one of the major horse-racing venues in the country and the center of town entertainment for generations, closed last year after 60 years, and its future use is unclear.
Harry's most public campaign issue was the arrest of a local sports-radio personality, who was stopped for allegedly driving 100 miles per hour to get to the Flyers' practice site for a news conference. The personality denounced Harry Platt on the air and urged voters to cast him out of office.
"The less said about that, the better," Harry Platt said. "But we have all those same suburban issues: open space, education, road congestion, high property taxes. While it's been fun talking about Dad and me, it's now time to face all those realities."
Fran Burnstein. "I want to stress that all my constituents are living," he quips of his dual roles as mayor and funeral director.Voorhees, N.J., Mayor Harry Platt had a week to celebrate. Besides the birthday celebrations of Ann Schmerling-Salsberg, second from left, who turned 102, and Miriam Ackley, right, who turned 100, he swore in his father as the new mayor of Cherry Hill on Nov. 18. At left is the outgoing Cherry Hill mayor, Susan Bass Levin.