From Queens to Chester County, VISTA Today asks two-term County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone what she remembers growing up in New York City’s largest Borough, what her first job working for Marshall’s department store taught her, how she overcame the fear of speaking with strangers during her first campaign for County Controller in 2005 and her focus as County Commissioner on workforce development and on county residents who remain unemployed or underemployed even as Chester County’s economy continues to grow.
Kathi Cozzone around her first birthday.
Where did you grow up, Commissioner Cozzone?
I was born in Queens and lived there until I was nine when my parents moved to Wayne in Northern New Jersey. At our new house, we had a giant back yard and all us kids thought we had moved to the country. My dad was an engineer who worked his entire career for “the” telephone company back when there was only one telephone company. My father not only worked during the day but got his college degree in the evening from Bernard Baruch College in New York City. My mom was a stay at home mom. My mother typed all his papers and pretty much ran the house since he was in school.
Were you the oldest child?
I am. I have one brother and two sisters.
What do you remember about Queens and how different life in Wayne seemed?
When we lived in the City, there weren’t as many parks, and I didn’t ride quite as far on my bike. When we moved to Wayne, all of that changed. I was a fourth grader and everyone said I talked funny. I quickly learned how to not speak that way anymore.
Did you have any jobs when you were a teenager?
I babysat until I was old enough to get a “real” job. My first real job was in retail, at a new Marshall’s department store just opening in town. I worked there through high school and then every summer and winter break when I was in college. The experience taught me I didn’t want a career in retail. I have a lot of respect for people who work in retail. The retail environment is more challenging and frustrating than the average shopper understands. Customers are never happy and at times, can be very mean. I always had to be nice to them even when they weren’t nice to me.
What lessons did you learn at Marshall’s that stay with you today?
I think the biggest take away from my time in retail was a great sense of patience. On the service desk where I frequently worked, I often encountered customers who weren’t happy with something. Sometimes it was difficult to be helpful to people who weren’t being very nice, so I worked hard to be patient with them.
Kathi Cozzone (right), son Victor (now 10) and husband Victor in a recent family photo.
Where does that patience developed at Marshall’s serve you best today?
Probably as a mother. To be sure I am not a perfect mother. I lose my patience just like everyone else. Patience and tolerance are something you have to have to raise a child.
So you graduate from high school, what’s next?
I had an accounting class in high school and I really liked it so I decided that’s what I wanted to go to college for. I applied to a small number of colleges, all away from home, but close enough that I could get home when I wanted to. I chose Trenton State College, which is now called The College of New Jersey.
Was Trenton State and accounting a good fit for you?
It was a great choice for me. I was away from home and what 18-year-old doesn’t want that? I wasn’t far enough away that I couldn’t get home when I wanted to. I’m a fairly logical person, so I enjoyed the natural logic of figures and accounting. A lot of the people who started the accounting program with me migrated to other majors like finance and economics; I was one of a smaller group of students who finished the program.
What did you do after college?
I took a job with the Dreyfus Corporation in New York City. I stayed with Dreyfus for about a year before moving over to Macmillan Publishing where I worked for nine or ten years. Following Macmillan, I worked for Scholastic and a couple of startups before heading back to the publishing business at Rodale in Allentown.
When did you discover you had a passion for politics?
I had always been interested and involved in politics, but not through any political party. That all changed in 2005 when my husband Victor and Senator Dinniman asked me to run for County Controller. When they first suggested running, I didn’t think I could do it. My first response was, ‘no!’ I couldn’t talk to myself in the mirror, and they wanted me to talk to people I had never met before. At the time, I was looking for something different to do with my life. My son was three, and I knew I didn’t want to follow my natural career path. I hadn’t made any decision yet, but I knew I wanted to try something service related.
Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone with then President-elect Barack Obama in January of 2008.
Was running for County Controller a good experience for you?
As I got into the race, I found that I really enjoyed it. It was a true personal growth experience for me. I am grateful to my husband for having had the confidence in me and patience to convince me to run.
Did campaigning come naturally for you?
Oh gosh, no! I was such terrible public speaker. I was petrified. But I slowly gained more confidence in walking up to people and introducing myself. I enjoyed having the opportunity of hearing what the people I met had to say about the community they lived in and what was important to them. I still find listening to and hearing from people one of the most important and interesting parts of being a Public Official.
How did the race for County Controller turn out?
I had some great people helping me and ended up with 48 percent of the vote, better than presidential candidate John Kerry had done in Chester County the year before.
Not only did I learn about myself and grow as a person, I never expected to come as close to winning as I did in 2005. The fact that I had come so close to winning told me this was something I could do and do well. I thought I had something to offer and believed, based on the results of the 2005 Controllers race, the community thought I had something to offer as well. When then County Commissioner Andy Dinniman won the State Senate seat in 2006, I thought I would take another swing at it.
What challenges and opportunities do you see on the horizon, Kathi?
I’ve spent a lot of my eight years in office on work force development, focusing on help for folks who are unemployed or underemployed. The loss of a job is a huge hardship to a family and I felt compelled to work to improve the programming available for those in our community who faced the challenges of being out of work.
While Chester County fared better than most counties through the great recession, we were still significantly impacted. Seven years later, there are still a lot of Chester County residents who lost their job as the economy went down and haven’t yet found a new job as the economy has rebounded. While our current unemployment rate is low, I don’t think the numbers paint an accurate picture especially as it pertains to the people who have been out of work a very long time and are having a very difficult time becoming reemployed.
I sit on the Workforce Investment Board and co-chair the VISTA 2025 Goal for Workforce Development. I’m happy about the new programs we’ve put in place in the last seven years and I’m particularly excited about the Platform to Employment initiative we kicked off last month. I see the initiative as a proven way to help long-term unemployed people find a job.
Another challenge Chester County faces is the proliferation of pipeline development across the county. With the growth of the Marcellus Shale, there will continue to be pressure to build more pipelines across the county. I’ve been appointed to Governor’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force and am the Chair of the County Government work group for the Task Force.
Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone addresses a young child in the audience, saying “This library is about you and your dreams…” during the opening of the new Downingtown Library earlier this year.
We have a lot to think about when it comes to pipelines not just in the county but across the region and Commonwealth. There will be continual pressure on our neighborhoods and preserved lands. We must do everything we can to ensure that whatever pipeline infrastructure comes through Chester County, the development is done in a way that does not negatively impact Chester County’s quality of life and the health and safety of our citizens.
Finally Kathi, what is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I had a boss at my second job who taught me a lot about being successful in the workplace. This man was liked by everyone and very supportive of his employees getting promotions and realizing their career objectives. He was not at all concerned or afraid if someone who worked for him got promoted. He gave his people opportunity and encouraged them to do the best they could. He treated his staff the same way he treated his bosses.
At the time, I was young and just a year out of college and lacked the confidence to ask more senior people for critical information I needed to complete my job. He told me it was my job to get the information and I needed to be confident and respectfully persistent when I asked for what I needed. I am not perfect, but I try to follow his example in my professional, public and private life.
I am grateful that I had the chance to work with him and very thankful for his good advice.