You may know new West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor as a politician, but We-Ha.com sat down and talked to her about what she’s like outside of the spotlight – unplugged from the political machine.
By Ronni Newton
Shari Cantor has been on the West Hartford Town Council since 2004, but the Town’s newest mayor didn’t always have political aspirations.
Many people know Cantor as a petite and energetic deputy mayor who has presided over countless ribbon-cuttings, especially during the past year or two as now-former Mayor Scott Slifka’s job responsibilities with Lego took him out of the country.
Cantor is a tireless advocate for the elderly who has been the Council’s liaison to the Senior Citizen’s Advisory Commission and spearheaded the re-establishment of the Senior’s Job Bank and the growth of the Independent Transportation Network.
She’s the proud mom of four boys – Josh, Sam, Ben, and Jacob – who are now all young adults. She’s been a working mother and has dealt firsthand with one of her children (Jacob, the youngest) being born with a serious birth defect.
She has a necklace that she wears every day. It’s a Hadaya necklace handmade in Jerusalem, Israel, she said. “My oldest son bought it for me when he spent the summer of 2006 there, during the Lebanese War. It is a Hebrew Talmudic saying that means there is no love like a mother’s love,” Cantor said.
She understands the struggles of working families and the challenges young adults face as they enter the workforce.
Cantor played three high school varsity sports and was captain of two of them, and remains an athlete today. She also has an extensive musical background.
Her first resolution after joining the Town Council was establishing a poet laureate for the Town. She’s an avid cyclist who has promoted the work of the Bicycle Task Force and the development of the Town’s award-winning Complete Streets policy.
Everything in Cantor’s background has prepared her well for the role as mayor of West Hartford, a title she officially assumed on Monday evening and something she takes very seriously.
“West Hartford is incredibly financially responsible and stable despite some of the dynamics on the state level,” Cantor said last week.
“I think my strength is listening to people,” Cantor.
As a very active deputy mayor, Cantor has already been deeply involved in shaping West Hartford policy. As mayor, she said her primary goal is ensuring that the Town “can position ourselves to remain vibrant for the future.”
Here are some specific things you should know about Shari Cantor:
Shari Granow was born on Dec. 26, 1959, to Marcus and Rose Granow, and is the third of four children – the “little middle,” she said. Her parents, Jewish immigrants who moved to the Hartford area from New York, had four children in five years. She has two older brothers and one younger sister.
She weighed just 4.5 pounds at birth. “I’ve always been small,” said Cantor, who never quite hit 5 feet in height.
“I went to kindergarten when I was 4, and I couldn’t reach the top step of the bus. My mother didn’t want my brother to help me. She thought I needed to be independent.”
A lifelong West Hartford resident, Cantor first lived on Greenbriar Drive near the Mandell JCC and when she was 5 moved to Osage Road which was a brand new development full of families with young kids. Her family lived at the end of a cul-de-sac and they played kickball, baseball, and other games in the street. “I think my mother locked the door and we didn’t come home until the streetlights came on,” she said.
She attended kindergarten at Aiken, but after moving to Osage went she walked to school at King Philip – then an elementary school and junior high – from first through ninth grade. She graduated from Hall High School in 1977.
First Political Moment
Cantor had no idea back in 1966, when a Time Magazine photographer snapped a photo of her at age 6 being pushed in a swing by a slightly older boy, that there was anything transformative going on. “Kids are just kids to each other” reads the caption below the photo. Cantor’s name was not included in the caption or the article about the origin of Project Concern in the Hartford area, but she’s proud to have supported the program (now Open Choice) since its inception 60 years ago.
Cantor was a room parent at Morley School for 14 straight years and served as PTO president. She was on the School Improvement Council. She was also a major opponent of the K-2/3-5 proposed changes to West Hartford’s elementary schools because she believed it would make it harder for parents to be involved.
As for how she ended up on the Town Council, Cantor said that took a bit of convincing and some white lies.
In 2004, when her youngest son was a second-grader, Cantor attended a fundraiser for Jonathan Harris, who was then running for State Senate, at Chuck Coursey’s house. “I was on my way to pick up at the soccer field and Chuck grabbed me and said I would be great for the Town Council,” Cantor said.
Her husband Michael was supportive, and thought she would enjoy public service.
Scott Slifka and Coursey took her to lunch. “They lied to me. They said it wasn’t much work, and that I would be good at it because I would bring a different perspective.”
Life was still crazy, and the family had just taken in an Israeli exchange student. But Cantor’s oldest son was 15, and could cook and help out around the house.
Cantor accepted, and joined the Town Council when Harris was elected to the State Senate, agreeing to run again in 2005. She was sixth out of the six Democrats elected that year, but in 2011 became deputy mayor after receiving the second-highest vote count.
Cantor sang, was a cheerleader, and did gymnastics when she was growing up. She also played violin and guitar. She took singing lessons from Tanya Paranov at the Hartt School and recalls missing school to participate in an operatic performance. Her children all sing.
In high school Cantor focused more on athletics, and captained both the swim team and the gymnastics team. In the pool she specialized in breast stroke and IM, and as a gymnast floor exercise was her favorite. She also ran track – the grueling two-mile race – after her gymnastics coach suggested she would be good at it.
Cantor did club gymnastics briefly in college but gave it up because it was too time-consuming. Several years ago she dislocated her elbow doing a round-off after a Hall vs. Conard gymnastics meet, so she doesn’t do much gymnastics anymore. “I’ll still do a handstand or a cartwheel. I’m much more careful but when I’m near something bouncy I will do a flip,” she said.
Cantor is an athlete to this day, and has an incredibly-equipped exercise room in her home with a treadmill, eliptical, and a high-tech spin bike. She runs and bikes, and loves to hike and backpack. Being active is a passion and an integral part of her life.
Cantor graduated from UConn in 1981. She started off as a psychology major, but as a sophomore she followed the path of her brothers and switched to accounting. She graduated magna cum laude and by the time she graduated had passed three of the four parts of her CPA exam.
UConn remains a major force in Cantor’s life, and she is a member of the Board of Trustees. Her third child graduated from UConn and her oldest is currently enrolled in a masters program.
Michael Cantor is an adjunct professor at UConn and a member of the Foundation Board of Directors.
Career and Marriage
After graduation, Cantor interviewed with several of the “Big 8” accounting firms in Hartford but ultimately took an offer from Siskin Shapiro where she had interned during college. She ultimately worked for Coopers after they acquired Siskin Shapiro.
She met Michael Cantor, a young lawyer who had also graduated from UConn with an engineering degree and also had a UConn law degree, through a contact she made while taking a prep class for the fourth and final part of her CPA exam. The two married in 1985 and moved to a two-family house on Dover Road.
Cantor left Coopers for the accountant’s development program at CIGNA in the mid-80s, and worked there for about a decade, rotating through different areas. She took off six months after each of her first three children were born – a trail-blazer as a part-time employee.
Michael Cantor’s career as a patent attorney was growing steadily at the same time, and he took over the firm when the founding partner retired. “He had a vision, felt that Connecticut was a great place to grow the business with a talented and educated workforce in a place that was less expensive than some of the big cities like New York and Boston,” said Cantor. Cantor Colburn is now among the top 10 patent law firms in the country, with 120 attorneys and offices in Hartford as well as Washington, DC; Atlanta; Detroit; and Houston.
“I’ve traveled around the world with Michael, and understand cutting edge technology. It’s helped me to understand what successful businesses look for,” Cantor said.
Cantor left CIGNA and enrolled at UConn to earn a masters in social work which she planned to combine with her accounting background to launch a new career. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, Cantor had no idea anything was wrong.
Jacob was born by c-section, as were her other three boys. “After he was born this sweet nurse was waiting on me. Another nurse – the mean nurse – took one look at him and said he was ‘dusky’ and then whisked him away,” Cantor recalled
She was whisked to the eighth floor of Hartford Hospital, where the moms without their babies were kept.
Jacob, now 19, was born with eight different heart defects. “I was numb,” she said. “Dr. Eisenfeld said, ‘We can’t really fix it but we have a fix. We have a plan. He will make it,'” Cantor said.
The “mean” nurse had noticed Jacob’s blue color, which was caused by a complete blockage between his heart and lungs. He was immediately intubated. “He was probably seconds away from brain damage,” she said. Last week Jacob, who has had several open heart surgeries and only has two chambers in his heart, returned from a successful freshman year at Tufts University. He has twice run the Manchester Road Race.
The Cantors lived in a two-family house at 147-149 Dover Rd. for several years, and after two children moved to 19 Foxcroft. “The whole neighborhood was the kids’ yard,” she said.
It was the kind of neighborhood where everyone took care of each other and their children, something incredibly important to Cantor when faced with Jacob was born. “Our neighbors rallied, they made dinner for us, picked up the kids. It was a real community, and there was nowhere I would rather be than a neighborhood like that in West Hartford,” she said.
The teachers at Morley, where all four kids went to elementary school, were also caring and understanding.
The Cantor family moved to a much larger home on Colony Road six years ago in part because of Michael’s need to entertain business associates. Although the house is large and beautifully decorated, it’s very much a warm and friendly home, full of family photos and mementos.
Cantor is currently reading Hoda Kotb’s self-help book “Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way.” She’s in a book club and reads whatever the club is reading, although she’s finding herself reading more newspapers and magazines than books these days but looking forward to some beach reads this summer.
“Historical fiction all the way,” said Cantor of her favorite genre. “Sarah’s Key” and “Pillars of the Earth” are some of her favorites.
Cape Cod. She and Michael have been vacationing there since before their children were born and own a home in East Orleans.
The Cantor’s got their current dog, Manny, from a neighbor soon after their beloved Sheltie died of renal failure. Manny is a “poochie” – a poodle-chihuahua mix, who is a bit crazy.
They’ve always been a dog family, and had a dog (Kelly) even before having children.
Cantor said she likes to cook. “I bake, make some pretty mean cookies and cakes,” she said.
Chicken is also a staple, and some of her favorites are garlic chicken and orange chicken. Salmon is also a specialty.
She doesn’t cook much meat, but the boys do, she said. After working in food service in Cape Cod, several of her children are very good cooks.
“We’re huge UConn fans. We will drop everything to go to games,” said Cantor. It’s been a bonding experience for the whole family.
She tends to follow the careers of UConn grads, but is also a Red Sox fan.
Cantor doesn’t have much time to watch, but said her favorite series include “House of Cards,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Americans.” She’s currently watching “Turn” a series set during the time of the American Revolution that one of her sons encouraged her to watch.
“I have to be into popular music because of my kids,” said Cantor, but her personal favorite artists include Van Morrison, James Taylor, and Carol King. She’s also a fan of Gloria Estafan and other 80s artists.
Growing up, Cantor’s father was really into Big Band music, and she would attend Pops ‘n Jazz at Hall long before she had her own children.
Cantor loves to travel. She knits and crochets when she has time, and loves art and interior decorating.
She has a vegetable garden and especially enjoys growing herbs and tomatoes.
“I love entertaining,” said Cantor. With many of her husband’s business associates coming through town, there’s always something going on at the Cantor house.
Cantor always looks professional, and loves buying fabulous shoes.
“One thing people probably don’t know about me is that I spend more money on tailoring than I do on my clothes,” said the petite Cantor.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!