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Monday, September 28, 2009

We're Electing a Mayor in Camden!!

Tonight I attended a mayoral candidate forum with 4 candidates running to be the leader of Camden. The Democratic party pretty much runs Camden and has selected its candidate, Dana Redd. The other 3 are running independently or at least not as Democrats. Only one actually identified as an independent. The 90 minute event was headed by CCOP as an informational forum for voters to hear these candidates answer questions. The candidates had the questions ahead of time (I believe that is usually the CCOP practice) and each had a minute and a half to answer each question. There were timekeepers to keep them to schedule. The questions were very thoughtful and pointed. The candidates answered some directly and some not so directly. I give a rundown below (CCOP will have a full summaries out soon). This is my take on the evening and I am not a reporter :)

Candidates: Angel Cordero, Roberto Feliz, Danna Redd and Mujima Parker

Notable characteristics and ideas -

Cordero: passionate about residents, respect, education, and "getting the job done." His biggest idea is to have block captains throughout the city to be eyes and ears on neighborhood services. There weren't too many other specifics, but he is committed to the people.

he is a former director of Public Works in Camden and is running on his track record. Apparently at one time the PW department ran well? He brings his experience and administrative experience. He will get better contracts for the city.

: current city council member AND state Senator. She was crisp and knew her facts and figures. However, she didn't really have many specific solutions or actions to take beyond traditional political platitudes.

Parker: running on her expertise as a former state administrator in Economic Development and her training as a public administrator. Her responses reflected an administrative approach to city hall that is more fitting for a City Manager than a Mayor. But since we don't have a Manager, we must rely on the mayor- except that in Camden we have a COO appointed by the Governor.

It was quite interesting to note that only Redd clearly stated that the Mayor should be in charge (Feliz said the mayor should have more oversight). Given that Redd is the odds on favorite, one has to wonder if Corzine is elected if he will end the COO arrangement early, or appoint a titular COO but give the Mayor much more power.

It should go without saying that Camden needs jobs, public safety, public services, education, businesses, tax ratable property, and housing revitalization. When you have only 90 seconds to answer a question, stating the obvious is nothing but filler. We heard a lot of filler.

Cordero had the most interesting idea of the night that was out of the norm. He suggests having block captains throughout the city and to demand a better level of respect of citizens by city employees. Block captains would monitor city services and report info to City Hall, holding the city accountable. They also would be neighborhood watch to ensure that the guilty are caught and punished, rather than the innocent - whom he claimed are too often snatched up by the Police. He also called several times for community policing and community development corporations to be in every neighborhood. No one else said that. For the most part, though, he was more passion than ideas.

Feliz mentioned several times that the city should have a building inventory and assessment to get a handle on conditions and property. He also stressed several times the need to have better city contracts that are competitive and give better results for the money to the city. Trash hauling and street sweeping were mentioned. He also had an idea echoed by others, that the city should stop landbanking property and holding it too long (until the property rots). He was the only candidate to step up and admit that the city had a $56million deficit this year. Though he did not have a particularly strong plan to eliminate it. He did state several times that service at city hall should be the focus and that city hall employees must do a better job of customer service. Others echoed this. He primarily saw the mayor's position through the lens of his former job as Public Works director.

Parker put an emphasis several times on "marketing" Camden to business and potential residents because the city is so well situated on the East coast. In its current condition, I'm not sure if location, location, location will be persuasive. She did make a point that she wants to empower the residents. To do what, she did not say. A crowd pleaser statement, echoed by the other candidates was that city hall department heads must be held accountable. Parker went a step further and said, if a lateral move is not sufficient, an employee should be terminated. Those may be fighting words in Camden. She highlighted her state level experience and contacts she has along with her report reading skills and review skills. It sounded terribly bureaucratic. Like Redd, she knew something about specific programs, legislative opportunities, and sources of potential partnerships and grant funds. However, when she said, "I have grant writing skills" I wondered if she was really going to be that hands on!

Redd was the canidate to beat tonight, simply because she is the organized party candidate and odds on favorite to win. She stayed on message, but didn't say much. That was dissappointing. She did say that she would be a hands on mayor and she regularly drives the streets of Camden to see for herself what is going on. Cordero had the best comeback to that, stating the block captains - not one leader at city hall - should be the eyes and ears of the City. She did put a lot of energy and thought into the need to work with the school district and other educational providers to help kids. She was the only one who pointed out the "youngness" of Camden with 40% of the population under 25 (I think that was the figure). Overall, her answers were informed, but often cautious.

Two questions were of particular interest to me - Economic Development and Abandoned Property. Here are the responses that were on point to the question. I ommit the filler.

Economic Development - how will you handle the challenging fiscal time the city is in right now?
Redd: I am pragmatic. We need an honest dialogue with residents. We need a long term financial recovery plan. Need to keep and bring in business. Need efficient and effective use of city dollars so as not to cut services. City hall needs to be customer and business friendly.
Money quote: I will change the culture at city hall.

Parker: Use tax incentives. Effectively market the city and its location to bring in business. Promote homeownership to bring in tax revenue.

Cordero: I have faith and determination. Just get the work done. We will get dollars from the state and federal politicians (naming Obama). We will do whatever it takes.
My take: this was the most non-answered question from this candidate all night.

Feliz: Deficits increase in Camden every year and the city is currently at $56 million. We can do a better job with the dollars we have through better contracts, more efficiency, and better organization.
My take: it's a good idea, but for him, it was a one-trick pony

Abandoned Property - What would you do in your first year?
Parker: I would work with the city legal department and sell properties to individuals, nonprofits, and for-profit companies to rehab and build.

Cordero: Abandoned property is an opportunity to employ and train residents in the building trades. I would use the abandoned property act. I would work with the Housing Authority. I would create an amnesty program. [not sure if that is amnesty from taxes, code violations or what. I didn't get it down.]

Feliz: The city should stop landbanking because the city holds property for too long and lets it deteriorate to the point it can't be fixed or sold. Need a building assessment of all property. Need to collect taxes. Need to enforce codes, but not too much because too much enforcement leads to vacancies.
My take: he was on point with the landbank issue, but lost me with the vague enforcement idea.

Abandoned property is the #1 issue I have heard from groups such as CCOP and Camden United. The abandoned property act is available. The issue is funding, we don't have enough. DRPA should use some of the unspent prison razing funds to help the city with this issue.
My take: I wonder if Jeff Nash has heard this?

In the next question on abandoned property the candidates reiterated things they had already said. Redd, however, stepped up the game when she stated: I'll work with nonprofits, implement the Abandoned Property Act, use the Obama urban agenda to our advantage, and I will respect the neighborhood stakeholders in every neighborhood.
My take: this should be of interest to those who think she was on the wrong side of the Cherokee/Cramer Hill development issue.

The rest of questions had the candidates trotting out tried and true ideas - partnerships with the federal and state levels to get revenue for the city; work with business to bring jobs to Camden; better education and after school programs. Redd explicitly said keep the schools and community centers open after hours and on weekends to support kids and families. Cordero made strong points about education and job training for youth and need for community schools.

I have no doubt that all 4 of these candidates want this city to succeed. They each expressed strengths and showed weaknesses. What might be interesting is if whoever is elected (Redd) works to include the other candidates and their constituencies in their administration. You have two experienced adminstrators and all 4 candidates said there needs to be accountability for department heads at city hall. Two new department heads may have been in the room tonight. You have a strong community activist from the Latino community who emphasized respect of citizens, including citizens in a meaningful way with the city, and focus on education (and he has some experience in running or organizing an educational support program). Use these resources, Dana!! Let's not let it be business as usual and circle the wagons. Open up the campfire to EVERY CORNER of the city. That would be novel.

Watch for CCOP's summary of responses to each question. I tried to capture the highlights here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Race, Racism, Response

So the Joe Wilson frenzy seems to be the media story du jour, giving the Dems something to talk about and the rabid right a new champion. I read a story headline today indicating that calling Obama a socialist or liar was the new vernacular for uppity (thanks to Ian). You can't get away with calling Obama a derisive term related to his race (which is mixed, but that's another issue), but you can call him a liar, a socialist, an ultra-liberal, ad nauseum. The South Carolina reaction mirrored the far right - Joe Wilson is a hero! He spoke truth to power! He put that Obama in his place! Are you getting the picture now?

Newsweek put out an article this week on how children interpret race and how discrimination comes into their psyche. It is a very good read (thanks to Airick). One of the upshots of the article is that kids will make distinctions and if adults sweep racial differences under the rug, we may be making things worse as we leave kids to their own devices. The point made is that adults who try to ignore race, mainly because they think acknowledging race is a de facto discrimination, are making things worse. Better to talk to kids about cultural differences, the fact that people are of different races, and the fact that none of that matters.

We hail Obama as the first African-American President, but we lash out at people who denigrate him because of his race. We can't be colorblind because racial difference is already out there. To ignore it is to confuse kids and leave people to their own interpretations. However, if we suggest that race doesn't matter we run the risk of being callous towards the history of discrimination and vestiges of the most egregious behaviors. These are examples of the confusion that many white people face (see the Newsweek article for the indepth discussion). To this I say, boo - frickin- hoo! Why are white people always whining about confusion with racism? Things like - we don't know what to say, or, black people are so sensitive, or, what am I supposed to do? Watch this video and see a great racism "experiment" in an upscale store and see what I mean (thanks to MILO). At least a few people stood up...

The recent court ruling that vindicated white firefighters who had been passed over for promotion in favor of minorities opened up the entire issue of racial preferences all over again. They claimed that we can't subsidize racial minorities without penalizing whites. Whites in this case declared that at some point the subsidy must stop and the penalizing end. Merit is a fine measure of who should get what job, which promotion, what opportunity. But if the playing field is inherently biased, then should those who are in deficit get better odds to level the playing field? To suggest that whites are penalized is to ignore the imbalance of the starting line. At the end of the day it seems that discrimination begets discrimination - if one group behaves as racists, we attempt to right the wrong. This leads to whites feeling slighted and claiming that minorities are getting more than they deserve if we are "colorblind."

I am sometimes criticized as being an apologist for my race. I don't apologize for my race, I admonish white people to get their act together and live responsibly in a diverse world.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Politics and politics

Apparently State Speaker Joe Roberts (Camden) has decided not to run for re-election in November. And presto...Don Norcross, brother of reputed S. Jersey political kingpin George Norcross, will be the party nominee and promptly added to the ballot. Politics here is so efficient. No deliberations are needed, no asking the party members, just leave it to the back room guys and they will handle it. No primary, no muss, no fuss. We will decide who you can vote for. I know this was terribly popular pre-1972. Heck, I come from Chicago where Mayor Daily would out Norcross, Norcross sleeping in his hammock on Sunday afternoon! But the D party changed and demanded primaries. Apparently NJ did not get the memo.

We also have a number of municipal positions open. I know who is running for mayor on the D ticket and the independents. But who is running for the open city council seat that Fuentes is leaving? I thought Redd's seat was open too, but not sure. I just read that she is not giving up her Senate seat until she wins the Mayor's office. Is her seat on council open? Is anyone running? Apparently the local paper of record is not much more than a re-post of press releases. I can't find any information of substance.

I make these remarks not just as an armchair quarterback in Camden observing the sorry state of political affairs. But I sit here knowing that this weekend I will be back in Kansas City helping to deliver a one day campaign school for SCHOOL BOARD!!! Yes, that's right. In our little burg of KCMO, we have done the impossible - raised the awareness and interest in the School District elections to new heights, wherein, over 100 people have signed up to attend the day's event. The event is being sponsored by Kansas Citians United for Educational Achievement (, a grassroots group that supported the most recently elected school board member; the first school board member to be elected in a contested race on the ballot in many years; in a district that is no better than Camden and to whom the voting public had completely turned its back. The interest in using the political participation process to address the needs of the students in the district has come about because people believe it makes a difference who you elect. The candidate, now school board member, has taken it upon himself to be accountable, to seek unity on the school board to accomplish what he promised, and to honor the unity coalition that elected him.

Kansas City is a racially and ethnically divided city with a long history of segregation. The city is large in size and has 14 school districts. The central district - KCMO - is predominantly black, poor, and shrinking due to white flight to private and charter schools. Yet it was possible to reach across the racial and ethnic divides and create a unity coalition - not to win, but to unify. Winning came naturally out of that. It is the difference between a hack political town like Camden and a success story such as this one.

What does it take to overcome the political malaise of Camden and hold politicians accountable, force transparency, and provide for a unified public where benefits go where needed, not just wanted?
1. it takes committed candidates who seek unity first, accountability first, transparency first, and winning second. Compromising now to "get into office" is a path of ruin. If you compromise to get into office, what makes you think you can possibly be effective? Doesn't mean you have to be righteous and inflexible, but you must have something on which you can be held to account.

2. it takes a point around which the voters will rally - Obama did it with Change, Yes We Can. I don't mean jingoism. I mean a real central point that defines the candidacy. In KC it was Unity for Educational Achievement and the campaign lived that every day and in every strategy. Unity was more important than winning. Obama said many times - if I win, it is because people agree with my principles and ideas. If they don't agree, I won't win and I can live with that.

3. it requires that there be outlets for people to have discourse and dialogue about politics. The paper of record in Camden is short on journalism and long on a bunch of racists who populate the comment pages. In KC the blogosphere is huge, credible, and powerful because it gives people a voice. Where in Camden do people have a voice that is heard and is preserved? Go to a meeting and it is just so much wind blown and gone. Post on a blog or comment on a blog and you have a record that people can go back to and be inspired, incensed, or bored. I post Camden blogs on my blog list here, but the bloggers have to keep posting!! And people have to read and comment to sustain a dialogue!!

That's my Labor Day rant. I'm off to KC to do 2 sessions at our training day on running a local campaign. Should be fun. I hope someday there is a need to do the same thing here in Camden!