Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Camden Election 2013

Another year, another election

I was with my son one spring day, in Fairview. I saw the mayor, who I've known for over ten years. We cordially spoke and she talked to my son. My son is two, so she is just another grown up that seemed happy to see him. She posed for a picture with my son. 

A few days later, I showed the picture to one of my close friends. Most of my friends are not into politics. I'm the most political person they know. He looked at the picture and didn't know who the lady in the picture was. "That's the mayor", I said.

"Oh, that's what Dana Reed looks like?", my friend asked. 

Of course I laughed. "Yes, that is the current mayor and her name is Dana Redd". He told me he thought the mayor was an elderly lady with big glasses. The conversation was a reminder to me that most people in Camden don't pay close attention to political leaders or the dynamics that facilitate change. 

In 2009, Redd had 7,123 votes. [See this report for more data.] That was 82% of votes cast, but only 14% of registered voters. In comparison, President Obama had 22,254 votes in 2012. As of June 2013, Camden had 48,109 registered voters. 

[For the political nerds that want to know more about why people don't vote nationally, see this article.] 

[Actor Russell Brand explains his view on why people don't vote. Watch it starting at 1:15. It seems that the reasons why some people don't vote are global.]

This city has over 36,000 children and over 10,000 people between 18-34. Not even 10% of them vote. That group includes new parents, visionaries, college students, coaches, healthcare workers, drug dealers, wet smokers, job seekers, rappers, and future leaders of the community. It's a diverse group of the children of Dominican, Haitian, Mexican, Cambodian, Guatemalan  and Vietnamese immigrants that are natural born citizens. It includes those that live boldly with hopes and dreams that cynicism has not destroyed. 

Since January 1, 2009, the day the Dana Redd became the mayor, the city now has a different identity. It seems that much has changed, yet everything still remains the same. 
  1. The Camden Board of Education is now the Camden Public Schools. The superintendent is an employee of the Department of Education after a takeover of the school district. The state has had a state monitor and heavy intervention is schools for over thirty years. Now they run all 27 of them.
  2. There have been four new charter schools opened. This CREDO report discusses how not all charter schools are as good as their reputation.
  3. The police department is operated by the Camden County government. It's a Metro force. 
  4. There have been about 200 murders.Almost none of them have been solved.
  5. Lots, blocks, bypasses, and streets have been cleaned as a part of the Camden Clean initiative.Hundreds of volunteers helped.
  6. Businesses have opened and closed (one that is about to open will hire about 1,000 residents!)
  7. The population of the city has decreased.
  8. In 2011, the 100th community garden was created in Camden
  9. Cooper and Rutgers have continued to expand - new buildings, hiring more people, and bringing more opportunities to Camden as anchor institutions.
  10. The Parking Authority is now responsible for developing the block across from City Hall where the Rutgers nursing school will go.
The Campaign

The campaign has been fairly quiet. Personally, I  got three mailings from the Redd campaign. I've heard Amir Khan riding down the street and have seen him shaking hands and knocking on doors in several neighborhoods, with a black shirt with bold white letters. On my way to the neighborhood farm a few weeks ago, I saw Dana Redd and her team knocking on doors a few blocks near her house. [By the way, on night last year, I was frustrated about the violence in Camden. I went to Dana Redd's house in Fairview and knocked on her door around 8:00pm. She stood there with her high heels and business suit, on her cell phone and talked to me nicely. She lives there.] Dana and Amir are the only two people that directly asked me for my vote.

For more information on all five candidates, please see this article by Julia Terruso.  All of the candidates have big ideas and most of them have not explained those ideas in detail.

Beyond the candidates and their closest supporters, there is not much talk about the election. I spoke to a group of young adults. They had no idea there was an election. But more importantly, they showed a deep interest in the issues, the candidates, and learning more about how they can participate. 

[The Citizen's Campaign does a great job of teaching people how they can get more involved in local government, without running for office.]

The Politics

What has happened this year is a repeat of the recent past, but with some notable exceptions. Here is a summary of what's happened. 

  1. The Camden County Democratic Party [aka The Machine] selects candidates from a pool of candidates. Despite the rumors early in the process, Mayor Dana L. Redd was nominated to run for re-election. 
  2. One incumbent, Ms. Deborak Polk, was not included on the ticket.
  3. Ms. Polk, a grant manager for the school district, is replaced with Arthur "OG" Barclay, on the team. 
  4. There are multiple opposition candidates. Most have run for office before. One has won, 2nd ward City Councilman Brian Coleman. [See the story in the Courier Post.]
  5. Some City Council and mayoral candidates are running their campaigns from the Staples Copy Center.  Some aren't campaigning at all.
  6. Amir Khan is running a credible campaign: He has his three running mates and is on the streets with his team.  His banner hangs, as flyers are all over the city hanging on trees and light posts. The question will be do people trust his vision and him personally enough to show up on election day and deliver a surprise to the normal order. Will residency be a big issue?
  7. All of the opposition candidates, including Khan, have similar positions: 
    1. Eliminate the Metro Police force and bring back the Camden Police Department
    2. End the school takeover and go back to an elected Board of Education
    3. End PILOT agreements (Payment in lieu of taxes); bring in more businesses to the city. [For more information about how the city gets revenue, see this 2009 report.]
  8. The mayor and her ticket have not shown up to a candidate's forum, although the Chamber of Commerce (out of Cherry Hill) is sponsoring one at Rutgers on Friday, November 1st, that they have agreed to attend. 
  9. The governor and state legislative family (Norcross, Fuentes, and Wilson) are all publicly supporting Dana Redd. 
  10. ELEC's website has not been updated, so you cannot easily see how much money has been donated to the candidates.
 A Voter's Dilemma

I was at an event last year that Micah Khan and others organized. It was for the mothers of murder victims. There were a few hundred people there at his father's building in Voorhees. I heard mom after mom go the microphone, hold back tears, and tell about the moment when she heard the doorbell ring, the officer ask her to come identify her child, and what it was like to see fresh blood, holes, and death on the child as he lay on the coroner's cold metal table. Lifeless. Senseless. One mom said that her son's case, like most, was never solved. Every week she called the detective to remind him that a murderer roams free. She asked a simple question. "When the new police department comes, who will I call?". 

No one ever answered her question. Her question was not a plea for politics, it was a call for justice. 

The biggest things that have happened in Camden, were introduced with a press conference by the mayor and her staff governor and state legislators. This relationship has been labeled a partnership and it is. All the research on fixing broken cities recommends that state laws be changed as a part of the strategy. 

But the voters were never asked their opinion. When you listen to Dana Redd's comments during the 2009 campaign, there was mention of any of these big controversial issues. [Watch this video - Dana Redd begins at 1:12] In politics, this is called paternalism. Government knows what to do for the residents better than what they would do as individuals, is the idea. Government collects taxes, passes laws, and can arrest people. They have enormous power, while the public's most immediate power for change at the local level is voting.  

Personally, I feel safer with the Metro Police department. And I'm very glad that there are 100 more police coming to the department by the end of the year. However, I wish they were more respectful and vigilant without being hyper-vigilant. Some I have come across have been very disrespectful. You can't solve crimes if people don't like or trust you.

I was on the school board. The problems were deep and systemic. Some of the people that I served with, appointed by the mayor did nothing to help. So now, I am cautiously optimistic about this other way to govern the administration of schools. Losing control is bad, but bad schools are much worse.

In both cases, I paid close attention. I hated the process and the way the strategy was implemented and communicated. But I'm reluctantly okay with the outcome, because no other reasonable choice was ever offered. Facebook protests aren't protests at all. So as a voter, I have fundamental questions to ask myself. What matters more? The process or the product? Does the end justify the means? 

This is a mailer I got in the mail which intentionally misrepresents what the ballot question is about. The point of "Non-partisan election" is for self identified Democrats to be able to run for office in a simpler process. 

One of Mayor Redd and her team's mailings.

My prediction

Based on nothing but observations and daily conversations, I've noticed that 
  • people are reluctant to say who they are going to vote for 
  • many young adults aren't voting at all; some because of apathy and others because they don't know or like anyone that's running
  • the people voting for Khan are doing so  because they do not like Mayor Dana Redd and the establishment Democrats she represents
  • the people voting for Redd are doing so because they agree with the major accomplishments and don't trust Khan
  • If Khan wins: it's because he was able to get young adults (18-35) out in large numbers, he needs about 3,000 votes from people that normally wouldn't vote in a mayoral election. turnout will be high, with about 14,000 people voting.
  • If Redd wins: it will be with a smaller percentage than any other election she's been in. And turnout will look similar to 2009 with about 9,000 people voting. 
  • Note: I am not telling you who I'm voting for, but I think that it is better to vote than stay home.

No matter what happens, people need to be organized and strategic in their interactions with the winner.


Reuel Robinson said...

This article is very insightful and hits on a lot of great points. It def. left me with answers, but also more questions (which is not a bad thing).

Anonymous said...

It is tragic that Camden voters must choose between two major mayoral candidates who are over their heads, suspect and/or unresponsive. P.S. Mr. Brown was an aggressive watchdog on the Board of Ed. He is missed.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Mr. Brown, I am not a Camden resident but I am very much interested in seeing Camden rise from the bad name its been given. I am wishing there was some way your article could be distributed again to reach even more people with the important points you are covering. This info was very helpful

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing. My prayer is that whomever holds a political office in Camden city would be an influencer for positive reform that benefits the residents of Camden!

Anonymous said...

Exceptional Article, This is the type of information that need to be distributed like the sales circulars!
Iam not a Camden resident however my prayers and concerns are for the City of Camden!
Leadership is everything! Thank you for the info. And for the courage to share!\

Will Lane said...

Great job. Very thorough article. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Khan is a man I have known for 28 years, he was my wrestling coach at age 5 and was a pillar in the community even then. What he can bring to Camden is exactly what the city needs. Actual change. He is an honest, hard-working man and is in need of individuals 18 to 35 to vote. You've seen this city at its worst, help bring it to its best.