The Anointed One: Camden Mayor Dana Redd

Can Camden Mayor Dana Redd break her city’s sad cycle of poverty, drugs and violence?

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd speaking at the ground-breaking in May for the future Cooper Cancer Institute, the latest addition to the city’s “eds and meds” establishment.
Photo by Mel Evans/Associated Press.

It was late December 2009, just a few days before her swearing in as the new mayor of Camden, when Dana L. Redd called a handful of her most respected spiritual advisors and friends to Antioch Baptist Church, her personal house of worship. She wanted to gather for one last private moment of reflection—no press, no public announcements—before throwing herself into one of America’s most unforgiving spotlights.

The gathering at the church on Ferry Avenue included Antioch pastor John O. Parker, family friend and pastor Chad Hinson from Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, longtime friend and spiritual advisor Monsignor Michael Doyle from Camden’s Sacred Heart Church, a few close friends, and Redd’s wheelchair-bound grandmother, Hazel Peoples, who helped raise Redd after her parents were slain in a Bordentown motel room in 1976.

Inside the church, each of the pastors stood up one by one and delivered a five-minute charge to Redd, accenting their petitions with carefully selected passages from scripture. Doyle, in the sweet, lilting brogue of his Irish homeland, read from Isaiah 61, which begins, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”

When they had finished, Redd was called to the front of the church, where the pastors gathered around her and prayed. Then, one by one, they stood before Camden’s soon-to-be mayor and anointed her with olive oil, as Samuel had once anointed King David. One pastor rubbed the balm on her hands. Another on her feet. Another on her forehead.

The 30 months since that ceremony have been marked by incremental accomplishments often overshadowed by fiscal woes, police and fire layoffs, and a stubborn renewal of the same cycle of poverty, drugs, violence and sadness that everyone in Camden is so damn sick and tired of enduring.

Redd’s tenure started at a unique turning point in the city’s leadership. Prior to her taking office, Camden’s mayoral post had been almost entirely symbolic since 2002. That year, faced with an insurmountable budget deficit and escalating crime rate, Camden was forced to accede to the largest municipal takeover in U.S. history. The state appointed a chief operating officer and promised $175 million in special aid to straighten out the beleaguered burg. The takeover stripped any real power from the mayor. Redd’s predecessor, Gwendolyn Faison, was known more for showing up at groundbreakings in fancy hats than actually running the city.

But the confluence of Redd’s election and the takeover’s ineffectiveness gave the legislature newfound confidence that Camden could once again govern itself. And so a few swift—and somewhat controversial—legislative sessions restored power to the mayor just days before Governor Jon Corzine left office in January 2010, ending the state’s control two years earlier than planned. This gave Redd more power than the state-appointed COO ever had. She can appoint all nine school board seats, propose tax increases, veto decisions by the city’s independent agencies (such as the Housing Authority and Planning Board) and terminate all contracts except those with labor unions.

Some have been impressed by Redd’s fulfillment of her broad mandate. “She’s bright, dynamic, hard working, and she’s very much involved in the city’s budget,” says Howard Gillette, author of Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City. “She’s probably the most competent potential manager and leader for the city that we’ve seen in recent times.”

Others question Redd’s ability to move Camden forward in any meaningful way. Through it all, Redd’s faith—in her God and her city—has not wavered. Interviewed about the first half of her four-year term, the affable and energetic mayor motions to the large Bible resting behind her official nameplate. It was open to Isaiah 61.

“My spirituality guides what I do and who I am,” says Redd. “And I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing—leading the city and trying to restore hope for people who have stopped believing.”

When describing her earliest memories of growing up in Camden, Redd lights up at the thought of her city in the years following her birth in 1968 at Cooper University Hospital. The picture she paints is not exactly idyllic, but it’s close. It was a time when she and her friends could enjoy making mud pies and riding their bikes around the block of her home at 1271 Lakeshore Drive in Camden’s Morgan Village neighborhood. Even though large sections of the city’s downtown were looted and torched by race riots in August 1971, Redd remembers her surroundings as “pristine.”

Nonetheless, Redd was forced to grow up quickly following the death of her parents. Police reports at the time claimed her father, Ronald Redd, a prominent union leader, had shot his wife before taking his own life. The mayor is reluctant to talk about the tragedy, but she maintains that her father did not kill her mother.

“I don’t believe that at all. I know how much my father loved my mother, and he told me that,” says Redd, turning her eyes down toward her desk. “As an 8-year-old finding out your parents had died—it changed my whole life. My childhood ended very quickly.”

“She was always very authentic,” recalls Monsignor Doyle, who met Redd while she was attending Sacred Heart’s grammar school the year her parents were killed. “Even during a time of terrible, terrible sadness, she emerged somehow. She was never damaged by it.”

After graduating from Bishop Eustace High School in 1986, Redd studied business management and accounting at Rutgers-Camden, attending night classes while working full time and taking care of her younger brother. In 1990, Theodore “Teddy” Hinson, then chief of the Camden City Democrats, recruited Redd to work as an aide to two Camden County Freeholders. Back then, Redd says, she had no interest in a political life, “because of what happened to my parents.”

That changed in 1992 when the Clinton-Gore campaign bus rolled into Camden. Inspired by its youthful energy, Redd joined the movement and spent the next year championing the Clinton ticket.

In the decade that followed, Redd held several positions in the public sector, including chief of staff to county freeholder Riletta Cream, finance manager for the city’s parking authority and director of operations for the Camden County Department of Buildings and Operations.

In 2001 Redd, a Democrat, was elected for the first of two City Council terms, serving on the Public Works and Administration committees and chairing the Camden City Housing Authority. By 2007, she was appointed to replace state senator Wayne Bryant after Bryant was indicted on corruption charges. Redd represented Camden’s 5th Legislative District until she was elected mayor in November 2009.

Running against two long-shot independents, Redd coasted to victory. About 10,000 of the city’s 43,165 registered voters showed up at the polls, typical for a mayoral election. Redd, bolstered by the support of George Norcross III, the powerful South Jersey Democratic Party leader and Cooper University Hospital chairman, came away with more than 70 percent of the votes.

“For me, this is all about continuing my father’s legacy,” she says. “He believed in Camden, and he had a vision for what could happen in this city. And he told my family to never leave.”

As 2011 came to a close, the annual CQ Press rankings named Camden the second most dangerous city in the country for the second year in a row, topped only by Flint, Michigan. It’s a humiliating achievement, a cocktail-party talking point for those living outside Camden—and a constant thorn in Redd’s side.

“That’s what concerns me the most, that we’re still recognized as one of the most dangerous cities in urban America,” says Redd. She likens Camden’s issues to larger cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago. “We are all post-industrial cities struggling to reform, rebuild and revitalize,” she says. But some would question that comparison.

“People generally think of Camden as though it’s like any other city. It’s not,” says Kevin Riordan, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has covered Camden for decades at several publications. “I mean that in terms of the kinds of things we associate with cities. Major retail and restaurants. Conventional real estate for which there is a private market of some consequence. You don’t have that in Camden.”

As a result, many of the items on Redd’s midterm success list—a four-page printout titled “22 Months Of Accomplishments & Moving Camden Forward” that she hands me halfway through our interview—are not terribly sexy. They are, of necessity, incremental and measured, bureaucratic in execution and long-term in reward.

The printout includes achievements such as filling the vacant position of director of planning and development; securing more than $68 million in federal grants; balancing two budgets; and changing the city’s trash-collection schedule in order to save about $1 million over a three-year period. Important stuff to be sure, but hardly headline grabbing.

Entering office amid the hangover of the state’s failed recovery plan, Redd faced the challenge of reestablishing a functional government at 520 Market Street. To that end, she says, her first year was almost entirely focused on “recalibrating city hall” and building relationships with regional partners. This may be a key to understanding another unique aspect of Redd’s tenure: her low-key media profile.

Compared to someone like Newark’s Cory Booker—who recently made national headlines pulling a neighbor from a burning building—Redd is an introvert. Her reclusive avoidance of the press is a notorious hurdle for beat writers from papers like the Inquirer and Camden’s Courier-Post. Even though her office puts out a staggering number of press releases, a one-on-one with the mayor is a rarity. (It took six months to secure the interview for this article.)

Some say Redd’s reticence with the media is a calculated attempt to create a mystique. But Redd retorts, “Our people have been over-emotionalized and not been told the truth. So when they actually hear the truth, they normally revolt on the truth teller. So I don’t want to mislead or hoodwink people. That’s not in my character or makeup.”

Scot McCray, a former member of Redd’s administration and current Camden County Freeholder, has his own theory.

“She will celebrate things that are out of the ordinary,” says McCray, who was born and raised in the city. “Delivering services to our residents and meeting deadlines should be ordinary. And if she keeps doing her job, I think you will see her out more when we really have something to celebrate.”

In an effort to reestablish the “ordinary,” Redd has spent a great deal of her time trying to create a new narrative for Camden, one that emphasizes the city’s educational and medical anchor institutions—often referred to as “eds and meds.” These include the Rutgers campus, which recently broke ground on a new 350-bed graduate dormitory that will include 7,500 square feet of retail space. There are also the three regional hospitals and the forthcoming Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, which is to open its doors in August.

The city can call attention to Delaware River waterfront attractions like the Adventure Aquarium and the Camden Riversharks’ minor-league ballpark, and newer signs of revitalization, like the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, a Salvation Army facility slated to open in fall of 2013. The proposed 120,000-square-foot center—which is expected to add more then 160 jobs—will be located along the waterfront in the Cramer Hill neighborhood and will offer family fitness and wellness services, a park, basketball courts, an early-childhood education center, dance studios and more.

Today, eds and meds account for close to 60 percent of Camden’s jobs. The current proposal to combine Rutgers-Camden and Rowan into a large state research university could add heft to eds and meds. While the mayor would not comment directly on the proposed merger, she did sound cautiously optimistic in a statement issued in March. The plan, she said, “could promote growth in the city’s university district and other areas, and…bolster the city’s position as a center for graduate studies in law, business and medicine.”

Still, the influence of these institutions and attractions on the city’s future may be limited. “Camden has always lived in the shadow of Philadelphia,” says Peter Woolley, a professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “The only thing that’s going to save Camden is when there is a significant amount of safe middle-class housing. Otherwise, the most it’s ever going to be is a quick drop-in spot for students and tourists.”

During its early-20th-century heyday, Camden was a jewel of a city and home to iconic companies like RCA Victor and Campbell’s Soup—job-creators that churned away day and night. In 1950, the city’s population topped 120,000—65 percent greater than today’s—and daily commerce was linked to Philly by regular ferries shuttling across the Delaware River.

Then came the perfect storm. Manufacturing left (including Campbell’s, even though its corporate office remains in Camden), whites fled to the suburbs, and riots, crime and drugs filled the void. By 2000, Camden’s tax base had been all but obliterated, and nefarious doings had saturated city hall. Three of five Camden mayors prior to Faison were convicted on corruption charges.

The statistics still disturb. In 2010, more than a third of all Camden residents, nearly half of the city’s families with children, and nearly 60 percent of families led by single females with children were living at or below the poverty line. Moreover, the city’s overall poverty rate is more than double the national average and almost triple that of surrounding Camden County.

“This urban area fell faster and harder than any we have seen in this country, and I watched it happen right before my eyes,” says Angel Osorio, former community-justice director for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and current facilitator for the city’s District Council Collaborative Board. Osorio, who lives in Cherry Hill, recalls fondly her youth in East Camden, when doors could be left unlocked and carefree block parties were common.

“It’s heartbreaking now,” says Osorio, 54. “To drive through my streets today, you wouldn’t even recognize them.”

Yet Redd has a vision of hope for the city, which she often refers to in the feminine. “I see her as an individual who is really a diamond in the rough, and we’re trying to bring out her best qualities and traits,” she says. “In the past I think she’s been taken advantage of. And to a large extent I think I’ve tried to protect Camden. I’ve tried to protect her.”

This has not been easy. Redd’s remarkable autonomy over the last two years has been tempered by the city’s continued reliance on financial assistance from the state. In fiscal 2011, 66 percent of the city’s total budget, or $115 million, came from Trenton. This year, despite Governor Chris Christie’s goal of ending Camden’s dependence on state funding, aid from Trenton will total $107.4 million, or 68 percent of the budget. (Newark, by comparison, received $130.5 million from Trenton in 2011—just under 17 percent of its total budget for the year.)

Like a ball and chain, Camden may never escape its minuscule tax base and lack of revenue from private industry. More than half the properties in the city, including most of its impressive waterfront attractions, as well as its eds-and-meds anchors, are tax exempt. What’s more, only 87 percent of businesses and residents who received a tax bill last year actually paid it, one of the lowest collection rates in New Jersey.

These financial straits have forced Redd to make some tough decisions. Perhaps the toughest of all came in January 2011 when, in order to close a $26.5 million budget deficit, Redd laid off 168 police officers—or 45 percent of the force. Additionally, she had to let go 67 firefighters and 150 other city employees. When one of the country’s most dangerous cities sends pink slips to that many cops, the fallout isn’t pretty, and Camden (along with its mayor) was once again thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

At issue were irreconcilable differences between the mayor’s office and the public-safety unions, even after several attempts were made over the course of seven months to negotiate concessions. In short, Redd was asking the cops and firefighters to pay more for their health care, freeze or reduce their salaries and submit to periodic furlough days. The unions wouldn’t budge.

“Unfortunately, I had to [make the cuts] because I’m mandated by state law to have a balanced budget,” says Redd. “And Camden wasn’t the only place confronted with having to lay off police and fire. It was happening nationally.”

In the months that followed, Redd worked with state and federal leaders to secure more than $15 million in grants that allowed her to rehire approximately 110 police officers and 31 firefighters, something she counts among her major accomplishments. (More firefighters are expected to be rehired, pending grant approval.) Still, violence continues to plague the city. In 2011, Camden suffered 50 homicides, an increase from 39 in 2010. This year, 18 homicides had been recorded in the city through late May.

One of the most notorious of last year’s murders occurred on the night of December 5. Around 9 pm, Miguel Almonte, owner of Bernard Grocery at 27th and Pierce streets in the city’s Cramer Hill neighborhood, was shot and killed during an armed robbery. Ironically, dozens of concerned residents had gathered outside City Hall just a few hours earlier for an end-the-violence rally, where the mother of a recently slain 19-year-old Camden man tearfully made a plea for peace.

The mayor’s response to the shooting infuriated residents. Once again choosing to remain behind the scenes rather than visibly rallying her people, Redd sent her spokesman, Robert Corrales, to deliver a statement. It read: “Obviously it is a concern, and no one has a better concern for this than Mayor Redd. Since she came on board, she’s been nonstop trying to find ways to improve public safety.”

I met Sean Brown several weeks prior to the Almonte murder, when he agreed to take me on a tour of his city. Driving down Mt. Ephraim Avenue one grey Friday afternoon in early November, Brown, a 29-year-old community organizer, slows the car a bit as he approaches Thurman Street. Pointing to a Crown Fried Chicken eatery on the corner, he says, “That’s where I got shot.”

Brown, who serves on the nine-member Camden Board of Education, had been hit in the hip by a stray bullet on June 4, 2006, during a gun battle. He was the lucky one. In a pool of blood on the floor next to him inside Crown Fried Chicken was the body of 18-year-old Rashell “Shelly” Harmon, an innocent bystander, dead from gunshot wounds to the face and right arm.

“The only thing to come from that was an ordinance forcing businesses to close early,” says Brown as we drive. That ordinance failed to pass, but a similar proposal was enacted this year. However, he says, it “hasn’t been enforced.”

Brown, the youngest school-board member in Camden history, is the founder of Young Urban Leaders, an organization that seeks to empower Camden youths to become  positive forces in the community.

Continuing down Mt. Ephraim Avenue through Camden’s most dangerous neighborhood, an area known as Whitman Park, Brown casually points out the landmarks of pervasive destitution.

Turning onto Louis Street, where more than a dozen murders have taken place in the last nine years, white sheets hang over abandoned porches offering scribbled graffiti tributes to the recently slain. On other porches, empty liquor bottles are lined up in neat rows, memorials to the fallen. In the afternoon, drug deals go down openly, and clusters of babbling alcoholics and sunken-eyed crack addicts gather on crumbling stoops of what were once grand Victorian homes or bustling storefronts. Everywhere the menacing, claustrophobic vibe of the walking dead prevails.

“I know that it makes you too damn depressed to think about the sadness all the time. But you can’t ignore these things,” says Brown, who grew up in Pennsauken and nine years ago moved to Camden, where he lives with his fiancée and 1-year-old son not far from the mayor’s home.

Brown looks at Redd’s tenure through a lens of frustrating dualities. On one hand, he says the good is “so unique compared to what we’ve seen in this city.”

He praises Redd’s flourishing Camden Clean Campaign, which finds her frequently on the streets in T-shirt and jeans planting community gardens, painting murals and trying to restore pride and dignity to neighborhood residents.

“She’s been second-guessed by a lot of people,” says Brown. “But she has not gone negative. At least not publicly. She’s remained very, very positive.”

On the other hand, Brown loses faith when driving through Whitman Park against the backdrop of dozens of abandoned buildings with boarded up windows and doors.

Attempts to address the housing crisis are ongoing. In 2010, the city was awarded $26 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $14.1 million of which was set aside to reduce foreclosures and rehabilitate abandoned properties in the Liberty Park, Waterfront South and Morgan Village neighborhoods. The grant will also allow the city to purchase and rehab 100 abandoned or foreclosed homes, demolish 23 blighted structures and redevelop 70 demolished or vacant properties.
In Brown’s estimation, this changes little. The city, he says, is like a sick man who comes into a hospital.

He’s got cancer. Asthma. Cavities. Emphysema. He even had a severe heart attack earlier in the week. Meanwhile, the doctors have limited knowledge and resources, so they give him some dentures and an inhaler before sending him home.

“So what you end up with,” says Brown, “is a patient who still dies—even after you wasted time fixing his teeth.”

Back in her office, Redd is determinedly optimistic—but not naïve. She knows Camden’s inner city is about more than bricks and mortar. That’s the easy stuff, she says. Trying to transform people’s lives—that’s the most difficult part of her job.

“You have to celebrate the bit you can do, or the weight of this city will cripple you altogether,” says Monsignor Doyle. “It’s the same with Dana. She has to believe that the bit is enough. It’s all you can do as a human being. And sometimes you ache thinking of her trying to cope with it all.”

Over the rest of her term, Redd plans to focus on education reform, job creation and public safety. She plans to seek another term—and she will continue turning to the open Bible on her desk when the weight of it all becomes too heavy.

Toward the end of our interview, Redd tells me about a few verses on which she’s lately been meditating. One of them comes from the book of Nehemiah. It reads: “Then the king said to me, ‘What are you requesting?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.’”

“This job is very spiritual and very real for me,” she says. “The responsibility that comes with this office is not about Mayor Dana Redd. It’s Dana who happens to be the mayor and who is trying to serve her people.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey Bureau Chief for New Jersey Monthly.

Click here to read a story about Camden’s Poet Priest Monsignor Michael Doyle.

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