New Camden Mayor Can Call On A Lifetime Of Getting Jobs Done Gwendolyn Faison Inherits A Government Embroiled In Turmoil. Pending Legislation Would Strip All Power From The Mayor's Office.

Posted: December 24, 2000

CAMDEN — Gwendolyn Faison knows about filling big shoes in tough times. She did so as a girl growing up in North Carolina, and she has done so repeatedly as a political power broker in Camden.

As the fifth of nine children, Faison was summoned often by her parents to take on such adult responsibilities as paying bills and running errands.

Years later, she has often found herself answering the call to assume a key political role, whether it was filling a vacancy on the Camden County Freeholder Board in 1985 or coming out of retirement to return to City Council in 1997.

But now Gwendolyn Faison faces what stacks up as her biggest challenge yet: replacing ousted Mayor Milton Milan and leading her impoverished - and shell-shocked - city of 87,000.

On Friday, this 75-year-old grandmother, widow, and retired data-processing administrator became the first female African American mayor of Camden - one day after a jury pronounced Milan guilty on 14 of 19 charges of political corruption.

"I'm not worried," Faison said. "This is what I've done all my life. It falls on my shoulders."

She inherits a municipal government embroiled, as ever, it seems, in turmoil and controversy. Legislation pending in Trenton would strip all power from the Mayor's Office and the City Council.

Her colleagues insist that she is up to the task. She says only that she intends to run a low-key administration.

Experience? Well, she has spent 16 years on council and was a committeewoman under Mayor Angelo Errichetti before his conviction in the Abscam scandal.

The fact is, Faison began assuming some mayoral duties after Milan was indicted in March. Now, she has been asked to serve until the next mayor, to be elected in May, assumes office on July 1.

Camden is one of only two municipalities under New Jersey supervision, which gives the state the power to control the city's finances.

Gov. Whitman has said the state needs greater control to attract the types of investment needed to reduce the city's reliance on state aid. New Jersey provides about 70 percent of Camden's budget.

With Milan convicted, some observers - believing that Whitman had been mainly interested in removing the mayor - wonder whether the state will suddenly retreat from a complete takeover.

They also wonder whether Faison will seek a compromise in the takeover legislation. As drafted, the bill would reduce the mayor and members of council to adviser status while a state-appointed chief management officer runs the city.

"The first question is: Will she oppose a state takeover, or will she roll over for it?" Frank Fulbrook, a community activist, said. "Which side is she going to be on, and how hard will she fight?"

Faison, who is on the record as opposing a takeover, said she hoped that the state's stance will change once Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco becomes acting governor, replacing Whitman, who was nominated last week by President-elect George W. Bush to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"I have a feeling he will have more warmth and be different from Christie," Faison said of DiFrancesco, who offered little insight on his position last week.

"My goal," DiFrancesco said, ". . . is to continue to work toward rebuilding our cities, particularly a difficult city in such an urban setting as Camden, and really try to generate good leadership in these communities and work toward progress."

Despite the rancor between the Milan administration and the Department of Community Affairs, Faison has managed to remain on good terms with state officials. She has consistently been the member through whom the state has communicated with council and has frequently been the only local elected official at city groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings for Whitman-administration initiatives.

Elected to council in 1983, Faison served until 1995, when she lost the Second Ward leadership to Councilman Ali Sloan El. Two years later, she swept back into office and took over as council president, under Milan.

At first, she was an ally of the Milan administration, often backing the mayor's initiatives. The relationship began to deteriorate once he was indicted.

Her accession to the mayor's post won support from community leaders, including Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP. Francis said he had known Faison for "40 to 50 years."

"I'm relieved that's there a different person in City Hall," said Francis, who is retired from the postal service. "But she has to produce. Let's see what she can do."

The Rev. Heyward Wiggins of Camden Bible Tabernacle, chairman of Camden Churches Organized for People, which represents more than two dozen houses of worship, said the group was looking forward to working with Faison on some of the city's problems.

"It's been a cloud hanging over the city for some time," he said, referring to Milan's tenure. "We're optimistic that, as we try to move past this, we can work together."

Political observers say the change in leadership renders the impending mayoral race even more critical. So far, Councilman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson and Keith Walker, a former assistant city business administrator, have announced they intend to run. Faison is expected to join them.

"We have a legacy of failed leadership and lost opportunities," said Fulbrook, a two-time mayoral candidate. "The voters keep perpetuating bad government. If we don't get better people in office . . . then shame on us."

Melanie Burney's e-mail address is MBurney@phillynews.com

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