Mixed emotions over Bryant charges

Posted: March 30, 2007

For decades, Wayne Bryant wielded his most powerful influence in two drastically different South Jersey communities.

His indictment yesterday on corruption charges shook the political landscape in both places: Lawnside, his hometown, and nearby Camden, where he built his power base.

"It's a very sad day," said Flora Young, a longtime Lawnside resident who has known Bryant since he was a youngster. "I've always been very proud of him."

A few miles away in Camden, news of the indictment reverberated outside City Hall and across the poor city of 79,000 residents.

Independent candidates in the May 8 City Council race said Bryant's indictment could boost their chances. Carmen Ubarry, who threw her name into the ring yesterday, said the very reason most were running was to oppose the "machine" politics Bryant represented.

"The senator is an example of why change is needed," Ubarry said.

Fellow candidate Vance Bowman, who joined her at a news conference yesterday, said the indictment would work in their favor. "Bryant has been supporting the individuals on the other side of the aisle," he said.

Other city leaders were more sympathetic and urged Bryant's critics to avoid a rush to judgment.

"I can truly say he's been a friend to Camden," Mayor Gwendolyn Faison said. "I'll keep him in my prayers."

Said city school board President Philip E. Freeman, who has known Bryant for more than three decades: "I've always known him to be a very sincere and honorable man."

Freeman said he hoped Bryant would get a chance to defend himself in court, as opposed to "the court of public opinion."

In Lawnside, sentiments were mixed yesterday.

Bryant's younger brother, Mark, the borough's mayor, has been out of town. Wayne Bryant, the borough's solicitor until resigning two weeks ago, was on vacation in Mexico.

The brothers rose to power nearly two decades ago in the historic and predominantly black borough of 2,700, which is known as a former stop on the Underground Railroad.

Many of the streets in the tiny municipality have been targets of Bryant-sponsored redevelopment efforts and are named for the Bryants, and relatives and associates.

Resident Clinton Higgs expressed concern that Wayne Bryant's political influence would continue - his former law partner, Allen Zeller, is the borough's solicitor.

"I'm concerned that the state is going to get rid of him but that he'll still be calling the shots in Lawnside," Higgs said.

Young, a retired Rowan University professor, said some residents were unaware of Bryant's contributions to the community. She called him "an asset to South Jersey."

"You just hate to see a person of his stature and a person who has given so much of his life and time . . . to have to go this route of being publicly castigated," Young said.

At the Friendship 3 barbershop, a popular Lawnside institution where Bryant gets a weekly haircut, customers and employees refused to discuss the indictment.

Lisa Bryant, 46, said that she and her brother, who both work in the shop, are the senator's cousins and that customers consider him a friend.

"The family is close. We're tight. We don't harp on each other or carry bad news. . . . We're not going to talk about him when he's down," Lisa Bryant said.

Former Camden City Councilman Ali Sloan El, a longtime Bryant opponent, also declined to comment yesterday. He has said that Bryant was the "general" of the political "army" in Camden led by county Democratic Party boss George E. Norcross 3d.

Community activist Frank Fulbrook said he believed the indictment would give independent candidates more of a chance against traditional Democratic candidates typically backed by Bryant.

"One of the good things about Bryant stepping back is that it creates an opportunity for others to take control," said Tom Knoche, author of the book Common Sense for Camden, which details the grip the Camden County Democratic machine has on the city.

Knoche said Bryant's policies, especially the state takeover of the city in exchange for $175 million in funding, had failed.

The takeover occurred in 2002 when the state Legislature, led by Bryant, passed the Camden Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act. It pumped millions of dollars into Camden and appointed a state official to oversee daily operations in the city.

"The takeover was a fiasco. Bryant and company wanted to let the same people control under the takeover who had caused the problems," Knoche said.

Former school board member Dwaine J. Williams described Bryant as "very talented" and "a bright individual." But he added: "No one is above the law."

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.

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