Kevin Riordan: Redd works hard for Camden but may get no payoff

Posted: January 17, 2012

My late father, a skilled tradesman who ended his career pushing a broom, often said there was no shame in honest labor.

He and my mother raised six kids while holding down a total of three jobs, which taught me something about the necessity - and dignity - of hard work.

That life lesson is one reason I admire Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd, who is devoted to a job that's among the toughest of its kind anywhere.

But although I also consider Redd hardworking, capable, and caring, that doesn't mean I buy the rosy performance rating (9.5 points out of a possible 10) she awarded herself in a Sunday Inquirer article.

"My first two years were like four years condensed because we've had so many issues," Redd told my colleague Claudia Vargas, perhaps explaining her rather generous self-evaluation.

With all due respect, I don't see the issues confronting Redd as substantially different from those that have faced every Camden mayor since the 1970s.

I've known the last six occupants of Redd's office, all of whom claimed to be rebuilding their basically bankrupt city even as it disintegrated around them. And even as the real power (i.e., money) emanated from elsewhere.

Whether their intentions were good, like Redd's, the odds against success were overwhelming. Just ask anyone looking for evidence that those "rebuilding" promises were realized.

Camden today is smaller and poorer than it was when I walked into City Hall for the first time in 1976.

Downtown even then was a bleak patchwork of parking lots and vacant buildings. The haunting hulk of the Walt Whitman Hotel rose above Broadway and Cooper Street, and every pedestrian seemed to wear a pained expression.

I remember thinking, What happened to this town?

Quite a lot more than any single mayor could hope to reverse, as it turned out.

But that sad fact hasn't stopped Redd, 42, from echoing the sunny predictions of her predecessors:

"We have to deal with public safety in order to bring in private investors and to attract the middle-class base," she told Vargas.

Ah, the coveted middle class, whose members began to leave Camden in the 1950s and whose return seems unlikely any time soon.

"I've started . . . to lay a foundation for recovery," Redd added, demonstrating a remarkable ability to see the glass as half-full.

The mayor comes by her optimism honestly. She fiercely loves the city where she grew up. I know other people in Camden who have the same deep affection for the place.

Bless them.

But the important decisions about Camden - the future of its police department, for example - are not Redd's to make. They are hers to accept.

The same goes for her political future, which will be determined not by how many cleanup campaigns she initiates, but by the Camden County Democratic organization.

Looks to me like the party's support for the incumbent is already fading as its interest in City Council President Frank Moran rises.

People I've talked to complain about Novella Hinson, who they say micromanages in her position as Redd's unpaid chief of staff. Hinson's late husband essentially ran Camden politics on the county's behalf in the '80s and '90s while his wife created an impressive empire called the city Department of Community Services.

I liked Teddy Hinson a lot - he was good-hearted, always game for a quote - and I respect Novella. She's formidable and energetic, which may or may not qualify her to function as a prime minister without portfolio.

But Redd, whose parents died when she was just 8, wants Hinson at her side. Period. And that has made some people very, very unhappy.

Teddy, you see, was Redd's mentor.

And at 67, Novella is old enough to be her mother.

Working long days on behalf of the city she loves, the mayor - who has neither spouse nor children - is determined to keep her family close.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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