Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., Camden's first African American mayor, dies at 62

After three terms as Camden mayor, Melvin R. Primas Jr. was its state-appointed chief operating officer after the New Jersey takeover.
After three terms as Camden mayor, Melvin R. Primas Jr. was its state-appointed chief operating officer after the New Jersey takeover. (File photograph)
Posted: March 04, 2012

Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., 62, the first African American mayor of Camden and a prominent force for decades in the city's economic recovery efforts, died Thursday, March 1. Mr. Primas, who had bone-marrow cancer, lived in Fort Mill, S.C., at the time of his death.

A member of a prominent Camden family, Mr. Primas was first elected to City Council at age 23 and was elected mayor at 31.

Affable and optimistic in a city beset by crime and poverty, Mr. Primas won the support of residents and business leaders as he tried to redevelop Camden's Delaware River waterfront and restore vitality to the city's neighborhoods.

"He was extremely smart, very sincere, and extremely honest," said Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., who was Mr. Primas' business administrator when he became mayor in 1981, after his predecessor was arrested by the FBI in the Abscam scandal.

"He always wanted to do the right thing for Camden. It was hard to deal with the high expectations that things would change quickly. . . . He probably did as well as you could do in that position," Corcoran said Friday.

"The only criticism I ever heard was that he was too nice of a person to play the kind of hardball politics that were required. He was a gentleman at all times," Corcoran said.

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd on Friday ordered flags to fly at half-staff at all municipal buildings in Mr. Primas' honor. Redd praised Mr. Primas' "devotion to public service and commitment to Camden," and said he should be remembered "for his fight for social justice and his achievement in becoming the first African American elected mayor of Camden."

Mr. Primas was elected mayor three times before being appointed by Gov. James J. Florio to head the state Department of Community Affairs in 1990.

After a stint as an executive for Commerce Capital Markets, then part of Commerce Bank, Mr. Primas returned to Camden in 2002 as its state-appointed chief operating officer following Trenton's takeover of the city.

He resigned in 2006 in a dispute with state Community Affairs Commissioner Susan Bass Levin over a memorandum of understanding that he refused to sign.

Former Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison on Friday remembered Mr. Primas as "a man of honor."

"He did what was right. I enjoyed working with him, even when I was mayor and he was the chief operating officer," she said.

"I admired his social skills. . . . He was such a good communicator, and he loved to serve people."

Cherry Hill lawyer Harvey Johnson, who had been friends with Mr. Primas since the 1970s, when they were young activists in the Black People's Unity Movement, called him "one of the brightest people I ever met. He had courage. He was willing to fight for what he believed in, which he did on a regular basis, and he always tried to work with whoever was on the other side to see if he had common ground."

Mr. Primas had been in charge of the Unity Movement's economic-development program and helped to bring three fast-food restaurants and an eyeglasses factory to Camden, Johnson said.

"All of those [businesses] ended up hiring people from the city of Camden," Johnson said. "That's what Randy was trying to do - to get those people employed."

Johnson said that when he spoke with Mr. Primas last week, the former mayor was optimistic that he would be released soon from the hospital.

George E. Norcross III, chairman of the board of Cooper Health System and the Camden County power broker who started his political career with Mr. Primas in the 1970s, said Friday:

"Of all the public officials I've known over the years, Randy Primas had the biggest heart and the most gracious personality. He cared deeply about Camden and the people that lived there."

Howard Gillette, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden who has written extensively about Camden, recalled that during Mr. Primas' childhood in East Camden, the future mayor had to walk past an all-white school to get to a school that would accept black students.

As mayor, Mr. Primas' support for urban-renewal projects such as the construction of the now-demolished Riverfront State Prison angered many in the city's black community, Gillette said.

"This African American mayor, who really had the city in his mind all the time and wanted to make it work, ended up in conflict with the African American community," he said.

"Primas' career coincided with the decline of the city of Camden. He was fighting an uphill battle against odds that were highly stacked against him."

"He was a pioneer, he loved the city. But at the same time, his legacy was mixed because he had to try to resolve problems that were beyond his ability to solve," Gillette said.

Camden County Freeholder Scott McCray said Friday, "There are countless public servants, including myself, that owe Randy a great debt of gratitude for his dedication and sacrifice to the city and the region."

Mr. Primas was a longtime ally of former State Sen. Wayne Bryant, a Camden County Democrat who is serving a four-year jail sentence on corruption charges for funneling millions to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in exchange for a low-show job.

Mr. Primas was to be a witness in Bryant's second corruption trial, which began in January in Trenton. Prosecutors got the judge's permission to take a deposition from Mr. Primas because his poor health kept him from appearing in court.

Mr. Primas had a successful career before his entry into politics. A 1971 graduate of Howard University, he went on to become a vice president of Burger King Entities. After being elected to City Council, he quickly became its president.

Mr. Primas was a trustee of Rowan University from 1993 to 1999, and was remembered Friday by Rowan vice president of university relations Thomas Gallia as "a very strong student advocate . . . and always an advocate of the Camden campus."

Mr. Primas is survived by his wife, Bonita, and two sons, Melvin 3d and Craig.

Funeral arrangements were pending.


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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