Kevin Riordan: A devoted son of Camden

A flag hangs from the basket of a Camden Fire Department truck duringthe viewing last week for former Mayor Randy Primas, who died March 1.
A flag hangs from the basket of a Camden Fire Department truck duringthe viewing last week for former Mayor Randy Primas, who died March 1. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

In a tough city, former Mayor Randy Primas kept trying.

Posted: March 11, 2012

When Randy Primas was elected Camden's mayor in 1981, the history he most wanted to make had little to do with his age (31) or his race (African American).

A historical first on both counts, the gentlemanly political leader, business executive, and family man who was laid to rest Friday at Harleigh Cemetery most dearly hoped to rescue his hometown from ruin, and even restore some of its glory.

If the task proved too big for Primas - as it did for every other mayor, before or since - his decades of devotion nevertheless loom large.

"He wanted to see Camden be the Camden that we all knew as children growing up," longtime city employee Robin Johnson said before the start of the service at St. John Baptist Church in East Camden.

When Primas took office 31 years ago after a stint on City Council, Camden had been shaken by an exodus of population, the disintegration of downtown, and a federal investigation leading to the conviction of previous Mayor Angelo Errichetti.

A bridge

"Randy was truly a fresh face," recalled Ken Shuttleworth, a longtime South Jersey journalist who is now a public relations/political consultant.

Although Primas had entered politics through the Black People's Unity Movement (BPUM), which some white residents regarded as radical, he hailed from a middle-class Camden family and had earned a Howard University degree.

Primas and his wife, Bonita, were raising their two sons in a renovated townhouse in downtown's Cooper Plaza neighborhood, where an influx of young urban professionals, white and black, seemed to signal a renewal of the city's fortunes.

"Randy was a bridge to the white community and to corporate America," Shuttleworth said, adding that Primas sought to "end the polarization" of black and white.

"He came along at a time when there was a lot of chaos in the city, and he was able to pacify that," said former assistant Camden school superintendent James Brown, 85, who taught Primas in elementary school in the 1950s.

During his nine years as mayor, Primas indeed seemed at ease in boardrooms as well as bodegas. "He didn't wear his anger on his sleeve," Shuttleworth said.

Primas was also diligent in pursuing grants to tear down hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned buildings citywide. And he helped transform a formerly industrial stretch of downtown waterfront, where generations of city residents once toiled, into a place of leisure and entertainment for their grandchildren.

Affable and often eloquent, Primas was conciliatory to the point of what some perceived as passivity.

"Randy wanted to find common ground with whoever was on the other side," said lawyer and BPUM veteran Harvey Johnson, a longtime friend. "He was the toughest person I ever met."

Despite Primas' earnest efforts, the city's slide accelerated on his watch, which also coincided with the twin epidemics of crack and AIDS.

As it battled these new scourges, Camden grew ever more fiscally dependent on Trenton, which ultimately forced Primas to accept a state plan to plunk down a prison on the North Camden waterfront.

Construction of other unwanted facilities, particularly the South Camden incinerator that began operating after he left office, alienated neighborhood residents.

He kept trying

But after a stint in Trenton as New Jersey's community affairs commissioner in the early '90s and several years in the private sector, Primas came back to Camden. He served as chief operating officer from 2002 until 2006.

"As everybody knows, Camden is a tough place," said longtime friend Dwaine Williams. "It's hard to get things moving here. But Randy came back and kept trying."

City public works director Patrick Keating, who grew up with Primas in East Camden ("We played in Little League together"), called the former mayor "a very honest person" who helped stabilize neighborhoods.

Said Johnson, "He was truly committed to the city, not only as an [official] but as a human being.

"He's gone too soon."

Amen.


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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