Redd: 'They're no longer laughing at Camden'

Posted: October 21, 2013

CAMDEN Driving through Camden on a rainy day, Mayor Dana L. Redd stops at Camden High School, where volunteers are setting up for their first night game since the installation of a new field and lights.

Redd trudges across the rain-soaked ground and steps into a tent filled with gold-and-purple centerpieces and streamers.

"Lots of Panthers pride in here," she says, shaking hands with organizers and promising to return - in boots - for her part in the pre-game parade.

For Redd, who has led Camden for three years, pride is what she says she's returned to the city. "Camden is getting respect from across the state," Redd said on the recent tour. "They're no longer laughing at Camden about our failures and our mismanagement, particularly of our financial resources; they're celebrating Camden."

Critics have accused the one-term mayor, running for reelection, of being quick to submit to pressure from the state and South Jersey political bosses rather than initiate her own solutions.

But supporters say she's made necessary tough choices and fostered a vital relationship with Gov. Christie in a city where 65 percent of its budget comes from the state.

She made the controversial decision to disband and replace a costly, beleaguered police force as Camden reached an all-time high number of homicides. She also supported a state takeover of the failing education system.

Both are decisions most of her mayoral opponents, including Republican challenger Arnold Davis, have boldly, and perhaps impossibly, vowed to reverse.

"The people of Camden did not want their police department abolished. The people of Camden did not want their schools turned over to the state. So when you look at Mayor Redd and why she should not be reelected, it's because she more or less turned on the people," said Davis, 33, a Burlington County College public safety union grievance officer.

Redd, 45, a lifelong Camden resident, has worked in politics for years. She was elected to City Council in 2001 and was reelected in 2005. She represented the city as state senator from the Fifth Legislative District from 2008 to January 2010, when she was elected mayor.

Helene Pierson, former director of Heart of Camden, a nonprofit in the Waterfront South neighborhood, said Redd deserved credit for bringing in $26 million in stimulus aid to launch beautification projects and rehab houses.

"I don't think everyone can appreciate how much more the neighborhoods could have slid downhill in the economic times during her tenure," Pierson said. "She also was the brave one to finally utilize the Abandoned Properties Act."

When Redd became mayor, the list of abandoned properties slated for demolition was at four, today it has grown to more than 800, though it was unclear how many actually have been demolished.

But Pierson, who left her post at Heart of Camden partly because the horrific crime rate last year took an emotional toll on her, said the mayor "dragged her feet" in addressing the violence.

Pierson said she hopes if Redd is reelected she'll foster a better working relationship between her office and nonprofits in the community.

"Camden has more talent than ever in the city right now in various areas of expertise, and much of it in the nonprofits and other nongovernmental agencies. Assigning her chief of staff - main aide - to handle all of us has slowed down the use of this talent."

Redd grew up in Waterfront South and was raised by her grandparents after losing both her parents at age 8. She attended Bishop Eustace Preparatory High School in Pennsauken and has a business degree from Rutgers-Camden.

As mayor, she reduced spending each year until this year's proposed 2013 budget, which is $21 million higher than last year's, but which includes no tax increases or layoffs.

The amount of requested transitional aid - special state aid intended to help cities in fiscal distress - has declined from $69 million in 2010, when Redd took the helm, to $14 million this year. It's a sign, she says, that the city's on a path to self-sufficiency.

She predicts, however, that the city will need transitional aid for another decade.

Redd, who is single and describes herself as an introvert, has made frequent appearances with Christie during the election season. He's pointed to Camden as the poster city for urban recovery. She's called him a governor who knows "both ends of the turnpike."

Redd touts the "Eds and Meds" that have come to the city during her term and economic-development projects underway such as the Kroc Community Center in Cramer Hill slated to open in the fall.

Her office launched JobLink, an employment and jobs training hotline following passage of the N.J. Economic Opportunity Act, which beefs up tax incentives the city can offer businesses.

The Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church, called her a "very visible mayor" who is quick to respond to his concerns. But Weiksnar also said her big decisions seem predetermined.

"The fact that the Democratic Party is so entrenched in Camden can be a benefit and can also be a detriment. I don't know if we've fully seen Dana Redd exercising her skills and her desires to the fullest because she's part of a bigger network."

Former school board member Sean Brown, a frequent critic of Redd, said her biggest accomplishments had often been tainted by poor communication.

"The biggest decisions that have been made under the Redd administration, things that had a big impact on the future of the city, are also things that were so mired in controversy and miscommunication" that they have contributed to a negative image of City Hall, he said.

Besides Davis, Redd faces Pastors Amir Khan and Clyde Cook and City Councilman Brian Coleman, all running as independents. The election is Nov. 5.



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