Christie keeps a steady presence in Camden

Gov. Christie taking questions from students in the cafeteria during a visit to the Dudley Family School in Camden in January. His spokesman said cooperation from Camden's leaders - "particularly under Mayor Redd" - had enabled him to work with the city.
Gov. Christie taking questions from students in the cafeteria during a visit to the Dudley Family School in Camden in January. His spokesman said cooperation from Camden's leaders - "particularly under Mayor Redd" - had enabled him to work with the city. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2014

He has shown up to call for better schools and safer streets, to sign laws and promote projects favored by a political ally - and even to milk media attention with Shaq.

Gov. Christie is no stranger to Camden, a city perpetually ranked among the poorest and most dangerous in the United States.

By his office's count, Christie has held at least 20 public events in Camden since taking office - including last week, when the Republican governor heralded the new county-run police force and praised the city's Democratic mayor, Dana L. Redd.

Christie has backed systemic changes in Camden in recent years, from tax breaks to developers and a higher-education merger, to the disbanding of the city police force and the state takeover of the public school system.

The initiatives have a key factor in common: All have been supported by South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III.

Norcross "enabled Christie to have the successes he did early in his first term," said Patrick Murray, political analyst at Monmouth University. "This is a return on that assistance."

Theirs is a transactional relationship, Murray said: South Jersey Democrats, supported by Norcross and led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), have supplied Christie with key votes, including on the now-collapsed deal to reform public workers' pensions.

Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said cooperation from Camden's leaders - "particularly under Mayor Redd" - had enabled the governor to work with the city.

"There is clearly also great civic interest and involvement both inside and outside of government," Drewniak said. "That includes people obviously like George Norcross, Steve Sweeney, and even the county board of freeholders."

"You just don't see that level of cooperation" elsewhere, he said. "This is what sets Camden apart."

Drewniak said Christie had worked with other cities, including Newark under Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor who is now a U.S. senator. But more recently, Newark's newly elected mayor, Democrat Ras Baraka, ran a campaign critical of Christie, whose education plan has sparked protest in the city.

In Camden, Drewniak said, "we just want to help. We just want to get away from its past. . . . It needs to become a place that attracts jobs, rather than scaring companies away."

Norcross, an insurance executive and chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden who recently agreed to sell his stake in The Inquirer, said Christie's involvement in Camden dates to his time as the state's U.S. attorney. Along with then-deputy U.S. attorney Lee Solomon - a Republican state judge whom Christie recently nominated to the state Supreme Court - Christie worked on public safety initiatives in the city, Norcross said.

"You tend to gravitate to areas where you can effect change as quickly as possible. Camden is a place where he's been able to see specific results," Norcross said, noting that Cooper Medical School and Cooper Cancer Institute were built and opened during Christie's first term.

Of the assertion that Christie has backed Camden initiatives as a result of deals cut with him, Norcross said: "I'm delighted that any public official . . . would take an extreme or strong interest in the city of Camden."

Camden has long been closely tied to state government. In 2002, the state took over the city, reducing the elected mayor to a largely advisory role. That arrangement ended in early 2010 after Redd's election.

Despite the city's regaining local control, Camden remains dependent on state aid. The city, which has a $181 million budget, received $113 million this year from the state.

That structural deficit presents governors with a "policy problem they can't avoid," said Richard Harris, a political science professor at Rutgers-Camden.

Camden's dependence on the state also means "the mayor has very little choice but to work with the governor," said Howard Gillette, a professor of history emeritus at Rutgers-Camden who wrote a book on Camden's history.

As for Christie, Gillette said, his agenda "has a lot to do with George Norcross and his vision for Camden."

Unlike former Republican Gov. Christie Whitman, who promoted neighborhood revitalization in Camden, Christie, through his support of Norcross' priorities, has focused on the city's downtown and business investment, Gillette said.

Christie signed an economic development law last year with added tax incentives for projects in Camden - a measure that Christie said last week would bring him back to the city "over the course of the next six months with more important announcements about Camden's economic future."

He supported a contentious plan to merge Rutgers-Camden with Rowan University. Ultimately, he agreed to an amended plan creating a compromise partnership between the schools, which backers say will allow for more development of the city's "eds and meds" corridor.

Last year, Christie initiated a state takeover of Camden's schools - among the worst-performing in the state - and installed a new superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard.

A supporter of charter schools, Christie also signed a law to let private entities build "Renaissance" schools in Trenton, Newark, and Camden. The projects are eligible for up to 95 percent state funding. Norcross is backing a school in Camden; Christie spoke at its groundbreaking in March.

"Gov. Christie knows the bleeding in Camden is the public schools," said Angel Cordero, a school-choice activist who said the governor has come to three graduations at the alternative school he runs.

Others are less optimistic about Christie's approach. "It's not a bad thing that the state said, 'This is unacceptable, and we need to do something,' " said Kathryn Ribay, a former Camden school board member who resigned because of the takeover. But "to be sustainable, you need to be building local leadership instead of displacing local leadership."

In the realm of public safety, Christie gave political and financial support to Camden County's initiative to install a county-run police force that would have more officers than the city department. Critics called the move a union-busting measure.

In late 2012, when Camden had a spate of murders, Christie "didn't once step forward and say we have a crisis in our public safety," Gillette said. Now, with the new police force reporting a decrease in crime at the start of the year, "of course Christie's going to take credit for it," he said.

Appearing Tuesday in Camden to promote the county force - which grew last week to nearly 400 officers from as few as 230 - Christie praised Redd's leadership.

"This does not happen, I will guarantee you and she is too humble to say it, but it does not happen without her leadership and her commitment," he said.

Redd, in turn, told Christie: "Camden is your second home."

The governor, whose image as a bipartisan leader was scarred by the George Washington Bridge controversy, doesn't benefit politically from being seen as a partner with Camden, said Murray, of Monmouth University.

"In the old days, when Christie was the bipartisan hero that could get everybody to work with him, that was a nice image," Murray said. "These days, he's got to be the true conservative warrior."

Christie, who is still weighing a run for president in 2016, also doesn't have much to lose in pushing for change in Camden, said Neil Oxman, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia who has worked on races in New Jersey, including for candidates supported by Norcross.

"If you can say to people this is one of the poorest cities in the country, with one of the highest unemployment rates, drug usage . . . and we've changed people's lives, that's a thing you can point to," Oxman said.

And if it doesn't work out, "you're in a win-win situation," he said. "Camden can't get any worse."

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this report.

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