The Camden People’s Mayoral Forum sponsored by Camden Action tonight exposed the challenge faced by Felisha Reyes Morton and Elton Custis as they separately try to fulfill the role of legitimate alternative while mutually toiling in the Siberia of a frigid ballot position.
Victor Carstarphen didn’t bother participating.
He has the advantage of running on the Camden County Democratic Committee line.
He really doesn’t have to be there in a city where 17% of citywide voters participated in the 2017 election, which catapulted the machine-backed Frank Moran into the mayoral seat.
But now, with Moran already a resigned rearview fixture in Camden, Carstarphen’s absence prompted at least one disgruntled assessment. “Love that this debate is taking place. Pretty disappointed Vic C is not participating,” Working Families Director Sue Altman noted.
Another avid watcher of the Facebook Live event was Amir Khan, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor four years ago and this year backs Custis. This week, Khan expressed his indignation over the ballot, which consigns Reyes Moron and Custis to a distant dogfight, far from the column one tower of power that Carstarphen enjoys.
“A 35% advantage,” Khan fumed.
The Clerk’s Office responded with a statement in response to an InsiderNJ question about how Clerk Joe Ripa could publicly justify signing off on what appears to be a pretty obvious voter suppression tactic.
“The Camden County Clerk’s Office follows the New Jersey Statutes and applicable case law to design the ballots,” said Deputy Clerk John Schmidt. “There are multiple factors that go into designing the ballots fairly for all 37 municipalities and both political parties that conform to the election equipment.”
But back to the debate.
It was edifying, certainly, to watch two educated young people, both Camden natives, discussing the issues facing New Jersey’s poorest city. It was also equally frustrating, to Altman’s point, to know that they’re killing each other with substance while Carstarphen cocoons himself within the gears of the party machine. They’ve apparently talked about an armistice, or joining forces, but neither budged.
So here they were, perhaps auditioning for the underground’s final say-so on who will stay and who will go, even as one Custis ally insisted Reyes Morton was too aligned with the organization for too long to make a convincing revolutionary, and that she actually cuts into Carstarphen. But that 35% head start for the establishment candidate because of his ballot position made that point more remote.
Over the course of the mostly amiable evening, Custis – who ran off the line last year to snag a school Board seat – positioned himself as the true reformer, while Reyes Morton – who parted company with the Camden Democrats after a 12-year relationship – made the case for government know-how and navigation knowledge while making sure to highlight the fact that she’s the only woman in the contest and, yes, a newly indoctrinated enemy of the establishment.
Custis didn’t cut corners with his rhetoric.
“We need a regime change,” he said. “We need change, seat by seat.”
His ambition, he said, is to change the Camden story line as one of the poorest cities in America.
An eight-year veteran of the school board and two-plus year veteran of the city council, Reyes Morton presented herself as a candidate with experience, who worked to get a virtual food market located in her community.
Custis operated as the unbought and unbossed outsider, while Reyes Morton embodied that alternative who is mature enough to have worked in the system to do what good she could before getting out when she couldn’t take it anymore.
“We have to attract new businesses here,” said Custis. “We have to open Camden up for business. If you know the political people you can play. These taxes are outrageous and we don’t get anything for what we pay in.
“[Businesses] that take our taxpayer dollars and don’t have to pay anything. Camden has been treated like a bargaining chip – it’s over.”
But some of the corporate development in Reyes Morton’s neighborhood isn’t catastrophic, she noted, and described how her ward went from being one of the most crime riddled to one of the safest.
She connected her life story with local government, explaining her encounter with drug dealers when she visited a Camden park with her daughter.
The end result?
It was a compelling evening, anchored by the presence of two serious candidates whose sole participation in the debate in a field of four, which includes the machine-protected Carstarphen, also underscored the problem each has, and that’s the presence of the other, when the insurrection needs a solitary standard bearer to unite fed-up voters against an entrenched operation, which swaps out incumbents and replaces them under an affirming Democratic governor with infuriating efficiency as Camden faces the prospect of life without a full service supermarket.