A Camden Question for Mayoral Candidate Victor Carstarphen

Whitman Avenue

The legislature’s latest favorite expression, “whoever wrote that for you did an excellent job,” or a variation thereof, assuredly originates as an insult, aimed at reinforcing the idea that occupants of seats of power don’t do much beyond intoning what supposedly smarter people summon for them, like anchor people reading from teleprompters.

Of course, in the best tradition of politics, the speaker uses the line without obvious rancor.

I am hearing it more and more as I drearily make the virtual rounds of legislative Zoom hearings. If Zoom has rendered everyone a talking head, then it logically follows that the organizing principles we associate with talking heads apply; hence, we should anticipate reading instead of thinking, or canned remarks in place of depth.

Perhaps most recently, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) employed the line against a thoroughly

LD3 Assemblyman John Burzichelli
LD3 Assemblyman John Burzichelli

vulnerable state Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus O. Hicks. At the time of the encounter, the legislature had already demanded that Governor Phil Murphy fire Hicks.

In this case, Burzichelli’s icebreaker following Hicks’ opening statement had the apparently intended psychological effect of dismissing the commissioner without actually rendering him immediately helpless. “Whoever wrote that for you, deserves credit,” or something on that order right away prompted Hicks to wonder, “Should I be insulted?” He was still stinging from the glove in his face and considering the appropriate response even as Burzichelli proceeded to go into heat-seeking subject-dismantling mode.

Somewhere a devious and diabolical little operative will take credit for introducing the line into New Jersey’s largely barren brook of rhetoric, an expression that ultimately merely contributes to our understanding of “powerful people” as interpreters – even intoners – not experts.

Insidious?

Yes, for by routinely indulging the notion of handlers doing the work of our leaders, we create the expectation of individuals installed in positions who, finally, need only the capacity to read (This in and of itself may be too much to ask, given the longstanding presence of some of the establishment’s key “leaders,” but that is a subject for another piece). Absent an inquiring media, or, even worse, in an atmosphere wherein establishment functionaries masquerade as media, we begin to build for ourselves the understanding that those in our state who possess titles actually need not simultaneously possess accountability.

If we lull ourselves into the belief that a network of operatives constructs what our cardboard realm of public personages merely presents at a microphone, we will have finalized, in our rapidly diminishing political sphere, the production of a motion picture of inferior entertainment quality as a substitute for substance.

Carstarphen
Camden Mayoral Candidate Carstarphen

Which brings me to Victor Carstarphen, who says he wants to be the mayor of Camden. Certainly, we know the unseen circuitries of power sustaining public imagery in Camden through rapid-fire press releases deriving from the political infrastructure otherwise known as the Camden County Democratic Committee, resoundingly want him to be mayor. But just as Frank Moran resigned without any deep explanation, so Carstarphen materializes – and awaits transition – as his sloganeering successor, preordained for a June 8th victory as a consequence of his position on the Camden County Democratic line.

We have reached out to Carstarphen numerous times in the interest of having him speak on behalf of his candidacy, put his own vigorous explanation point on his vision for the city, and engage the same forum of ideas as those largely written-off anti-establishment alternatives in the mayoral contest.

We called, sent emails, text messages, engaged subordinates, and tried to find him in person.

He ducked all of it, apparently preferring a fire-blanket opening statement to suffice, or others to write his words for him (or not!), and finally trusting in the durable comfort zone of the party line. Perhaps before it’s all over he will tread gingerly into the arms of another media outfit, which will sufficiently softball him to make it look like he’s available to the media, on the backchanneling advice of those operatives in charge of his campaign.

In these dreadful days especially, it’s an insult to the people of Camden, who have already endured a great deal, and deserve more than an insipid recitation of party mechanics and personalities as a stand-in for solutions.

A PAC run by the attorney of party power broker George Norcross III over the weekend showered the city with mailers heralding Carstarphen’s presence on the line with Governor Murphy and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver.

He’s on the line with the governor!

Of New Jersey!!

Acting Governor Sheila Oliver today issued an Executive Order establishing a new interagency task force to provide advice and recommendations for strategies and actions to reduce incidents of hate, bias, and intolerance involving students and young adults.
Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver.

 

Now, that information unto itself should come as no newsflash, for Murphy needs the machine and the machine needs Murphy and after a lot of pushing and shoving and internal hurt feelings and stubbed egos that distracted them when they should have prepared the state for COVID-19, N.J. Democrats have decided to moonscape the June 8th election by pretending that no significant issues – or divergences of opinion on critical issues – exist.

In the words of one longtime insider who gloomily assessed the coronavirus-flattened political terrain, “The pandemic has emboldened the ‘haves’ over the ‘have-nots’ more than ever.” What a painfully true observation, and in that vein the supposed people in power or seeking power have the assurance of power to indulge the favorite instrument of power: obfuscation. But at the very least, Carstarphen – seeking his party’s nomination in one of New Jersey’s most important cities, a city reeling in scandal and poverty and beset by a food desert, should answer one – one! – significant question if he wants the voters of Camden to take him seriously, and that is whether he intends to fight Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver’s resistance to the City Council’s resolution putting Camden’s City Finance Department on track to be moved under county control.

By way of background from WHYY:

“On March 9, amid objections from some city residents, Camden City Council approved a resolution authorizing a study to explore moving the department under county auspices through a shared services agreement. The study was expected to take a year and cost the city up to $100,000. The Camden County Board of Commissioners approved the study on March 18.

“The following day, in a letter to Camden Municipal Clerk Luis Pastoriza, New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said that the agreement ‘potentially creates unsustainable expenses for Camden, which would only serve to burden a city struggling financially.’ She said while the resolution provided for the county to invoice the city each month for the study, no exact costs are mentioned.

“’A more beneficial solution for Camden may be to build capacity within to facilitate its progress towards financial stability,’ added Oliver, who is the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.”

Mr. Carstarphen, if only for a moment, should consider a most elusive idea in New Jersey, that politics here might be more than merely what a party line dictates.

We know he is on the line with Murphy – who has dropped into numerous local theaters this season with big, broad, back-slapping endorsements crammed with superlatives, but to date resisted a full-fledged bear hug of Carstarphen – and Oliver.

Elton Custis
Elton Custis

More importantly and more to the heart of the city’s substantive government challenges, does he agree or disagree with fellow Democrat Oliver’s decision to veto a step that would put Camden’s city Finance Department on track to be moved under county control? If he disagrees, then why?

Maybe he simply can’t elucidate or expound on the public record.

The mayoral candidate did vote with four of his colleges to provide the county the opportunity to study and take over the city’s finances, one of his rivals noted. “Vic Carstarphen is going to give away the store if elected,” said Elton Custis, a member of the Camden City School District Advisory Board. “His vote in March to hand over the city’s finances to the county is a pre-game warm up of what’s to come.”

We are past the point now of expectation for Carstarphen to issue a candid and thoughtful and thorough response, but maybe in this land of prefabricated slogans and prepared remarks, someone on the team can at least pepper onto a page some words that one of the mayoral candidate’s peers can subsequently laud as having been the masterful handiwork of one equipped, not to lead, but to spin.
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