CAMDEN – The Democratic Party establishment down here has done multiple victory laps in connection with the City of Camden’s supposed comeback, but just beyond the military style-barricaded parking lots by the corporate waterfront perpetually guarded on Easter Sunday by County cop cars, the lurid, drug-ravaged and impoverished streets of this South Jersey city scream a story of criminal neglect.
No one could ever pin it on one person or organization.
But it speaks for itself in the slow pedestrian procession of human beings with garbage bags over their shoulders wandering block after block of sidewalks fronting bombed out vacant buildings under the all-encompassing stench of pot and despair.
“An Easter Egg hunt?” a man in a tank top repeated, bewildered when asked for directions on this Easter Sunday.
He made sure he got the question right.
“An Easter Egg hunt – in Camden?”
Yes, Camden, and over his shoulder in the park across the street from the Creative Arts Morgan Village
Academy, anti-establishment mayoral candidate Elton Custis and his allies could be seen at a distance, past the basketball courts and swings, taking joy in decorating a patch of brilliant green grass with magical eggs to entice and delight the city’s children.
The announcement last month that Camden County Democratic Committee-backed Mayor Frank Moran wouldn’t run again prompted the machine to recalibrate behind Councilman Vic Carstarphen. Moran and Carstarphen have in common the utterly interchangeable hearty affirmation of the New Jersey State Legislature in partnership with former Governor Chris Christie granting $11.5 billion in tax incentives for businesses connected to party overlord George Norcross III, including helicopter pads for Philadelphia-facing high-rises in a city aching with hunger, crisis-level poverty, entrenched drug and alcohol abuse and deep mental health challenges.
Having won off the line last year in his bid for a school board seat, healthcare professional and progressive grassroots Democrat Custis promised to deliver a 2021 mayoral campaign that stays true to his roots as a community-driven leader. He acknowledges the difficulty of attempting to dethrone a local organization controlled by the county, and said forget about Georgia and the attempts by Republicans there to disenfranchise voters. New Jersey – and specifically Camden – have their own artful brand of voter suppression.
“I remember back in 2009 when I ran [for mayor of Camden] against the machine my little brother went in to vote my name and it lit up, most certainly, the name of the Honorable Dana Redd. No matter who we turned to, there was no way they were going to fix the problem. Yes, we have seen it. They [Camden County] control everything here in the City of Camden. People need to be given the information, about poll workers for example. As it is, they keep it in a small circle, the resources, but it is the people the people who will make this whole city work.”
But if the county controls the instrumentation of voting, how can he hope to get a fair election?
“This time we’re going to have people out,” said Custis.
An investigation by Governor Phil Murphy’s administration into the tax incentive fiasco did not lead to any prosecutions, at least to date, as Murphy and the Norcross contingent of the Democratic Party appeared to achieve a political standoff that prevented either side from throwing a punch ahead of the 2021 Democratic Primary.
But Custis in InsiderNJ’s interview with him at his Easter Egg Hunt, offered praise for Murphy in key areas, and said that come election time, “The Attorney General will be in full effect. I believe this is going to be a fair race. I am praying this is a fair race. The people we are running against are good people; they’re just not good enough to lead our community any longer.
“Voter suppression is what keeps us down in the City of Camden,” Custis added. “We have to get on top of that. I want to thank Governor Murphy for some of his initiatives [including restoring voting rights to more than 80,000 New Jerseyans who are on probation or parole]. [In addition,] Now voters will be able to go online and vote. It’s a great thing. Everyone needs to receive a voter registration ballot in the mail. We want everyone to receive their ballot so we can all have a fair share. Stacey Abrams paved the way [in Georgia]. Now we have to do the same work here.
“We can do this,” added the candidate for mayor. “If we come together, we can do this.”
Custis said he is so confident this time, that he predicted victory in the June 8th Democratic Primary.
“It is already written,” he said. “People are ready to really rise up and move forward. All we have to do is be transparent with the people and let them know this is it. I started in 2001, and in my election last year, the people spoke, and they are ready to stand with me. The army is being built. …Bring the resources back to the community. Take back the pride of Camden.”
As children ran across the grass behind him to claim the eggs he and his allies placed for them to find, Custis considered the $11.5 billion in tax incentives never resolved but for a chastising word from a governor’s commission.
“I am for bringing incentives but there most certainly have to be jobs,” he said.
The incentives didn’t adequately reach the people of Camden, he argued.
“The buildings look great, I won’t lie, but as soon as you pass the next street, you’re back in Camden,” he said. “If the buildings aren’t helping us, I don’t see why we really need them.”
Two of his council at-large running mates helped Custis today with the Egg hunt: Hector Rojas, who served in an Army artillery unit in Iraq from 2003 to 2005; and educator Carmen Lozada.
“Let’s move outside the walls and get into the heart of the community and just stay within,” Lozada told InsiderNJ, referring to the organizing principle of her campaign.
Pastor Amir Khan, like Custis a former unsuccessful mayoral candidate, said he believes this year will be
different for the anti-establishment forces. “I believe Elton has a unique gift for bringing people together,” Khan said. “They will outspend us and out-advertise us. They will outspend us ten to one, but we have the people. They have financial resources. They have the buildings. They come over the bridge and they leave at five o’clock. We watch the mass exodus.
“But they don’t have the people,” he said.
He noted the presence in Camden of 11,000 people who couldn’t vote in the last mayoral election because they’re formally incarcerated.
“Right now they’re rallying because they believe in this guy,” he said of Custis. “People in this city are frustrated, and we finally have a candidate who is really from Camden, who is not going to be pushing a bunch of big tax incentives for entities contributing noting concrete to the community.”
On a park bench in the park as new batches of children arrived and Custis and his friends continued to hustle to replenish the field in front of them, a pair of children opened the eggs they had retrieved and held up the contents, hands outstretched with happiness, in a momentary Easter oasis, while a county cop car idled at the edge and Mount Ephraim Avenue stretched into Camden oblivion.