Preparing to Run Again in Trenton, Gusciora will Also Prioritize Council Seats

Trenton is seeing a power struggle between Mayor Reed Gusciora and Council President Kathy McBride.

On what he argues is the strength of his record in very challenging times, incumbent Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora – once, not too long ago the daredevil political outsider and a year from now, conceivably, the perennial outsider turned darling of the party establishment – is the first mayor since 2006 to run for reelection in New Jersey’s chronically ailing capital city. He’s up in 2022, in what figures – despite all establishment efforts to smooth out the rough edges (more on that later) – to be another acrimonious local cycle, given the tumult on the city council, pushing and shoving between the mayor’s office and the governing body, uglier than usual ad hominem attacks, the pending retirement of at least one and maybe more veteran council members, underlying problems related to lack of job opportunities for residents, violent crime, and the compromised nature of the city itself.

The history here provides some context to Gusciora’s political intentions.

Just the third executive since 1962 when the capital city went to a strong mayor form of government, Trenton’s first African-American Mayor Doug Palmer opted out of running for a sixth term in the lead-up to 2010. He appeared to have made a wise political decision when Republican Governor Chris Christie drastically reduced his city’s state aid. Trenton limped through Fiscal Year 2010 with $87.6 million in aid before absorbing Christie’s 2011 cuts, which left the city with $45 million. Subsequently, Mayor Tony Mack cracked up on corruption charges, and Mayor Eric Jackson, exhausted by the infantile antics of city government, not to mention the city’s monumental troubles, tapped out sooner than run for reelection in 2018.

Jackson’s surrender summoned the era of then-Assemblyman Gusciora, who outlasted Paul Perez in a runoff election and found himself saddled with the COVID-19 crisis in addition to the usual troubles of Trenton, including a reduced ratable base, the consequence of government buildings cramming the environs. Heading into his reelection year, the mayor is upbeat, citing Trenton’s hiring of a new police director to meet a tide of violent crime, and the recouping of some state aid – (including $18.5 million or $10 million in Capital City Aid and $8.5 million in Transitional Aid, hardly Jon Corzine era levels, lost under Christie), local job creation at the Water Utility Department, rebuilding of the wharf along the riverfront, the ongoing demolition of abandoned properties, and federal aid secured through his relationship with longtime ally U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), including over $70 million in America Recovery Act funding.

He says he feels strong, in contrast to those myriad mayors around the country deciding not to run again in the post-vaccine times of COVID.

Again, there’s some process context, which certainly backs up the mayor’s sense of confidence.

While he might at one time have made a decent reelection ally, At-Large Councilman Jerell Blakeley’s decision not to run for mayor – announced last week in The Trentonian – removed the presence of a potential mayoral challenger, not completely unforeseen given Blakeley’s employment as a lobbyist with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and Gusciora’s longstanding strong relations with the teachers’ union. The announcement underscores a labor and party-assisted establishment effort, which includes election timeline reconfiguration (see below), to restore Gusciora to power.

The coming retirement of longtime Councilman George Muschal creates another opening, and insiders anticipate a plethora of potential candidates for council seats in what Gusciora sees as an additional attack line as he seeks his own reelection. “That has to be a priority,” Gusciora said, in reference to forging alliances with council candidates with an eye to remolding a council whose low points during his tenure included West Ward Councilwoman Robin Vaughn’s profane homophobic tirade against the mayor.

“I’m not talking about a rubber stamp,” Gusciora said – just moving the city forward with key agenda items, he explained.

Another political foe of the mayor’s – veteran Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson – may also retire,

Councilman Santiago Rodriguez
Councilman Santiago Rodriguez

while At-Large Councilman Santiago Rodriguez plans to run for mayor rather than pursue reelection to his council seat.

Sources in the Capital City anticipate more mayoral candidates to appear on the horizon of 2022, including, conceivably, Vaughn, but Gusciora’s allies don’t mind the matchup with Rodriguez, whom they see as a less than stellar exemplar of the resistance.

“I don’t have a lot of money,” the councilman admitted to InsiderNJ, “but with a couple thousand dollars I will run a decent campaign.”

Preparing for his mayoral run and a formal announcement sometime early next year, Rodriguez added of labor unions like the NJEA and other organizations, “It doesn’t bother me, who they back or who they don’t back. Unions endorsements mean a compromising position for elected officials. That’s the way politics are run in this city but that’s not the way I run politics.”

Rodriguez says Trenton “has been going down the drain for the last 40 years,” and objected to the sitting administration’s management of programs, including the ongoing demolition of abandoned buildings, which isn’t moving fast enough, in his judgment.

Gusciora says the councilman offers little more than obstructionism, while Rodriguez argues that given his deep state connections, the mayor should have been able to secure more aid for Trenton – and more visible transformation.

“Do you see a difference in Trenton?” he asked.

Given the disparity in aid between Trenton a place like Paterson, he said, “I will protest. I will be there at the State Capitol every week with thousands of Trentonians. If we have to take the state to court we will take them to court.”

They’ve done that, of course; they’ll do it again, Rodriguez insisted.

“You have to know the people,” he complained of Gusciora. “He’s not a Trentonian. He’s from Princeton. The Democrats brought him here. The county was backing Walker Worthy [in 2018; when the establishment saw Worthy couldn’t win], they all got together.”

Actually, Gusciora – once derided by the Democratic Party-establishment-friendly Christie as “a numbnuts” – ended up a resident of Trenton after 2011 redistricting forced him to sell his home in Princeton and move to the capital city, where he set about continuing his work as one of the legislature’s most active members, with a well-documented independent streak.

Like another less than preferred establishment legislator, assemblyman Ralph Caputo, Gusciora found his political career imperiled precisely because he refused to kowtow to party bosses.

If his run for mayor came amid rumors of the party dumping him from the state legislative ticket that same year, his ability – first as a candidate – then as the city’s executive – to survive – demonstrated – at the very least – his real capacity to build and sustain relationships, even with structures he didn’t depend on for his livelihood.

Trenton City Councilwomen Marge Caldwell-Wilson, Kathy McBride, and Robin Vaughn sue Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs and Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora for bypassing the budget they say they prepared and instead using a budget favored by the mayor.
Trenton City Councilwomen Marge Caldwell-Wilson.

 

Still, his inability to establish good relations with a majority of council members (enhanced perhaps by the fact that he did indeed enter the bloodstream of city politics as an outsider) has put the mayor in more political scraps than he would have liked. To Caldwell-Wilson, that’s been a good development for Trenton – in a way; because the council has acted to check and balance the sitting administration.

Like Rodriguez, the councilwoman says the state – and the Murphy Administration – do not do enough to help the city.

“Governor Murphy made a promise that he would be there for us,” Caldwell-Wilson said.

It hasn’t happened, in her judgment, not with the kind of flexibility that Trenton needs.

“They earmark it and tell us how to spend it,” said the councilwoman and former labor leader. “We need to be freed up to spend [as we see fit]. We pay taxes, and they just keep telling us to use it. I would say to Governor Murphy to increase our capital city aid and cut us loose.”

She’s very nearly disillusioned, and doesn’t see the mayor’s ongoing tack into the arms of this version of the Democratic Party as a plus for her city.

“I’ve been a hardcore Democrat all my life and since I’ve been on the city council I have not focused on Democratic Party politics,” she said. “We don’t get much help from the legislators; [the establishment] reaps profits from the water company. We don’t seem to get sufficient cooperation from surrounding towns or the county. I’m so distressed by what’s happening in the city. The poverty. Kids getting killed. I don’t go to the political events. I’m not into doing their photo ops.

“The big problem is we haven’t convinced the state that our Capital City Aid of $10 million in not sufficient,” she added.

As the party prepares to gear up for an Edison-like do-over with the same result in a non-gubernatorial election year, the state politicians in Trenton don’t go beyond State Street, Caldwell-Wilson said. They don’t see the human faces, the crumbling infrastructure, the pain. As a matter of process, the councilwoman said she is disturbed that the local administration meets with the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) on the budget without input from the council.

Notwithstanding local governing body horrors typified by Vaughn’s much-publicized hateful comments about the mayor, the tension between a wild west council and a bland, corporate lobbyist-dominant establishment underscores a deep divide, to Caldwell-Wilson’s point.

Party animal Democrats are aware of that no-man’s land between those two worlds.

Like other onetime nonpartisan towns that have gone the way of partisan elections to reinforce establishment structures, Trenton will change over to a new cycle next year, which presumably (if the Democratic Party hangs together in the post Murphy reelection cycle) will help Gusciora (and his fellow county party-establishment-aligned running mates), given his tenure-strengthened ties to the Administration of Murphy, who figures to win reelection himself this year, and a ballot structure-reinforced Democratic Party. People on the ground lament the seeming inversion of life experience emptying would-be public servants of wisdom and reducing them to static, organization-molded paycheck and ego-driven individuals more concerned with holding onto power than mentoring the next generation of leaders.

The intensity – up to 100 people routinely attend the city council meetings, many of them angry – ensures a 2022 contest, and maybe or likely an augmented mayor, the consequence of a new allot-assisted city council, one Gusciora will use his influence to remake, as he simultaneously tries to become the first mayor in over a decade to not only run for reelection, but to win; as his seemingly deoxygenated political enemies try to stop him, and his old allies pray he can convince a roadblocking establishment he so often fought in the past to provide more assistance to Trentonians, not just to taxpayers but to children dying too young.

 

 

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