With Eric Jackson’s sudden January decision to not seek a second mayoral term in May, Trenton has
been swamped by a quasi-power vacuum.
Eight candidates rushed into to fill the void, some with street credentials and others with not a nickel to their name.
“Several of the people who decided to run, only decided to run because Mayor Jackson was not running,” said Sam Frisby, a Trenton resident and Mercer County freeholder.
You might have heard some of the names: Michael Silvestri, former Councilman at Large Alex Bethea, Walker Worthy Jr., Paul Perez, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, Darren Green, Annette Horton-Lartigue and Councilman at Large Duncan Harrison Jr.
“When you have eight people running, it’s a crap-shoot for every single candidate,” said Jeannine LaRue, a longtime Trenton resident and political junkie.
“Being a person who’s politically connected, and I hope to know all of the hopefuls, on this particular day, April 6, I have no idea who I am going to vote for, and I’ve never been in this situation when it comes to a mayor or governor or president,” LaRue added. “Usually I know by now who I am going to support.”
That uncertainty has also been the attitude of James Gee, the chief of staff for Democratic Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.
“This is the first year in probably my adult life that I have not been involved at all, on purpose,” Gee said.
“I’ve gotten no mail in my mailbox from any candidates, I’ve seen two yard signs from candidates, nobody’s knocked on my door, this is a campaign happening without campaigning,” Gee added.
We at InsiderNJ took a hard look at the seven complicating factors for the 2018 Trenton mayoral election.
1.) The same pie
Different sources have suggested that four of the candidates have the best bet of winning the mayoralty, or at least making it to the second-round run-off elections.
“Reed, Worthy, Duncan and Perez are the most interesting,” Frisby said, adding that the four had a sizable, campaign-ready apparatus ready to take on the election.
But they’re all fighting for the same voting base: the African American, 38-years-old and above demographic.
“That’s why I said I couldn’t call it,” Frisby said. For him, the election looks a lot like 2010, when Tony
Mack was elected mayor. Right now, Mack is sitting in federal prison on corruption charges.
In 2010, Doug Palmer, a Trenton giant and mayor for 20 years, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, prompting a similar power vacuum. Jackson, who was elected in 2014, was viewed as a successor to Palmer’s legacy, but just when it looked like he was settling in for long haul duties, he opted not to run again.
“When I look at the election, most people didn’t think that Tony was the guy, but because there were so many people fight for that spot, if some people don’t pull it together, Mack is gonna win,” Frisby said.
2.) Trenton makes, the world yawns
In the 2010 and 2014 mayoral elections, just shy of 10,000 residents took part in the mayoral elections, out of the roughly 85,000 residents.
That’s according to Mark Matzen, a political consultant who’s managing Harrison’s campaign.
“I don’t think this race is creating a significant amount of energy,” Matzen said. “In Jackson’s race, even after Tony Mac, there were only 10,000 people that voted.”
“When Palmer first ran, there was a lot more participation,” Matzen added. “That had to do with Douglas, the first African-American mayor, it was African-American versus Caucasian, and it created an tremendous amount of participation.”
Ever since that historic election, voter turnout gradually declined until it plateaued at 10,000. The caveat’s of course, have been the presidential elections, where voter turnout was over double.
3.) Trenton feels the Bern
One candidate has emerged as the “Bernie Sanders” of the race: Darren Green.
LaRue has said that she’s heard things from different Trenton residents, especially when it comes to mayoral politics.
“They call him Darren ‘Freedom’ Green, and ‘oh my goodness, Free is running, we’re gonna get our own mayor’,” LaRue said.
LaRue added: “I remember when Bernie Sanders first declared against Hillary, it was a laughing stock, and nobody could understand that millenials had these bumper stickers all plastered on their cards.”
“The grassroots of this community, they love Darren Green,” according to LaRue.
4.) The woman candidate
Annette Horton-Lartigue has that to her name: she’s the only female candidate on the Trenton mayoral ballot.
That does come in handy, for the longtime former councilwoman and local party leader.
“When they look at the lineup and that’s the only female name there, and they don’t know the other candidates, I think people are going to say ‘I’m just going to vote for the woman’,” LaRue said.
She added: “There are a lot of women who just believe that Annette deserves a chance, because she is a former elected official, she has lived here all of her life.”
5.) The Latino bloc, not a guarantee
Paul Perez is the only Latino candidate on the eight-person ballot. A U.S Army veteran of 20 years, Perez lost in the 2014 run-off election, leaving Jackson as the victor.
Now he’s back, but does he own Latino backing? Or does that even matter?
“I think that Perez actually has a mixed bag of support, and people underestimate the fact that ‘okay, he just has the Latino vote’,” LaRue said.
Perez has to move out of the Latino demographic, LaRue suggested, and convince the African American electorate to support him.
“I don’t know that that is actually happening, but I know he’s making an attempt,” LaRue said, pointing to Perez’s support from black religious leaders and community activists.
6.) Assemblyman who?
Gusciora has rejected the notion that he’s an outsider in Trenton, despite issues with how long he’s lived there.
For one, he’s represented Trenton in the 15th Legislative district for the past 20 years.
“They know me in the community,” Gusciora said. His office is across the street from the statehouse, and he spent several years as the city’s municipal prosecutor.
To help up his game, Gusciora hired Dave Parano, a North Jersey political consultant who managed Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign.
Gusciora also rejected the notion that he wouldn’t be able to connect with the city’s African American majority since he’s white.
“We have a city majority, 40 percent black, 30 percent white and 30 percent Hispanic,” Gusciora said. “And I’m in the best position to bring all those groups together.”
LaRue disputed the idea that the electorate would vote along demographic voting lines, be it race or sexual orientation.
“There is the thought that because Reed is out of the closet, openly gay, and there is a large population in Trenton, they’re thinking that most of the gays would just automatically vote for Reed,” LaRue said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.”
7.) Walker Worthy Jr.’s county support
Worthy’s support amongst Democrat and Mercer County officials have led to the interpretation of him as an “establishment” or “machine” candidate, depending on who you ask.
“You have a lot of folks in Trenton who are county employees, they may not view it as a bad thing,” LaRue said.
But on the other hand, LaRue said, “I think that some people are leery of a candidate that seems so overwhelmingly backed by the county.”
Dan Knitzer, a spokesperson for Worthy’s campaign, denied Worthy was the county’s de facto candidate, but said that his extensive county relationships could only help Trenton.
“Walker is proud of the relationships he has built through his years of experience in the State Assembly, the County, and beyond, and he’ll use those relationships to improve conditions for everyone living in Trenton,” Knitzer said.
“Mercer County isn’t like some other counties where there is a machine that produces winners,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes. “There’s some establishment folks like myself who are supporting Walker, but there are a lot of people sitting the race out.”
“I support Walker because I supported him four years ago, and I supported him this time around, the machine, or the establishment, was behind him four years ago, and he came in 3rd,” Hughes added.