In the closing days of her eight eventful years in the mayor’s office, Camden’s Dana Redd is as gracious — and guarded — as ever.
She’ll tell you what she thinks, but you can’t tell what she’s thinking. Spend an hour with Redd, as I did late last week, and you’ll hear plenty of tried-and-true quotes and uplifting anecdotes.
That is, until the two-term mayor, the right mayor at the right time, “the mayor Camden needed,” in the words of a friend of mine, hears a question she doesn’t want to answer.
Then Redd closes the curtain.
With a smile.
“I have no comment on all of the, you know, back and forth with the legislative bill,” she says in reference to the controversial if not outrageous measure her fellow Democrats in Trenton are railroading through the lame-duck session. They hope to boost state pension benefits for a handful of elected officials, including the outgoing mayor of Camden.
Redd also refuses to comment on what presumably public job she’ll take next, saying only that “hopefully there will be an announcement in the first quarter” of 2018.
The mayor, 49, has held a succession of appointive or elective positions in the city, county, and state since 1994 and will leave office Jan. 1. She began her political career working for two trailblazing Camden women: the late county Freeholder Aletha Wright and Camden High principal-turned-Freeholder Riletta Cream, who died last week at 91 and whose funeral is set for Saturday.
“We choose to celebrate her life, because that’s what she would want us to do,” says Redd as our interview begins. “Ms. Cream is still bossing us around!”
Smart and savvy, Redd has long gotten ahead by getting along — most recently with Gov. Christie, a crucial Republican ally, as well as with brothers George and Donald Norcross, the Democratic power broker and member of Congress, respectively.
During her (and their) watch, the city has evolved more dramatically than at any time since the 1970s: Industrial, commercial and “eds and meds” projects, large and small, have been completed or are underway throughout downtown, along the Delaware River waterfront, and elsewhere in Camden’s core.
The city police department has been replaced by a younger, more agile and community-oriented county force. Crime and unemployment rates have fallen. The landscape of public education in the city, which is controlled neither by the mayor’s office nor the people of Camden, is now dominated by charter and Renaissance schools.
And while Camden High’s beloved landmark building will be razed, the city’s first entirely new high school in a century will rise in its place. Redd welcomed Christie to the legendary gymnasium inside “the Castle on the Hill” for the $133 million announcement in 2016.
“Camden has always been my passion. It was the reason I [first] ran for public office in 2001, for City Council,” the mayor says. “I’m driven simply by my love of the city and wanting to do something to bring Camden back, and bring back respect for Camden.
“I’ve always taken offense to comments that are disparaging about Camden,” says Redd. “I’ve always defended Camden and the great people who live here. Camden is not just a headline. Camden is so much more.”
The fervor reflects Redd’s deep Christian faith. An active member of Antioch Baptist Church, a Ferry Avenue landmark, she likens her service as mayor to a ministry that’s been guided by the question, “What can we do to make the city better?”
Redd believes she’s helped Camden find the right answers, even though many of them have emanated from outside the city.
She’d barely taken the oath of office when one New Jersey political writer dismissed her as a mere “cog” in the Norcross political machine.
“George Norcross is a good friend of mine and a strong advocate for Camden,” she says. “There are always going to be critics of what I did, what I didn’t do, who I associated with.”
When Redd became mayor in January 2010, the municipal government — broke and in many ways broken for decades — had long been under state supervision. But Redd, who campaigned on ending the oversight, quickly persuaded Trenton to hand much of the control back to the city.
“Otherwise, why be mayor?” she says. “I didn’t take a job as mayor just to have a job. I wanted to bring about change.”
The first three years, “we had to endure some of the more difficult times in the history of Camden,” Redd says, adding that the 2011 layoffs of more than 300 police officers, firefighters, and civilian workers were “catastrophic … but we didn’t give up.”
Early in life, Redd learned about perseverance, and loyalty. She was orphaned at age 8; a village of family and friends with roots in the city’s historically black Centerville neighborhood helped raise her and her brother, Kevin.
Dave Redd, her late uncle, was locally renowned for his homemade barbecue sauce and the citywide political picnics he hosted at his Centerville home. When his niece launched her first mayoral campaign in 2009, she made the announcement at a basketball court at Ninth and Central. And it is Centerville, and other neighborhoods, where the folks she calls “my Camden residents” remain her most reliable barometer of success.
So let the critics (“the detractors,” she says) carp all they want.
For my part, I would like to have seen a more independent Redd. I’d like to see a more independent Camden, too. And I remain unconvinced that an impressive array of heavily subsidized mega-projects can fundamentally change the city.
But I do believe that Redd, who is essentially a shy, private person, has been a confidence-building, respect-earning mayor. She has conducted herself admirably and honorably.
“I’d like to thank Camden residents for giving me the greatest honor of my life,” she says.
“I hope I’ve made them proud and I hope I have made the city a better place.”
Yes, Mayor Redd.