'People are hungry for change': Camden's mayoral candidates hoping for an upset

Longtime Camden activist, business owner and candidate for Camden Mayor Ray Lamboy campaigns in the Fairview section of Camden on May 9, 2017. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The debate audience was already starting to grumble when a resident submitted a question pleading for Camden’s next mayor to fix the city’s pockmarked streets.

Council President Frank Moran, one of three Democrat candidates and the chosen successor of outgoing Mayor Dana Redd, offered a response familiar to any seasoned Camden politician.

There was no money in the municipal budget to repair infrastructure beneath the streets, Moran said, but he would lean on Camden-based legislators to draw from a state fund earmarked for repairs.

Ray Lamboy, the president of the city’s Latin American Economic Development Association, who has mounted a vigorous campaign against Moran, scoffed. He described badly crumbling streets in parts of East Camden, Moran’s own district.

“Frank Moran has been on City Council for 20 years,” Lamboy said, as people in the audience muttered their agreement. “After 20 years, why isn’t that fixed?”

The winner of Tuesday’s primary is all but certain to become Camden’s next mayor. General elections in the heavily Democratic city of 77,000 are often seen as mere formalities, and in the primaries, which often have voter turnout below 20 percent, candidates backed by South Jersey’s political establishment generally coast to victory.

For decades, Camden has been among the poorest, most crime-ridden municipalities in the state. With a budget largely dependent on state aid, the city’s mayor holds sway over millions of public dollars that go toward paying the city’s bills.

Moran, a lifelong Camden resident groomed for the job by Redd and South Jersey’s Democratic cognoscenti, is seen by many as the presumptive victor. He says a vote for him will continue the course Redd has charted over two terms: commercial growth stemming from generous state business tax incentives, an expansion of charter-public “Renaissance” schools under a state takeover, and a county-run police force that patrols only Camden.

For residents who support Moran, the exchange over street repairs last month at Rutgers-Camden showcased his pragmatism. Impoverished Camden must rely on the county, state or federal government to finance most revitalization projects.

But the moment also captured arguments made against Moran: that he is part of an administration that has disenfranchised the city’s poorest citizens and put political gains ahead of residents’ best interests.

Those seeking an actual race say Camden’s residents deserve more than a coronation.

“There’s a pervasive view that people in the city of Camden don’t have the right or the ability to govern ourselves,” Theo Spencer, a Camden-raised web consultant who is also challenging Moran, said at the debate. “Mr. Moran has been part of that team.”

Lamboy, a former businessman who has for years advocated on behalf of the city’s business community and pushed for local jobs, said in an interview last week that street repairs came up often in his conversations with Camden voters.

“It’s a simple thing, but it tells you a lot about your city,” he said. “People are hungry for change. People have fond memories of these people who have been in office a long time. But they also recognize that promises have not been kept.”

Raymond Lamboy, Frank Moran, and Theo Spencer at the mayoral debate at Rutgers-Camden in May 2017.

Fewer than 2,000 people voted for Dana Redd for mayor in the 2009 primary, with just over 7,100 people voting for her in the general election. Council members draw even smaller numbers; the last time Moran was reelected to Council, in 2015, he garnered 934 votes.

Several residents are vying this year for three seats on City Council. Moran is running with a slate of council candidates: incumbents Curtis Jenkins and Angel Fuentes, and political newcomer Sheila Davis.

Lamboy is running with a ticket of his own: former police officer Tracey Hall Cooper, as well as Namibia El, and Quinzelle Bethea, both of whom work with city youth groups.

Also running: journalist April Saul, a former Inquirer photographer who has worked in Camden for years, as well as Falio Leyba Martinez, and Kadeem Pratt.

Lamboy, 48, moved to Camden from Cherry Hill a decade ago. He and his family operated furniture stores in Camden and Philadelphia. He served on the Camden school board for three years and has become known for advocacy on behalf of the city’s businesses, particularly as corporations began moving to Camden with few jobs to offer city residents.

Lamboy was inspired to run in part by his attempts to create community benefits agreements for those companies to sign, a mission he said was blocked by Redd and members of her administration.

“In another city, those efforts would have been led by the mayor,” he said. “Where are the pathways for our residents to succeed? The career ladder is missing its first few rungs for the typical Camden resident.”

Camden High School graduate Spencer, 41, is also a former school board member. A technology consultant for Accenture, Spencer has proposed a wage tax for the growing daytime population that will soon commute to Camden.

At the Rutgers debate, he asked how Camden would ever gain enough tax revenue to fix potholes if companies are awarded tax incentives.

“You say you can’t find the money?” Spencer asked Moran. “You gave it away!”

Spencer and Lamboy hold similar policy positions, but Spencer said his experience working for companies around the country has given him a broader perspective on strategies for growing a city’s economy. Awarding millions to businesses like Subaru to draw them to Camden, he said, is the “stupidest economic plan imaginable,” and he believes reviving the housing market is key to long-term growth.

“If we don’t get the housing market up and running, the city is hopeless,” he said. “Home ownership is how you build equity. Everybody who’s talking about the city getting better is talking about gentrifying, but there needs to be a compromise for the people who are here now.”

Moran, 48, said in an interview last week that he would prioritize the concerns of people who say they feel shut out by city government.

“No one person is smarter than all of us putting our heads together,” he said. “If I am elected, I’ll be the face of the city, for better and for worse — and I will take responsibility for people’s complaints and their concerns.”

But Lamboy said that it is past time for residents to put their trust in someone new.

“We can continue with the policies of the last 20 years,” he said, “or look to the future.”