As a New Jersey lawmaker, Reed Gusciora led battles to legalize gay marriage and medical marijuana long before the two causes won popular approval across the country. In 2012, Gov. Christie singled him out for ridicule before following through on a threat to veto the Democratic assemblyman's hard-fought marriage equality bill.
The following year, the right of gays and lesbians to marry was the law of the land.
Now, after 22 years of shaking things up in the Statehouse, Gusciora is the first openly gay mayor of Trenton and the first white mayor in nearly three decades to lead the capital city, where minorities are a majority.
He will face markedly different challenges in his new role.
Two months ago, Trenton made national headlines when a fatal shooting spree at the city's annual all-night Arts Festival sent hundreds running for their lives and drew attention to spiraling street violence in the city of 80,000. One shooter was killed and 22 were injured when a gang-related dispute exploded.
In an interview one month after his inauguration, Gusciora laughed when asked why he decided to make the leap to mayor.
"Lack of therapy," he joked.
On a more serious note, he said he moved to Trenton in 2011 and has witnessed its decline in recent years.
"You can pass as many bills as possible, but to get things done, you need to be in center court. … As a mayor, you can do stuff. If someone needs a pothole filled or trash picked up … you can effectuate change," he said.
Gusciora, 58, who lives in a turn-of-the-century Colonial-style house with his two cats, has been on a wild ride these first 30 days, meeting with people at sports events, churches, concerts, business conferences, and town halls.
Among the latest visitors to his office were medical marijuana dispensary representatives from California and Colorado to express interest in setting up shop in Trenton after the state approves a new round of licenses in the coming weeks. Gusciora said he wants Trenton to become "the first city to market itself as a place that is open to a medical marijuana business" and said City Council will consider streamlining the approval process.
Gusciora's razor-thin victory was a surprise. Seven candidates ran for mayor in the nonpartisan race, including five African Americans who split the black vote. A runoff election was ordered when no one received a clear majority and Gusciora then won by a few hundred votes against Paul Perez, who had been expected to win and become the city's first Hispanic mayor.
Earlier this month, Gusciora attended a free summer concert in Trenton and asked Sarah Dash, a Trenton native and entertainer who once sang with Patti LaBelle, to open her set with "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." It's known as a black national anthem and a spiritual rallying cry for African Americans. She agreed and called him up to the stage.
"That was a very savvy move by the mayor," said Kim Pearson, a journalism professor at the College of New Jersey who raised her children in Trenton and who frequents music and art events in the city. "He is certainly aware that Trenton is very much a city of neighborhoods, and that families are closely tied to neighborhoods, with strong ethnic divisions and affiliations."
Pearson said she hopes Gusciora will help the "city start believing in itself again." Pointing to his years in the Statehouse, she said "the city needs somebody who can deal with the legislature, and who is on good terms with the governor's office."
Tom Gilmour, executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, said that Gusciora has been a "frequent attender" at the summer concerts and that he "dances in the crowd." Gilmour said he looks forward to working with Gusciora to improve parking downtown and noted that, as an assemblyman, Gusciora had pushed through a bill that will restore sales tax breaks to help revitalize the city.
Gusciora also has met with residents to hear their concerns about gun violence and abandoned houses and trash and said he will take action to address these issues.
During the campaign, he said, the only time his sexual preference was raised was when an 80-year-old woman spoke at a meeting held at a church and said: "I don't care what you do in your bedroom, but I want to know who is going to fill the potholes."
Jay Lassiter, a longtime Statehouse lobbyist for gay rights and medical marijuana who lives in Cherry Hill, said Gusciora was the first lawmaker in the state to speak openly about his sexual orientation, back in 2006.
"Coming out is hard. It's about changing hearts, and minds, and laws, and that's something that he did. That took courage," said Lassiter, who also is gay.
Lassiter also said it was admirable for Gusciora to "leave his cushy job in the legislature for 22 years" and take on the responsibility of running a capital city that's in need of a lot of care.
"Our challenge is getting the city moving again. … We have to double our efforts," Gusciora said.
An attorney who graduated from Seton Hall University of Law, Gusciora in his spare time bikes, hikes, skis, and dabbles in art. His office at the municipal building, a few blocks from the Statehouse, features a prominent poster of President Obama, with the title "Change."
A former municipal prosecutor, Gusciora is also an adjunct professor at the College of New Jersey, where he has taught classes like "The politics of marijuana", "LGBT politics," and "The Legacy of Watergate," which compares the investigations of the Nixon and the Trump administrations.
Gusciora was sworn into office only a few days after a shooting erupted at the volunteer-run Arts Festival. He had attended earlier that night, before the bullets flew. The shooting at the popular arts festival, which he said draws 30,000 people to the 24-hour event each year, has sparked fear in the city and has hurt its reputation. But he vowed that next year's event will return and will be "bigger and better." It also will have more of a police presence and possibly a checkpoint at the entrance and other security set-ups.
Algernon Ward Jr., a lifelong Trentonian and city activist, is optimistic that Gusciora can bring change, but said it will be difficult. He noted that the new mayor has already experienced a few setbacks.
Gusciora ran on a platform that he would be "able to leverage his relationship with the governor" to get more funding for Trenton, but Gov. Murphy surprised him and others when he cut promised funds from the recently approved budget, Ward said.
Ward, a retired research scientist who campaigned for Gusciora when he ran for assembly, said Gusciora understands how budgets work and still has time to negotiate a financial package to help the struggling city. "We will be watching," said Ward, who is African American.
He said Gusciora, as a white man, will also need to show that "he is equipped to understand the issues that confront the largest groups in the city. … Can he relate to our issues … from more than just being an observer?"
The city currently is about 40 percent black, 40 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent white, said Ward, who ran for council.