Dr. Keith Eric Benson: Camden residents needs to push back in mayoral race

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN – The Camden mayor’s race appears to be yet another window into Camden politics in general, so the latest controversy about the race has not surprised veteran city observer Dr. Keith Eric Benson.

Benson, president of the Camden Education Association and longtime city residents, has watched Camden politics for years though defending urban education and pushing back against those dismantling public schools in city neighborhoods.

Frank Moran’s sudden resignation last month and local Democratic Party leaders the same day throwing their support behind Camden councilman Vic Carstarphen to replace him caught many by surprise, except for Benson.

“I was surprised at the mere design of it, but I wasn’t surprised that it happened,” Benson said. “I thought [Moran] was going to finish his term. But this is Camden and Camden public government. They do whatever the hell they want to do. There are no rules. For the people, there really isn’t a mechanism to really pushing back.”

Carstarphen got the ultimate advantage last week when city council selected him to take the mayor’s position for the remainder of Moran’s turn. City Council President Curtis Jenkins had held the position on a temporary basis since Moran left office on April 30.

Moran’s surprise departure and the break-neck support for Carstarphen sparked a sort of a grassroots backlash, though.

“That part was the gut-punch part that made me feel like we can’t allow it to happen, not on our watch,” activist Ronsha Dickerson told WHYY Radio last month. “Most cities that have any sense, a mayor would address their residents or their constituents and say, ‘I’m holding a press conference. I have a major announcement to make.'”

Since then, other candidates have quickly tried to organize their run for Camden mayor. Fellow city councilwoman Felisha Reyes Morton said she is running, attempting to become the first Latina to run Camden.

Camden School Board member Elton Custis has run an aggressive campaign for the seat. Spanish teacher Luis Quinones is also running.

Custis and his team has been vocal this week about council selecting Carstarphen as mayor despite other candidates running for the position.

“They got rid of Frank Moran. Then they got rid of Curtis Jenkins,” Custis said in a statement released by the campaign after a rally Monday. “And then they rigged the system to make Vic Carstarphen the interim mayor. The mayor’s seat has become a game of musical chairs. We cannot let them dictate to us who leads our city. We decide. This is our city and we must take it back.”

“Camden City officials have gone too far this time,” Dickerson, a member of the Camden We Choose Coalition, said. “We the residents are building a culture in our city that reflects the type of city that we deserve.”  

Carmen Lozada-Cooper, a running mate with Custis, said the election is a chance for the city to send a message to Democratic Party leaders.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Lozada-Cooper said. “Well, it’s going to take four wards, 40 districts and 73,562 residents to lift a city.”

Camden is deeply Democratic, which means the elections essentially won during the primaries, where there is often the least interest in voting. By the time voting interest reading its peak, the selections are already made.

According to a recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, primaries usually produce turnouts of less than 20% of voters in this city of 77,000. When Dana Redd because mayor in 2009 she received fewer than 2,000 votes in the primary. In the general election, without strong opposition, she won 7,100 in the general election.

“Because of the mechanics of the way campaigns and elections are run, Democracy is really manipulated and it’s rarely who is the best candidate, but who has the most resources, the biggest megaphone access. That’s when the machine has that full service stuff to bottle you up.”

“The machine” Benson refers to is the state Democratic Party leaders who have a lot of power in their endorsements.

Benson said that he has grown increasing pessimistic about Camden politics and what it would take the change it. While saying he believes grassroots activism can be a powerful tool for change, he believes it may take more – like the courts getting involved – to give the public true access to its city government.

“They can start by breaking up that line,” Benson said about New Jersey ballot positions that has long been a source of complaints by state election reformers. For example, Custis is been place on Line 5 on the ballot, where he may be hard to find by voters casually looking at the ballot. “The way the voting ballot itself is laid out makes it difficult and shows by the powerful protect their own.

“It will probably have to come down to court action or something like that. That’s where I’m at at this point. I’m growing increasingly pessimistic of what people power alone can achieve. I’m not sure if I’ll see in my lifetime, where people power alone can successfully rebuffed money.”

Camden’s June mayoral primary will be yet another test to see how much the city’s grassroots activism has gained.

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