It’s been a week since the New Jersey primaries, and there’s a lot to digest. There’s the expected results for Governor, the Cherry Hill primary challenge, and, of course, the Camden mayoral and City Council races. I’ll be addressing all of these over the next week or so. Let’s dive in and start with the Camden elections.
Simply put, there was no significant challenge to City Council President Frank Moran. Similarly, his slate of City Council candidates crushed the opposition.
That means a few things for the victors. First, it reflects the structural advantage that the party has in New Jersey primaries. Much as we saw in the governor’s race, structural advantages such as “the line” — in which voters can vote straight down a single line for party candidates — are a lot to overcome in the primary. But I think the dominance of Moran’s effort also squashes a few peripheral discussions that I’ve been hearing in Camden. First, Moran is not a weak candidate — he’s respected in certain Camden communities, particularly Latino communities where I was surprised to see support from individuals quite skeptical of the local Democratic party. Similarly, it does not seem that running against the major changes in education, policing and incentives to bring business to the city caught on with the public, though it’s always difficult to tell how much of that is because challenging candidates face such an uphill institutional climb to reach voters and how much of it is because of a flawed message. But I think it’s fair to read it this way; opposition to education, policing and economic development policies of the last few years was not enough to light a fire under the Camden electorate.
As we move to a general election, attention will turn to whether a candidate will enter the race as an independent (I heard rumors, but believe the deadline has passed — plus I believe the institutional and structural advantage is even greater in the general, where many have Democratic loyalty and its easier to paint independents as conservative), and who will fill Frank Moran’s seat on City Council. It’s an interesting question, and I’m disinclined to believe rumors that Falio Leyba was a “plant” to split votes. I think this rumor comes from Leyba’s previous position in the Parking Authority, and his affiliation with Moran. But my guess is that we’re going to see a fresh face in that council seat — something that’s important as the bench gets thinner and thinner in Camden, and South Jersey seems to be once again pushed to the periphery as a North Jersey politician takes center stage for the party. Camden and South Jersey more broadly need an influx of new talent and it’s one of the saddest aspects of the “loyalty” approach taken by the party that much of the potential bench is either blacklisted or alienated from party operations. I’ve made the case here before, and will talk about it again when discussing Murphy’s victory in the gubernatorial primary, but the Democratic party loses when it gets so parochial that anyone who shows dissent is “off the team.”
I’m hesitant to say too much parsing the Column 10 candidates. Clearly, ballot position was a factor and being put on the same “line” as others hurt some candidates. My instinct is that race was more of a factor than some expected. Many of the city’s black activists rallied around Spencer as the only black candidate in the race. Lamboy suffered not only from competition in the Latino community from Moran, but also from a broader lack of a base. Many local activists spend years (even decades) building up strong followings in specific communities. While that may not translate into city-wide votes, it’s a critical starting point for gathering volunteers and establishing credentials with city residents.
Speaking of starting points, I think this election shows several additional factors. 1) the structural and institutional challenges, as well as historic democratic disenfranchisement of Camden voters, mean this is not a one election problem and 2) to seriously run for office in Camden requires a much longer campaign than essentially starting when petitions are due. Likely, that requires significant infrastructure to deal with “mail-by-vote” — something I’ll talk more about in the Cherry Hill round-up.
But I think, if you’re taking a long-term view of Camden’s democratic disenfranchisement, this was a subtly important election. Candidates tried to put together serious retail campaign infrastructure with volunteers (Lamboy’s slate), radio advertisements (Spencer’s campaign) and video endorsements on social media (April Saul) and even some policy discussions (like what we did here on the blog).
Simply put, the campaigns were more professionalized than in years past, and while it was not reflected in a closer election, it was reflected in an increase in turnout and in increased pressure for democratic norms like debates. That’s good news for Camden.
Taking a step back, if this is not a one election problem, this election was an important step towards having a more robust election process (something that I think is critical not just for opposition candidates, but also for an establishment that needs to tap into grassroots excitement in the age of Trump). There are important lessons, about the need for coordination with gubernatorial campaigns (my understanding is that this is why all the “opposition” candidates were squashed onto a single line), as well as the campaign infrastructure necessary to run in a serious, competitive way.
One of the reasons I was relatively higher on Lamboy’s slate was that I believe it’s important for these lessons — and this political training — to be captured by candidates who will be involved in future elections. By running a slate of candidates, Lamboy exposed a number of young Camden activists to a relatively professional campaign. I’m more interested in seeing those types of pipelines emerge, where young Camden residents have a chance to be a part of important reflections as a way to build their skills for when they themselves consider office. If this is a more than one election building of infrastructure, it’s important that this knowledge is captured and dispersed to future leaders. If the knowledge of what it takes to compete in city elections dies with individual candidates, these challenges become essentially vanity runs for office that put individual candidates in the public eye for a short period of time with little chance to win. That’s why the rumblings I hear about some of the candidates getting together to share notes is refreshing and important.
I’m curious where those efforts go, and am similarly curious if we are moving beyond a “referendum” of the last five years of policy changes. I believe that while those policy changes have bright spots, that they’ve deeply damaged Camden by stripping residents of their rights and prioritizing inefficient and poor policy. But, Camden residents are nothing if not pragmatic, and appear to have accepted (for now) these reforms in a way that is different that the progressive uprising seen in Newark. I’m curious what the next set of reforms will be, and how the values shared by candidates in this election (local jobs in particular) play out over the coming years.