At testy Camden mayoral debate, a choice between business as usual or the ‘reset button’

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 Democratic candidates for mayor of Camden debate at Rutgers-Camden University. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Democratic candidates for mayor of Camden debate at Rutgers-Camden University. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One candidate vowed to carry on the policies of outgoing Camden Mayor Dana Redd. Two other mayoral hopefuls said it was time for a change.

The three Democrats running for the top job in Camden, an impoverished city of 77,000 people, squared off in their first debate Thursday ahead of the primary election on June 6, offering contrasting visions for the city’s future. No Republicans are running.

City Council President Frank Moran, the likely frontrunner, said he was proud of what the city has accomplished under the Redd administration, such as switching to a county police force and welcoming a slate of new businesses that have made unprecedented investments in Camden.

“The fruits are in what you see throughout the city of Camden,” said Moran. “I’m running for mayor because I’ve been part of what has been done thus far.”

But if there are those who are unhappy with what has been done thus far, Moran’s opponents are hoping to win them over.

Theo Spencer, a tech consultant and former Camden school board member, criticized the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks awarded through a controversial state program run by the Economic Development Authority.

He said tax abatements awarded to companies such as Subaru, Holtec, American Water, and the Philadelphia 76ers to move to Camden mean that the city will reap lower property tax revenues — and that residents will feel the pain.

“That’s property taxes that are supposed to be coming into the city to fix things,” said Spencer. “You gave the money away!”

Moran countered that those large businesses will help fuel the local economy and create jobs for Camden residents. Spencer proposed a city wage tax that would mostly be paid by out-of-towners.

The third candidate, furniture store owner Ray Lamboy, slammed Moran for failing to fix in his two decades on city council any of the problems he decried in the debate.

“Frank Moran’s been on city council for 20 years,” said Lamboy, recalling the story of a resident who complained of a long-damaged street in Moran’s district. “How can you not come up with a solution for that road in your district after 20 years?”

Moran claimed that Camden was hitting its stride under Redd, who has presided over what boosters have characterized as a “renaissance” in the city.

Companies have made multimillion-dollar investments downtown, and the county police force put a major dent in violent crime, a fact highlighted by former President Obama on a visit to Camden in 2015.

The city has also seen an explosion of charter and Renaissance schools as traditional public schools have closed, a trend criticized by Spencer and Lamboy.

When Redd opted not to run for a third term as mayor, she endorsed Moran. Any criticism that he has been ineffective in office, Moran said, was false. “I’ve been in the trenches when it wasn’t popular to be an elected official, when things weren’t going well.”

But the other candidates pitched themselves as foils to Moran, whom they blamed for being part of a political machine that disenfranchised Camden locals.

“There is a pervasive idea that the people in the city of Camden don’t have a right or an ability to govern ourselves,” said Spencer. “I’m offering a reset button to our residents.”

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