New Jersey’s capital city once a landmark rich in colonial-era history is now a municipality struggling to survive the taint of a corrupt administration, high crime, and poor schools.
Residents now have a chance for a new start when they choose their next mayor on May 13. The winner of this election will take office July 1.
In February, then-mayor Tony Mack was removed from office, following his conviction on six counts of bribery and extortion. Elected four years ago, Mack’s time as mayor was filled with controversy, and according to acting Mayor George Muschal, an inability to govern, as evidenced by the mess Muschal says Mack left behind. “18,000 emails he never opened up in his computer. Bills that haven’t been paid in years. Vendors he hasn’t gotten back to,” said Muschal.
Muschal says Mack mistreated so many city workers, Trenton is awash in lawsuits, “A million dollars. For a million dollars I could have bought garbage trucks that we need. Instead I’m going to give it out to lawsuits.” Muschal though recently got himself into hot water over his firings of two top city directors being accused by his critics as acting like a dictator. Muschal, who’s also council president, is not one of the six candidates for office. Today, we profile two of them.
Candidate: Eric Jackson
The frontrunner is Eric Jackson, who nearly forced a runoff election against Mack in 2010. Jackson’s resume is in banking and in government: he’s currently public works director for the city of Plainfield.
“I love Trenton. And I love Trenton because this is where I grew up, and I saw growing up safe parks, clean parks, safe streets where it seemed everybody had a job, and they could take care of their families, and there wasn’t crime of this magnitude,” said Jackson.
Trenton is struggling with crime. The police department laid off nearly a-third of its force in 2011, but has rehired a few dozen of the hundred-plus let go. Still, crime is up with 37 homicides last year.
Jackson says reducing crime is a big picture problem. “We need more cops on the street. But that’s only a part of what we all recognize. We understand, or certainly I understand that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem as well. We have to bring our faith-based leaders together, our business community together, our educators together, and use a comprehensive approach to: how do we combat the gang violence, one, the guns in the street, and then alternatives that individuals will need?”
Keeping young people out of gangs is a huge challenge since Trenton’s high school graduation rate is not quite 49 percent. Jackson wants families to be more involved. “I’ve been out with non-profits, with educators here in the city, across the state, talking about how do we effectively engage parents in the process as one step, which I think is a major step, to help them be a part of this life-long education process.”
Trenton’s taxes rose nearly two-and-a-half percent this year, stressing homeowners and businesses. Jackson says one remedy would be to ask the state to transfer some of its downtown parking lots to the city. He says the lots are in a location perfect for new businesses and housing. “It overlooks the river, and if we can do some very good, mixed use, retail residential housing, and some nice combination of development with our transit hub, we can create a revenue stream through ratables, that will make us not ask the governor for special allocations, but we can be responsible to building up our own community, and creating a transit hub right off the river, that would be very attractive to many people.”
Candidate Jim Golden
Another front-runner is former Trenton police director Jim Golden.
“As a retiree here in Trenton, I’m not at all happy with the direction of the city, particularly as it relates to governance. So I’m stepping up in this race, for one simple reason, and that is to help move the city of Trenton in a vastly different direction, and the direction of course is forward,” said Golden.
With his police background, Golden says he’s best equipped to tackle Trenton’s crime problem. He would try to add 50 new officers in his first year as mayor, and says he would work to develop relationships with the state, county and other entities to win funding.
“I think to the extent that we can demonstrate that we have highly qualified, competent, ethical leadership in City Hall, I believe, that the governor and those other individuals and agencies are poised, right now, to step in and help us. I think they want to do that,” said Golden.
In addition: Golden says it’s time to re-open Trenton’s four shuttered libraries. “It’s a formula for disaster. It’s no wonder we broke records for homicides and shootings and other violent crime, when we’re shutting down libraries, and we’re not doing the very basic things that help to prevent and mitigate crime problems,” Golden said.
Golden’s plan for jump-starting Trenton’s economy, is trying to attract young college graduates and professionals. But young couples looking to start families look for good schools. Golden’s first education goal is improving Trenton’s graduation rate to 75 percent in four years. Even though the state provides the lion’s share of funding to the schools, he says Trenton needs to step it up.
“The city can do a better job of providing the additional layers of support around student and family social services. For example, those layers are required before children arrive for school. I think that too many of those layers are missing right now, and the city can step in to mitigate that void,” said Golden.