Trenton is not only the state capital of New Jersey, but is described by some as the home of the Garden State’s most dysfunctional municipal government.
This year’s election will offer Trentonians a chance to have a clean slate with its municipal government following four years of headlines that embarrassed residents.
“Lots of new council members are running and many of these seats are promising to change hands,” said Daniel Bowen, an associate political science professor at The College of New Jersey.
Twenty-seven candidates are seeking one of the seven open City Council seats. Only one incumbent, Joe Harrison, is seeking re-election to the council.
Incumbent mayor Reed Gusciora faces two challengers currently on City Council, Council President Kathy McBride and West Ward Councilmember Robin Vaughn. Both McBride and Vaughn have been part of a voting bloc that has frozen Gusciora’s agenda in its tracks. Trenton Housing Authority commissioner Cherie Garrette is also vying for the city’s top spot.
Bowen said describing Trenton’s municipal government as dysfunctional is “absolutely” fair.
“Trenton is an excellent example of what you don’t do to manage city problems,” he said. “Constant fighting between the mayor and the council, problems paying the city bills and managing city services, personal insults between the key players. This has been going on for a while and it’s a huge problem.”
The dysfunction of the city is perhaps best represented in a May 2020 conference call, obtained by media outlets at the time, about the city’s response to the COVID pandemic. The call degraded into name-calling between Gusciora and Vaughn before Vaughn went on a profanity-laced, homophobic rant against Gusciora, the city’s first openly gay mayor, and Harrison.
Vaughn’s campaign did not respond to interview requests.
In an August interview with NJ Spotlight News, she said “I’ve moved on from [the call],” adding, “I barely recall it.”
Even the election itself this year was a bone of contention. Mayor Reed Gusciora vetoed a proposal to move municipal elections to November, citing cost concerns and a lack of voter input. The council ultimately overrode the veto and voters overwhelmingly passed the proposal in 2020.
Council President Kathy McBride vs. Mayor Reed Gusciora
McBride, who is serving on council for the second time, is making her second run for the city’s top job.
Before entering politics, she was known for her advocacy work in the community. McBride started the group Mothers Against Violence three decades ago, shortly after her only son was gunned down while visiting home from Delaware State University. Pictures and newspaper articles of her community advocacy adorn the walls of her campaign headquarters on West State Street.
McBride calls criticism of Trenton’s municipal dysfunction a racist and sexist attack on her leadership.
“A Black female is one of the most unprotected and disrespected humans in this nation,” she said. “If it had been any other person sitting in the seat that I am sitting in, it would not be so.”
McBride adds the council is doing its job, serving as a check and balance on the mayor’s power. She said if they saw something they didn’t like based on the law, they challenged Gusciora.
“If most of the times when you get a council and a mayor that agrees lockstep with everything, somebody is rubber stamping something along the way. So there’s no rubber stamps on this council,” McBride said.
A central part of her campaign platform is for Trenton to stand on its own financially. She wants the get the city off of transitional aid, which is money from the state to help municipalities with severe budget issues. She also wants the state to pay its fair share for the amount of space it occupies within the capital city.
“We get $10 million in capital city aid when we should really be receiving triple that amount based on the fact that they pay us in lieu of taxes for the actual buildings that they occupy here in our borders,” McBride said.
Gusciora said the city needs to show it can manage its finances in order to get off of transitional aid.
“Kathy needs to look in the mirror because you have to demonstrate that you have good budgetary acumen,” he said.
He noted that the city’s budget was supposed to be approved by April 29, and it has yet to happen.
“That falls directly on her shoulders,” he added. “We offered the budget in March.”
McBride suggests that when the budget was submitted by Gusciora’s administration, there was information missing.
“We have to make sure that that money is accounted for, that’s our job,” she said. “There’s going to be some back and forth with the administration when we ask for information and it’s not given to us.”
Gusciora, who is white, said the council was provided with all of the information it needed, including an audit and supporting documents.
He adds that race is not a factor in his criticism of her leadership, adding it should have nothing to do with deciding who is the best person to run the city.
If re-elected, Gusciora says he wants to continue focusing on economic development.
“We need to have jobs in the city,” he said. “We need to take care of those abandoned factories on the Roebling Block II. We need to continue renovations of our centers, and we need to continue the economic stabilization that I’ve brought to the city.”
Cherie Garrette, the fourth candidate
The constant bickering between council and the mayor is to blame for keeping Trenton stagnant, said fourth candidate Cherie Garrette, a commissioner with the Trenton Housing Authority
“They don’t realize you represent us, you represent the constituents,” she said. “You’re affecting all of us. Look at the fricking city, we’re suffering here.”
Garette says Gusciora is a politician, adding “we don’t need any more politicians running the City of Trenton.”
Of McBride, Garrette said that the council president should have been prepared for the job before she entered office, especially when it comes to political attacks.
“She’s Black. I’m Black. You know, when you ran in there, you’re going to deal with that situation,” she said. “[She] should have been ahead of it. You know there’s going to be a pushback. This ain’t something new. She was on council before.”
Garrette, a fiscal analyst with the state, wants to lean on her business background to revitalize Trenton, claiming a revamp is needed to attract new businesses to the city.
“We need somebody who can come in there and actually revamp, reorganize, come in and put some systems together,” she said, adding that the key is to ensure that people who live in Trenton are involved with the revamping process, so they feel vested in it.
“I’m hoping that they understand when they’re involved with the revamping of the neighborhoods and with part of their labor, that they love to live in it, support it, pay taxes, and continue to be part of the progress of keeping and maintaining.”
Professor Bowen says the opportunity of a clean slate for the Trenton government is attractive after four years of embarrassing headlines.
“Change is coming in one way or the other, I think, for Trenton,” he said.
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