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The Philadelphia Inquirer

City Should Stick With Mother Hen

By Monica Yant Kinney
Inquirer Columnist

28 April 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Just when Camden residents think they can't be any more disrespected by politicians, along comes one of their own wielding a billy club.

What, you didn't hear about Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez's latest campaign promise?

Elect her Camden's first Latina mayor, and you just might get to experience democratic self-rule again. Don't, and you're doomed.

Cruz-Perez vowed that if she lost on May 10 and the "wrong" candidate won, she would use her legislative power to extend state control of Camden.

That would relegate the next mayor to four years of thumb-twirling.

That would make the winner a loser.

Cruz-Perez's target? Councilman Ali Sloan El.

She believes that he's unfit to govern because he's lousy at balancing his checkbook and late paying his bills.

Now I know how reporters covering Gary Hart must have felt when the 1988 presidential candidate challenged them to follow him and find him cheating on his wife.

They accepted, and, sure enough, he was.

Hart wrote his own political obituary with his slip of the tongue.

With her blunder, Cruz-Perez might have started penning hers, too.

The real Camden deal It's too bad, because I kind of liked Cruz-Perez.

She actually lives in Camden, unlike most of the politicians who feast on the city's carcass.

She buys bottled water because, just like her constituents, Cruz-Perez has brown gunk flowing from her faucets.

I once spent an afternoon with the assemblywoman cruising her district.

As she talked about her struggles - a single mother from Puerto Rico, she has been so poor she needed free medical care for her kids - I thought that New Jersey was lucky to have a reality check such as Cruz-Perez in the Statehouse.

Now the streetwise characteristics that Cruz-Perez embraces make her opponent a threat to democracy?

"We need honest, responsible people" running Camden, she said last week at a candidates' forum before The Inquirer's editorial board.

"It would be scary to have Mr. Ali Sloan El in office, because he cannot manage his own finances."

Cruz-Perez must be scared of Sloan El already.

Me, I'm not so much scared as sad.

Sad that Cruz-Perez has threatened to render voting a pointless exercise that many Camden residents already had plenty of reason to avoid.

And sad that the best choice for a desperately deserving city might be the candidate who learned to smile through the state-inflicted pain.

Let freedom ring I'm a big fan of Sloan El's, but he has always struck me as best suited for the role he already has.

Meaning he can probably do more good on the outs than as one of the ins.

As a maverick councilman, he can sling arrows at worthy targets.

As mayor, he'd be someone else's bull's-eye.

Which brings us to the incumbent, Gwendolyn Faison.

As feisty as the mayor is - did I mention she's 80? - she learned to accept defeat, graciously, during the modern-day Battle of Trenton.

During that vicious fight over who would lead Camden's renaissance, a McGreevey messenger told Faison to sit down, shut up, take the $175 million bailout, and be thankful for it.

She did as she was told, turning from mayor to mother hen, from heckler to cheerleader.

"I was on the track," she said, "and I was going to get run over."

Now Faison spends her days attending "community meetings and baby showers," trumpeting the benefits of the recovery plan.

She feels "fortunate" that the state-appointed chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas, involves her as much as he does.

Read the legislation. He has to talk to her, but he doesn't have to listen.

Cruz-Perez's threat aside, state officials might already be plotting to keep their paws on Camden for a few more years.

If that's the case, the people's best shot at a voice might be the enthusiastic, but weakened, one they already have.


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