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Camden Candidates Vow Unity

But ethnicity is expected to figure prominently in the June 14 runoff.

By Elisa Ung

May 15 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. All rights reserved.

The two women now competing to be Camden's next mayor are funded by some of the same campaign contributors, have been loyal to the same political structure, and publicly declare they are friendly.

And incumbent Gwendolyn Faison, 80, and Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez, 44, both describe themselves as the candidate who can best unite a diverse city with a history of voting along racial lines.

With the defeat on Tuesday of antiestablishment candidates Ali Sloan El and Keith Walker eliminating the maverick element from the mayoral race, Faison and Cruz-Perez will now have to run against each other. And many say race is likely to figure prominently in deciding who wins the June 14 mayoral runoff.

Sloan El, a councilman who has opposed the city's political structure for years, in the meantime remains a possible factor in the makeup of the city's future government, thanks to a runoff next month for three at-large City Council seats.

His running mates - Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, Jose E. Delgado Jr. and Pamela Robb - will face Cruz-Perez's slate of Dana L. Redd, Luis A. Rodriguez and Curtis Jenkins.

If Sloan El's team prevails, they could control the seven-member governing body.

Upset over some voter irregularities, Sloan El also is asking for a recount and said it was too early to decide whether to endorse, or align himself with, Faison or even Cruz-Perez.

Faison, however, said she would reach out to the councilman and his supporters. "The first thing I'm going to do is try to unite people," she said.

Although Cruz-Perez is the favorite of many powerful Camden County Democrats, and her campaign appears to be enjoying heavy-duty financial support, Faison also is receiving money from party loyalists and has a big ally in Melvin R. "Randy" Primas, a former mayor who - as the city's state-appointed chief operating officer - wields the most power in Camden these days.

But if reelected, Faison could face the prospect of no constituency on City Council. Her only certified Council slate member did not make the runoff, and her 2001 running mates are now allied with Cruz-Perez.

Faison won that election against fellow African American Wilson largely because her 2001 running mate, Councilman Israel Nieves, galvanized the Hispanic vote for the ticket.

But Nieves - who is Cruz-Perez's brother-in-law - has said he became angry at Faison for ignoring the Latinos who helped elect her. In particular, he has cited her failure to help city money flow to a Puerto Rican cultural center he founded that now employs his wife, Cruz-Perez's sister.

Nieves, who did not return calls this week, is not seeking reelection himself but has been heavily involved with Cruz-Perez's campaign.

Cruz-Perez said she decided to run against Faison because the mayor hasn't communicated effectively with the political alliances she built in 2001.

She also says that problems regarding the controversial Cramer Hill redevelopment plan - such as issuing legal notices only in English to Spanish-speaking residents - would never have happened if she were mayor. She is considering the creation of a city office dedicated to advocating for residents.

"The coalition we have is inclusive," Cruz-Perez said, noting her Council slate includes two African Americans. "This is not about Latino against black; this is about one community."

Faison said she fears otherwise.

"If I do not continue to show my integrity and leadership ability, this could become one of the worst African American/Hispanic racial issues we've ever had in the city," Faison said.

Faison said she is now reaching out to churches and ministers as well as Sloan El and his allies to expand her base. "This is an unusual election," she said. "Friends are fighting friends. It's the most difficult one I have been in."

Council candidate Wilson agreed, saying he was preparing for tactics on the part of his opponents during the upcoming Council runoff reminiscent of the negative mailers the city Democrats issued slamming Sloan El. "A vote for Nilsa is a vote for Israel... who draws in race," he said. "I hope it doesn't get to that. I hope it's the best candidate."

Wilson's running mate, Delgado, said he was surprised African Americans did not turn out in higher numbers to vote, given the hot issues of redevelopment.

Delgado said that many Sloan El supporters may vote for Faison next month - but many of them may not even bother showing up.

Profiling the Candidates

Because no candidate got more than half the vote in Tuesday's nonpartisan election, the top two candidates will face a June 14 runoff. The state's recovery act has limited the formal powers of Camden's mayor, who will be paid $100,000 a year. But the act is set to expire in 2007, and the mayor will then inherit unprecedented powers, such as the ability to veto the minutes of independent boards.

Nilsa Cruz-Perez

Cruz-Perez, 44, became the first female Hispanic elected to the state legislature in 1995. The native of Puerto Rico lives in the city's Cramer Hill section, and plans to keep her Assembly seat if she becomes Camden's first female Hispanic mayor. She enjoys support from many top Camden County Democrats. "The first four weeks were the basic training - now it's the real thing," she said of the runoff.

Gwendolyn Faison

Faison, 80, was Council president when Mayor Milton Milan was convicted of corruption in 2000, landing her in the Mayor's Office. She won in her own right in 2001. She says she is a full-time mayor whose power in the recovery period stems largely from her good relationship with the city's powerful Chief Operating Officer Melvin R. "Randy" Primas, who supports her politically. "I'm in a good position to work with the people that have the resources," she said.


Inquirer staff writer Dwight Ott contributed to this article.

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