Saturday, October 17, 2009

Inspiring leaders

I watched Newark Mayor Cory Booker kiss and make up with late night talk show host Conan O'Brien last night, after they spent the better part of recent days trading insults. It started, not surprisingly, with Conan mocking Newark. Newark, and the other New Jersey cities, and, come to think of it, the whole damn state, are often the punchlines to many jokes, and usually, I don't care much because there are 8 million of us jammed into the little telephone booth of a state, and it's because this place is great. It's where everyone wants to be. The way I figure, those on the outside looking in are just jealous.

Sometimes, though, there are morsels of truth in teasing. Newark, like other New Jersey cities, are gritty and suffering. But occasionally, special leaders come along and give everything to improve the lives of those they represent, and they work to honor a place's history. Conan, I'll bet, saw that quality in Mayor Booker, and it moved him. It moved him enough to donate $50,000 of his own money to Booker's Newark Now initiative, and the talk show host was able to get NBC to match that donation, sending Booker home with $100,000. Newark Now helps to provide Newark residents with skills, tools, and support to transform their neighborhoods.

I admit, I once accused Booker of being a big baby because former hockey announcer, Barry Melrose, warned visitors to the Devils' arena of the dangers of Newark, and it sent Booker into a tizzy. What I didn't know is that Melrose had never even BEEN to Newark. When he made it to the city, Melrose was fed and watered and shown about, and he apologized. Although, in my experience, Canadians — and Melrose is Canadian — are very quick to apologize. But I think he, at least, did it publicly.

I think if Trenton had a leader willing to freak the hell out at all of the criticism coming from outside our city, we'd be in much better shape. Instead, our mayor poses for Esquire, and makes cameo appearances in Tyler Perry productions, and buries his face in the buttocks of the Clintons. It's all about Doug, and never about Trenton. You're planning to run again, aren't you Doug? Your big ticket appointments have not been realized, Doug, and somehow, we still have some meat on our bones. Please stop using us, Doug. Please. For all that is good and right.

Why was it an ordinary citizen who delivered the Trenton care package to the jackass who wrote the nasty letter to the editor about our city? Why is it ordinary citizens who tout the city's strengths (and, okay, the weaknesses, too) with their blogs and Twitter accounts? Why are the residents organizing the rallies and vigils?

I'm not looking for the government to do everything for me, but I am looking for my leaders to inspire. That's not happening in Trenton. Doug needs to go.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A quick note to Bill

Dear Mr. Clinton,

I like you, and I reflect back on your years in office as good times in my life. But I can't understand why you've been chumming around with my mayor, Doug Palmer. He supported your wife during her presidential bid, and I can see how that may leave you with an obligatory affection for him. But he was unable to deliver his city's vote to Mrs. Clinton, and I'm quite sure it's because he's so disconnected from the people he's supposed to be serving that he is no longer able to inspire.

He has an adversarial relationship with many of us, and the rest of his constituents are lured to the voting booths with promises of gift cards and fast food if they cast a vote for him.

And yet, he's asked you here to support his green initiative, which is, if not a full-blown sham, way-too-little-too-freakin'-late for him. Sure, Trenton could green up, but it will not happen under Palmer, even though he's been yapping his fool head about the idea to the US Conference of Mayors for the last few years. He's all talk. And back at home, his actions are petty and the backstabbing variety. Speaking of green, he did away with City Hall's recycling program because the guy who headed it up ran against him in 2006. And, oh yeah, then Palmer saw to it that the same guy got fired a short time later.

He's a charismatic man, and he can talk a mean green line, most notably with the "Live Where You Work" campaign, but Palmer, an elected official does not live where he works. Did you live in France while president of the US? No. Because that would be stupid. And wrong. Compounding that lack of green is the shocking amount of waste that gets him back and forth from his Hunterdon County estate to Trenton. He has two drivers, police detectives, actually, earning police detectives' salaries. The car is city-owned and city-fueled. There is a paid police dispatch in front of his abandoned Trenton home. Did I mention that Trenton is a fiscal mess? Did you know he gave himself and his top pals a big raise earlier this year?

Trenton faces the highest urban unemployment rate in New Jersey — higher than Camden, Paterson, and Newark — and has a dense population of unskilled, uneducated workers, a group Palmer brought to the city en masse. I have nothing against the poor; their conditions are heartbreaking. But while Palmer was trading low income housing for quick, suburban cash, Trenton's businesses left. The schools fell apart, both physically and academically, making it nearly impossible for the city's massive poor population to improve their lives. So much of this happened while you were in office, and the rest of the country was booming.

Palmer has missed the boat on every federal or state appointment/endorsement he wanted, but it wasn't for lack of pimping himself. I believe most good politicians look at someone like Doug, then the state of his city, scratch their heads, and decide to call Cory Booker, or some other functioning urban mayor, instead.

I believe in your heart, you are a compassionate, humanitarian sort, and if you have a few minutes next week while you're in town getting adored by our mayor-in-name-only, please take a drive around some of the Marriott's surrounding neighborhoods. I suggest Passaic or Spring Street. Or, head toward Olden on Calhoun. All of Trenton is not like that, I promise, but there are other similar, shattered neighborhoods and compromised lives all over this city. It's unfathomable. It's unacceptable. And, to be fair, it's not 100% Doug's fault, but he dug the graves for so many of Trenton's once flourishing neighborhoods, and you know what? He was too busy trying to impress your wife or make nice with our governor to even attend the funerals.

I hope you get to see some of the other side of Trenton while you're in town. I bet it boggles your mind to be confronted by some of the ruins of Trenton, ruins that stink of the Third World. In the state capital! In New Jersey!

Please do not associate with our mayor. He's just going to use your visit as a way to impress the large amount of people in this city with voter cards, but without the resources to buy a newspaper to learn about what's happening here. To them. And, under Palmer's watch, the public libraries almost fell apart, and now hours and resources have been cut, making it more difficult for the city's poor to get online. Palmer is charming and dangerous, like a snake, and you need to know that.

I'm not saying don't visit Trenton. We'd love to see you. Instead of hanging with Doug, please consider visiting one of the many groups here who actually works with, and cares about, the city's poor. Not that I'm opposed to a green initative, but since it's coming from Doug, I'd rather see your time and efforts in this city actually count for something.

Christine Ott

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Patricia Stewart for South Ward

I live in the East Ward, and therefore, my opinions on the goings on of the South Ward may seem irrelevant. No matter. I'm going to offer them anyway: there are only three serious contenders for the council seat vacated by Jim Coston.

Paul Harris
In the world outside of Trenton, Paul Harris would not be a serious contender for the open council seat in his ward, but this IS Trenton, where things do not always, or often, make sense. He's received some important endorsements, and to his credit, Paul has an ability to communicate well, and I admire his persistence. He is clearly the most interesting and complicated candidate, which — I'll say this up front — is by no means an endorsement, even if I use more words and space to explain him.

A few weeks ago, someone — not Carlos Avila, who is running against Paul Harris for the open council seat — logged onto the Trentonian's comment section on their website, posed as Carlos Avila, and made some racist comments. Oddly, The Trentonian, considering the plethora of shockingly depraved comments that go unchecked every day, traced the IP address. It was discovered that the comments made by El Carlos Falso came from Paul Harris's computer. Paul quickly blamed his campaign worker, much the same way Ashley Simpson did a jig and blamed her band after her botched Saturday Night Live performance a few years ago. Of course, I think Paul's story — like Ashley's — is fishy. Campaign worker? Who was immediately dismissed? My ASS. I'm not terribly surprised, because Paul has also engaged in questionable antics on the TrentonSpeaks website, namely, posting, and then deleting, a load of inflammatory commentary he posted himself.

I'm not dismissing Paul's — err, his campaign worker's — behavior, because posing as your rival and posting racist comments is pretty deplorable, but I can't get totally lathered up about this, because the comment section of the Trentonian's website is a total cesspool of racism, sexism, and pure, undirected hatred, with the bulk of the regulars having, at most, a second grade education. Whoever thought the comment section of any online news outlet would be an area of intelligent debate must be bitterly disappointed, because no one with half a brain could take anything said on any of those sites seriously, and remember, we're talking about the Trentonian. I mean, this is the same paper with the hate-filled "Back Talk" column, the Page Six Whore, and (in my opinion) a racist, albeit award-winning columnist. Besides, there are probably 100 people a day who should be arrested for what they write on the Trentonian's site, with people posing as other people ALL THE DAMN TIME, because of the free-for-all way the geniuses at The Trentonian decided to run their comment section. Frankly, it makes no sense to me they'd trace the IP address of some obviously idiotic political comments, when there's probably not a single registered voter (or anyone else) who takes that drivel seriously. Still, shame on Paul.

If I put this incident aside, which is difficult, I see an underdog — a newcomer who rents — who seems to care about the city's biggest problems. He seems absolutely intolerant of crime and quality of life issues, and that impresses me. He's intelligent, well-spoken, and also immature, kind of emotionally disengaged from the other humans, and completely in love with his own reflection (make sure you get your collar up perfectly, Paul).

Paul Harris and council president Paul Pintella have a contentious history. Despite this, I see Harris as part of the same-old, same-old crew, which Pintella belongs to, too. He's too easily wooed by those with power and money, and that's just kinda yucky.

Despite all of this, if Paul wins, I wouldn't be THAT upset. After all, the position is for just for a few months. Maybe, he'll prove me wrong, which would be ideal. But mostly, if Paul wins, I'm hoping for some epic feuds between him and the Idiot Prince Pintella. If that's not a reason to attend council meetings regularly, I don't know what is.

Carlos Avila
In American congressional history, 7 women in the Senate and 35 in the House have assumed their seats through the deaths of their husbands. This trend is called the Widow's Mandate, and has also occurred in other areas of politics. But what happens if the politician is only dead to us, and is moving, along with his living wife, to Waco, Texas, and the intended successor is a dude? Well, then, Carlos Avila is appointed to finish the term! At least, that's what could have happened in the South Ward had The People not freaked the hell out. An appointment is less than ideal, but historically, those appointed to the unexpired term do no harm, since presumably, they share attitudes and philosophies with the elected-but-now-gone. I don't see it as an affront to American democracy, even if the practice of an appointment is a bit old-fashioned. It doesn't bother me one bit that Jim Coston, prior to his departure, wanted Carlos to finish the last few months of his term; it IS just a few months, after all; and while it boggles my mind that Coston couldn't have just hung on until May, what's done is done. Jim, one of the only members of council with a consistent backbone and brain, trusted Carlos enough to suggest he continue his good work, and maybe it's stupid or unamerican for me to admit this, but the Widow's Mandate-style appointment of Carlos really was good enough for me. But now that there's an election looming, and I've had a chance to get to know a bit more about Carlos, I still can't complain. He is young, and maybe naïve, and his expectations might be a bit off-base for what the position actually entails, I do think he's more than capable of finishing Coston's term and serving his ward effectively. This will allow him to find his own footing so that he could run for a full term in the near future. This is a great opportunity for Carlos, and it could be good for the South Ward, as well.

Patricia Stewart
If one of the two guys above wins the South Ward seat, honestly, I can't be too upset because I think The Paul Show will be "must-see," and I think Carlos will do his very best. And the position is just for a few months. And I don't live in the South Ward, anyway. There's another election in May, so if whoever wins blows it — or not! — we will have to endure all of this crap again (thanks, Jim!). In the best case scenario, it makes the most sense to get someone in that seat who knows the ropes, who isn't full of ego, or horseshit, to help get this city back on track, and right away, because Trenton is a disaster, thanks to years of mismanagement and neglect. Pat Stewart, a long-time resident of the city, successful career woman, and community activist, has the right blend of experience, toughness, insight, and love of Trenton, to finish out Coston's term, and hopefully, she can go on to win a full-term seat of her own in May. She isn't a politician, yet her years of attending council meetings and appointments on various boards have taught her how the system works. She often does not agree with the Powers-That-Be, but she seems to have a good working relationship with that entity, and everyone else in the city. She's able to do that without making the mistake of trying to please everyone: she's simply respectful and dignified. If you have a question about Trenton, Pat can either answer it or direct you to the person who can. She has the smarts to know the important issues facing Trenton and her ward, and the ability to get us back on track. I love her no bullshit attitude, and the fact that she's willing and capable of putting aside her own opinions to better represent the whole. She is not running to launch a career in politics: she has seen what those sorts of people have done to the city, and I hope she can clean up their mess.

An aside, but an important one: Pat lost her husband too soon, forcing her to raise her son in Trenton alone. Not only has Pat been able to manage single motherhood and a career in city where many can't handle just one of those things, she excelled at it. And her success in raising her son is an inspiration to me, as a mother of a little boy in a tough city, myself. Nick has grown into a fine man, and it's because Pat has her head on straight, and is able to navigate through adversity. Her ability to prioritize shows that she's more than capable of holding a council seat to help our city through this adverse period. Besides, Pat Stewart knows the mayor, but if her son, Nick, were pulled over by the police, I'd bet good money he wouldn't call his mom at the scene to bail him out, and I'd bet even more, she wouldn't show up and berate the officers. And, that's the way it should be.

Trenton needs Pat Stewart.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Some compare and contrast

Okay, I admit it. I've pretty much jumped on the "Cory Booker is Great" train. Cory Booker, Newark's visionary mayor, looks especially appealing to me, a Trenton resident, who is enduring one of lamest mayors in recent history. So, Booker can't help but look good. But I don't want to take away from his awesomeness, either. He would still rock the house, even if he weren't standing next to the steamy, stinky pile of poo that is Trenton's mayor, Doug Palmer.

I'm not really the gushy sort, and because I tend to write about the goings on in Trenton, and some of the dysfunction in my life, I will use the Booker inspiration to illustrate just how thoroughly lame my mayor, Doug Palmer, is.

Booker vs Palmer on salary
First, since both cities, Newark and Trenton, are facing horrible financial woes, let's look at salaries. Booker took office in 2006, after years of mismanagement, and during an economic downturn; he inherited a mess. And he did the right thing: former Newark mayor, Sharpe James, was making about $200,000; Booker reduced his salary TWICE since taking office, and is now making in the ballpark of $130,000. Newark's population is approximately 280,000.

Doug Palmer, who took office in 1990, and had a starring role in the economic gutting of the capital city, presides over 80,000. That's 200,000 people LESS than in Newark. Earlier this year, he railroaded city council to approve raises for himself and other top (and extraneous) administrators. He gave himself a $13,000 raise in the shittiest economic climate in recent memory, from $126,000 to $139,000 a year.

Just to put this in perspective, state law allows the governor of New Jersey to make a maximum of $175,000. Governor Jon Corzine accepts a token salary of $1 a year.

Booker vs Palmer on executive waste
Booker has 16 members in his executive cabinet. None of them have received pay increases since Booker took office in 2006. In fact, Booker implemented a 2% pay cut for managers and directors currently earning more than $100,000 a year. Booker slashed the city budget deficit from $180 million to $73 million.

Because of a lack of transparency, or a lack of vision, or both, it's very difficult for the general public to figure out how many people are in Palmer's executive cabinet, but it is as least as large as Newark's, again, a city with 200,000 more people than Trenton. Palmer saw to it that his top cronies received a 10% pay RAISE earlier this year. Citizens, by the way, have filed suit against Palmer for these pay increases for himself and his staff. If the citizens win, Palmer and friends will be forced to repay more than $460,000 to the city, which can help, if even a wee bit, to plug a $20 million budget shortfall in the city.

Booker vs. Palmer on commitment to their cities
Booker lives in Newark. In fact, for awhile, he lived in a neighborhood that's been described as a drug-and-gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded up houses; that building has since been demolished. I mention it, because Booker could live anywhere in the city, but instead chose a horrible neighborhood, to make a point: neighborhoods like that should not exist; people should not have to live in those conditions; things should never get so bad. Palmer owns a home in the safe Hiltonia neighborhood of Trenton, and is occasionally seen there. But he also owns a home in Hunterdon County where he is rumored to spend much of his time. Palmer does not feel strongly about residency since he involved himself in the losing side of a lawsuit against him and his crony, former Trenton Police Director, Joseph Santiago. Santiago, by the way, also worked for former Newark mayor, Sharpe James; James is now in federal prison in Virginia serving a 2-year-and-then-some sentence on corruption charges.

Booker has regular office hours for citizens to drop in and discuss their concerns. He has round-the-clock meetings and appointments, and attends many of the social functions held in Newark. Has anyone seen Doug, even on East State Street, lately?

Booker vs. Palmer on crime
During Trenton's Santiago years, we heard the mantra "Crime is Down," with little evidence to back that up. And the reality on the streets was very different from the administrative line. Gangs dug their heels in; citizens were beaten and robbed for as little as $5 and a sandwich; violent crime — at least in some areas of the city — has not gone decreased. A girl was murdered this summer at an anti-violence rally, while Doug Palmer was likely at home, in Hunterdon County.

Cory Booker's main goal as mayor was to reduce crime in his city, and in his three years, has made major improvements. As of July 2009, murder is down 42%, and other violent crimes have dropped dramatically as well. Booker shows up at crime scenes; Booker talks to the grieving families; he attends the vigils. Booker has organized late night strolls through his city's toughest streets with bands of citizens to send a clear message to the criminal element that their antisocial behavior is not appreciated. He rides with the police during the overnight shifts.

Booker vs. Palmer on reputation
Recently, some lame-o wrote a letter to the editor to the Trenton's Star Ledger office about how horrible Trenton is, and in response many Trenton residents got pissed off (Miss Karen, of, by the way, wrote so well about the incident). Like Karen said, the truth is always murkier, than what opposing sides say. There are some totally shit things about Trenton; if it were all rainbows and lollipops, I sure as hell would find something better to do with my time than bitch so much. I think. But there are some great things too; some wonderful people. Some of them are well-known, and some of them are not. There is beautiful architecture, and lovely gardens, and despite the persistent rumors, so many delicious places to eat. There are fantastic activities all over the city, all the time, due to the very hard work of just a few people. And, knock wood, despite the prevailing thought that Trenton is just a violent cesspool, I have never experienced bodily injury, and I live in what many folks consider to be the Wilbur section. I haven't even experienced much in the way of property crimes. When things are good over here, it's downright suburban. But sometimes it's not so suburban, and the amount of work to maintain some level of normalcy is just infuriating. If I were slightly less stable than I am, I could possibly justify taking out a few of my neighbors for the betterment of the neighborhood, and sleep well at night. But I'm not THAT crazy. Yet.

My complicated relationship with the city aside, there have been many, many opportunities for development to succeed here. We're in such a great spot, you know? I'm not saying that every business venture in Trenton has been a failure, but one cannot objectively look at this place and call it booming. There has been a lot of dismal failure. A lot of bad planning.

On the flip side, developers are starting to knock on Cory Booker's door. Newark is receiving philanthropy money. That's not to say that the same isn't happening in Trenton, but it's not happening on the same scale; there are so many obstacles to success here.

As far as mayors' reputations go...
Cory Booker has made it clear that his commitment is to Newark. President Barack Obama had expressed interest in Booker joining his team in Washington; Governor Corzine ask Booker to run this year as his Lt. Governor. Booker is staying in Newark, and said he'll run for his seat again in 2010, because his work in Newark isn't done.

Douglas Palmer, a career politician of the self-serving kind, has been trying to get the attention of bigger politicians for a long time, and, by and large, he's been passed over for any of the important jobs.

Booker vs. Palmer on politics
Booker, certainly a "Johnny-Come-Lately" (meaning "not born here") to local politics and Newark at the time, first ran against Sharpe James in 2002. Among other things, Booker was said to be "not black enough" to understand the city.

Here in Trenton, the newcomers are called "Johnny-Come-Lately," and their thoughts and opinions are summarily dismissed by the current administration. Palmer refers to his critics as "haters."

I've only skimmed the surface. But the other bloggers have done a more thorough job detailing the mess that Trenton's in, so be sure to check out some of the links on the right. Between my skimjob and the more thorough reports, suffice it to say, Trenton needs its Johnnies-Come-Latelies and haters. Cory Booker, a JCL and hater in his own town, is just one man. One man who has inspired so many. Maybe we can find some of that energy and hope here.