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No One Looks Good on This

My advice to the members of Trenton’s City Council: Shut Up Already!

Nothing you are saying, or not saying, is helping. In fact, every time you open your mouths and try to clarify, or support, or defend, you only succeed in being yet more offensive, and digging yourselves in deeper. You are also showing that you have horrible political instincts, and have learned nothing in your five years on the job. Just Stop!

I’m talking, of course, about the unfortunate mess in City Council Chambers. In case you missed the video, here is a clip:

This should have been a one-day local story. “Trenton Tempers Boil in steamy August Heat” could have been the theme. The shocking loss of decorum in Chambers should have been apologized for by all parties that night, or the morning following. The whole thing would have embarrassing, but it would have blown over. We’ve seen behavior nearly as bad before, and it always blows over. But, no. The members of this Council have an almost unerring instinct to make themselves look as bad as they can, as long as they can. We are on track now to keep this story alive until the end of next week, ensuring that what could have been forgotten in a day will have a life of at least two weeks, and probably longer. And, although it’s now a story that’s running statewide, at least we can be thankful it hasn’t gone national or global. Yet. That kind of attention is usually paid to Trenton on matters only relating to toilet paper or Tony Mack. But I repeat myself.

Of course, I realize I am doing my part in prolonging this story myself. But mine is only a small role. The main players in this unhappy incident are far more to blame. Here’s how.

South Ward George Muschal provoked the outbreak of hostilities during Thursday’s session, by making an open accusation that West Ward Member and Council President Zachary Chester’s aide “made phones [sic] calls to have these prominent individuals who are highly respected in the community to come in and manufacture stories pertaining to me in order to put me in a bad light.” This was the statement that apparently lit the fuse that set the meeting on an explosive course.

You’d think Mr. Chester and the rest of Council would have been better prepared to respond to this kind of accusation short of rushing the South Ward Councilman. Mr. Muschal has a long history of making incendiary comments and charges in Council meetings, after all, the effect of which is to dilute his more credible accusations and make it difficult to distinguish them from ones which are, well, less so.

It’s no one’s fault but Mr. Muschal’s, for example, that Googling the phrase “George Muschal dog masturbation” returns some actual results. I’m not kidding.

I’ll leave that one right there. But that is a perfect illustration of how Mr. Chester should have been prepared with a response to Muschal’s charge of personal attack. But he didn’t.

Mr. Chester responded to the charge by angrily responding, first with words then with rising from his chair to confront Mr. Muschal. This resolved, in the words of the Trenton Times’ reporter Cristina Rojas, when “Council members then had to hold the two back from getting into a physical fight.”

For being the one to turn this battle of words into a physical confrontation, Mr. Chester has to bear sole blame. His action last Thursday night, on its own, represents a shocking break of decorum, and perhaps an irreparable loss of his leadership stature. His behavior since then takes the “perhaps” out of my feeling.

After Thursday’s Council meeting, Mr. Chester posted on his personal Facebook page a note which began, “I had a momentary lapse in judgement after being accused of violating the public trust. I overreacted and plan to formally apologize before my colleagues and the general public at our next City Council meeting [on September 3]. There is one thing I want to make clear though. I will vigorously defend myself against unfounded accusations.” Far from an apology, he only promised to apologize. A full two weeks after the incident. Also, as of yesterday, he has reportedly made no attempt to reach out individually to his colleagues to speak with them to explain his actions.

That’s not behavior that I find remotely acceptable. I cannot think of any comparable setting, personal or professional, in which an intention to address one’s own actions so long after the fact would be thought proper. Had this been an office or workfloor environment between colleagues, management would have had all parties down to HR for action immediately afterwards. Had this been a playground of school cafeteria fight (which this most closely resembles), everyone would have been off to the principal. But to wait another week for the next act in this melodrama, which may not even be the final one? What’s up with that?

The main point is, regardless of its truth Mr. Chester allowed a verbal accusation to provoke him to a physical response. That is shocking and unacceptable in an elected official. Sharp elbows are part of the game. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and all that. Mr. Chester’s actions, and his response since Thursday, fall short on every level. Personal, professional and political. It will be hard to forget this.

Another member of Council is doing her part to keep this story alive, to no obvious benefit, but with the absolutely unwarranted and un-called-for added ingredient of adding gender politics and sexual violence to the mix. First in a “News Advisory” released on Tuesday evening, then in a press conference yesterday in Council Chambers, At Large Member Phyllis Holly-Ward alleged that she sustained physical and emotional injuries during Thursday’s fracas, and felt the urge to publicly inform the world of those injuries. Ms. Holly-Ward alleged physical pain and bruising in her legs as a result of the physical altercation, resulting from her chair (between Councilmembers Muschal and Chester) being pushed into the Council dais when Chester rushed Muschal. She then took the whole matter further.

In Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman’s Trentonian article today, Holly-Ward went on to say,

“As a woman, even though I was hurt in the incident, truthfully, it was not easy to come here and stand up in this male-dominated industry of politics and tell the truth about a man who has done wrong,” Holly-Ward said during her press conference.

She said the incident has allowed her to understand the fear that comes from “a woman who has been raped by a man and is afraid to speak out, but I had to,” Holly-Ward said. “This is not about taking up or covering up our friends in politics; it’s about standing up for what’s right.”

Really?

That’s crossing a line, Councilwoman. There is no justification for comparing your situation to that of a raped woman. You were a bystander during those proceedings, not the object of aggression and sexual battery. I can understand you were scared, and outraged, and offended, even violated to some extent. But there are some terms and charges that are not used lightly and loosely by a person in public office. Rape is definitely one of them. Rape is a crime that emotionally and intimately impacts all women, even if only indirectly. At the same time, it indicts and accuses all men, also if only indirectly. We see too, too many instances in our society of its violence and hate. It is a powerful, highly charged word. You dishonor all victims of this horrible crime when you use the word indiscriminately. You accuse all men of being potential virtual rapists, and you distort the meaning of what happened in Council last week. For shame!

Was Mr. Muschal at fault to bring up his provocative charge in Council without proof? Yes. Was Mr. Chester at fault for responding angrily? Yes. Was Mr. Chester at fault for turning the argument into a physical confrontation? Yes, again. And also for his inadequate and clumsy response to date. But it is Councilwoman Holly-Ward who has turned this sad and farcical situation into something very different and mean with her casual and inappropriate use of one of the most incendiary words in the English language. That is nothing short of disgraceful for a public official, in my personal opinion.

No one on Trenton’s City Council, even those who unwittingly played boxing referees last Thursday, comes out of this incident looking good. It is a sad, sad display of immaturity and shocking lack of self-control.

Council members Muschal, Chester and Holly-Ward owe their Council colleagues and the citizens of Trenton immediate, public and visible apologies.

And then, they need to shut up and get back to work.

We've Been Here Before

From The Trentonian, July 15, 2015:

Police say the tip they received was in regards to a single employee engaged in drug activity. But a Trenton Water Works employee who asked to remain anonymous said “numerous people” who work at the Water Filtration Plant not only use drugs at work, but also deal drugs out of the facility. The employee also said supervisors at the plant have known about the drug activity for quite some time.

“They know who gets high around here and no one does anything about it,” the employee said. “It’s been happening for at least two years and it’s being swept under the rug. It’s not right.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

A single Trenton Water Works (TWW) employee was arrested Tuesday evening on charges of marijuana possession. According to the unnamed TWW employee quoted above in Penny Ray’s Trentonian piece, Rashawn Davis is not the only person at the vitally important municipal utility dirty with drugs. “Numerous people” not only use at work, but also deal. This is not an insignificant matter. TWW provides drinking water for over 200,000 people in Trenton and several surrounding Mercer County townships. The integrity of employees who work in such a public utility should be very high: the safety of our water depends on it.

However, according to City Hall spokesperson Michael Walker, this is not important enough of an issue for him or his mayor to provide comment to local media. Using the all-purpose response made popular during the Mack Administration, Mr. Walker “declined to comment, stating that it is the city’s policy not to comment on personnel matters.”

This is not simply a “personnel matter,” Mr. Walker. It is a public safety matter. Should allegations of widespread drug usage by employees were to be made against any random water utility anywhere in the US, public or private,I expect that the response by management and law enforcement would be strong and immediate. Not in Trenton, though.

Which is hard to understand, given the history at TWW over the last several years. The city-owned utility, as any reader of this space well knows, has been the source of many, many critical stories over the last several years, covering a gamut of topics from brown water, to crumbling and ill-maintained infrastructure, to employee hi-jinks, to charges of politically-motivated rate increases, to lawsuits against Trenton filed by disgruntled townships, and, last but not certainly least, to “Muscles.”

Had Michael Walker, or his boss, been sufficiently sensitive to the matter, either or both would have rushed to the local press with a statement to the effect that the arrest of one employee for drug possession proves how seriously the Administration considers the safe operation of TWW to be for all customers. Allegations of further abuse by employees would be fully investigated. During this time of investigation, of course the City would not be able to comment in any greater detail about any individual under investigation, but the City would assure all its customers of the complete integrity and safety of Trenton’s tap water and fire hydrant supply.

But we have not heard that from Mr. Walker, or Mayor ZT. Which would be kind of surprising coming from any administration of any American city. From Mr. Jackson, though, the lack of response can be seen in the context of his professional history with TWW, a history that suggests a somewhat casual approach to employee honesty and integrity.

Eric Jackson served from 2001 to 2010 as Trenton’s Director of Public Works under former mayor Doug Palmer, a portfolio that included responsibility over the Water Works. During a grand jury investigation in 2010 that eventually led to the indictments (and later convictions) for theft of Tony Mack’s brother Stanley “Muscles” Davis and two other TWW employees, testimony was given about several instances of equipment theft and other corruption within TWW covering a period from 2001 to 2010, this period of time covering Mr. Jackson’s tenure.

When details about the 2010 grand jury’s investigation were reported to the public, Mr. Jackson defended his management of the utility by describing a process of investigation and discipline that was conducted internally by Public Works – a process that notably excluded participation by law enforcement. As one might expect by the absence of any police or prosecutor involvement at the time, there really wasn’t much to show for Mr. Jackson’s efforts. Which Mr. Jackson admitted to reporter Alex Zdan, then of the Trenton Times, in an article published in December, 2013:

Now a candidate for mayor, Jackson said Monday that several employees were disciplined for theft during his time at the public works department, which oversees the Water Works.

“Did we get them all? No,” Jackson said. “Is there more work to do? Absolutely.”

Jackson said he had received some information that employees were hooking up water to customers without authorization, but did not obtain enough information to make a case against anyone.

“There were allegations we investigated, but not corroborated,” Jackson said.

As director, Jackson said, he inherited staff and procedures, but worked to increase accountability even as some of the employees tried to counter with other ways to perform illicit activity.

“The reality is, you always have people who think they’re smarter than what you want to do,” Jackson said.

The public record of that time period shows that although allegations of criminal activity were frequent during the years of 2001 to 2010 during Mr. Jackson’s management of the Trenton Water Works, the arrest and prosecution of Stanley Davis did not take place until well after Eric Jackson had left the Public Works department. In December of 2013, I wrote a piece noting this, and asked several questions of then-candidate Jackson at the beginning of his successful campaign to be elected as Trenton’s mayor:

We know that there was criminal activity at the Water Works; that’s why Muscles Davis is serving time. Equipment was walking away, and individuals were falsifying time cards. Did any of this lead Mr. Jackson to involve law enforcement? If not, why not? Why did the only criminal prosecutions stemming from corruption at the Water Works occur after Palmer and Jackson left City Hall, if the situation was similar back then?

I think we also need to Mr. Jackson to explain what other measures he put in place to reduce problems at the Water Works. We read he cut down on overtime abuse. Were additional security cameras installed to control equipment walking away? Were inventory controls and equipment sign-out procedures revamped? Did TWW management exert more effective oversight of their staff?

While we are at it, why did maintenance of the suburban assets of TWW allowed to slip in the run-up to the 2010 referendum, and why were so many staff openings for service technicians left open during that period, leaving the Water Works short-handed as the Mack Administration started up?

I concluded that piece as follows: “Every new revelation of past corruption, and waste, and theft that precedes the Mack years hurts the City’s case for its future stewardship of much of Mercer County’s water supply for its residents.”

I still believe in that conclusion, made even more relevant in light of the new revelation of misbehavior alleged of Rashawn Davis, and of the allegation of further, current abuse and corruption within TWW as made by the unnamed employee quoted in the Trentonian.

The stakes for the future of Trenton’s Water Works are even higher now than they have been over the last few years. New legislation is now on the books that makes it far easier than in the past for publicly-owned water systems in New Jersey such as TWW’s to be sold off to commercial water companies without public approval.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that there aren’t vultures out there looking for any excuse to swoop in to Trenton and take our publicly-owned system off out hands. A fascinating new article in The Nation describes just how this is being done in this state, encouraged by the Christie Administration. The article leads off by citing Trenton’s successful citizen resistance to the 2010 referendum which would have sold off TWW’s valuable suburban assets to the NJ American Water company. That 2010 victory may well end up being the high-water mark in the history of citizen resistance to water privatization in New Jersey, as the article argues. That would be a shame. Privatization will likely lead to much higher rates for all of TWW’s customers, as well as worse customer service. There have been too many examples of exactly those outcomes to say that would never happen here.

For all of the reasons above, that’s why the response so far from Michael Walker and Mayor Jackson to the allegations of drug abuse at Trenton’s Water Works is so insufficient and unsatisfying. Mr. Jackson’s prior history of passivity when faced with corruption at TWW while Director of Public Works requires a more assertive response now. The threat to the safety of our water supply demands reassurances of safety to TWW’s Mercer County customers. And some demonstration of managerial responsibility and competence is necessary to argue in favor of continued public ownership of this valuable asset during this time when the danger of privatization is just way too high.

This isn’t just a “personnel matter,” Mr. Walker and Mayor Jackson. It’s time to say much more, and do much more. We’ve been in this place before. We know how this can end. We need you to do better for us this time.

Amazingly, Graced

I don’t usually write much about issues outside the borders of the city of Trenton. Sometimes, I touch upon matters encompassing greater Mercer County, and even more rarely the entirety of the State of New Jersey. I don’t often feel confident or competent enough to offer any thoughts about topics of national interest. I’m making an exception today. Excuse me in advance for wading into things beyond my ken.

It’s been an extraordinary week in America, one that started by an act of terror born from the ancient racial hatred that has been this nation’s original sin since a century before its founding, and which troubles us and holds us back to this day. It finished on Friday, with two separate yet related acts of hope, healing and progress in themselves, and which also strike me as perfect metaphors for how this country – in fits and starts – manages to find its way forward.

At this time last weekend I, like most Americans, was reeling from the murders of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. This was a premeditated and deliberate act of political terror that was specifically intended to set off further acts of racially-motivated violence. We know this because the alleged assassin wrote what’s been described as a “manifesto” laying out his objectives for his crime, motivated by a deep-seated hatred for African Americans, Jews, and Hispanics.

Although Dylan Roof’s personal and political history and associations are not yet fully known, his ideas and motivations are not his alone. His extremism is shared by many, too many, people. Although by no means mainstream opinions, they are also neither rare nor new. This article by Laura Miller in Salon.com this week describes troubling links between the ideas contained in Roof’s “manifesto” and those spread by the fringe movement known as “Christian Identity” It’s very troubling to me that there are Americans moved to commit this kind of political terror in furtherance of a sick ideology and theology that seeks to deny fellow Americans their human dignity and even, as we saw in Charleston, their lives. It was pretty hard to endure a week of news stories about Charleston and its aftermath, hard to contemplate this latest in a long, long line  of outrages stretching not only as far back as we can see but threatening to continue long into our common futures. Not a happy prospect, indeed.

That’s why I was pretty well primed, I suppose, for the news out of the Supreme Court yesterday. By a slim majority, 5 to 4 (close is good enough not only in horseshoes and hand grenades, but in SCOTUS decisions, too), the Court ruled that the institution of marriage is one that belongs to all Americans. I was very pleased in the substance of the decision, feeling it was entirely fair and overdue. But I was also very happy to read Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion on behalf of himself and his four concurring colleagues, and understand the basis of his reasoning in the case known as Obergefell v. Hodges.

To this layman, the legal underpinnings and case law citations included in Kennedy’s opinion seem sound; however, I can’t comment any more on that. I have read commentary by several legal scholars who deem the Court’s reasoning sound, and that is good enough for me. What I find thrilling and hopeful from yesterday’s decision is that much of its underlying power comes from an interpretation of American, and indeed human, history, and a conception of human freedom I very much agree with. That conception is based on the underlying premise that Freedom and Justice are concepts which, although eternal at their hearts, change and grow with changes and growth in the human condition. Justice Kennedy says,

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the rights of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal structure, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

What a wonderful and powerful formulation this is. The Constitution and its provisions were designed to protect “the rights of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” As we gain new insights into ever new and varied meanings, freedom and liberty does not always come easily. “A claim to liberty” must be made, and crucially in our system, “must be addressed.”

Friday’s ruling was the culmination of a textbook example as to how such claims are addressed. In  courtrooms and legislatures around the country, for a period of over twenty years, a process full of dialog, argument, engagement, litigation and referenda was undertaken that created momentum that led to this landmark. It was a process that went forward, and back, and it was an entirely peaceful process. The history of how marriage equality has become the law of the land will become a textbook example for decades to come of how to create a revolution in American law.

And yet, even a Supreme Court Justice acknowledges that such revolutions do not come to pass entirely in courts or the halls of government. In many crucial ways, this revolution was ratified in these places, but they were not born there. Earlier in his opinion, Kennedy says, speaking of the ways that new ideas and attitudes about the institution of marriage have come to the mainstream,

These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests, and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.

And, to make sure that we are keenly aware that behind the vague, generic concept of “pleas and protests” are the actual stories of individuals and families who are directly affected by the legal matter at hand. People whose lives will be  intimately and irrevocably changed by the resulting rulings. Justice Kennedy tells the stories of James Obergefell and John Arthur, April DeBoer and Jayne Rouse, and Army Reserve First Sergeant First Class Ijipe DeKoe and Thomas Kastura.

These are the people whose claim to liberty was addressed. And, as the result of a 20-year process the result of which was unthinkable even just a little while ago, we learned that the meaning of liberty – in this immediate matter of the institution of marriage – could be expanded to include Every American.

Is this a great country, or what?

Of course, there are many who do not agree or accept the result and the implications of Friday’s ruling. Four members of the Supreme Court wrote individual dissents stating their opposition to the reasoning and principles of the majority. They were joined by many in public life, including several announced presidential candidates.

Although I am sure that many of these opponents disagree with the outcome of this case on sincerely held grounds of principle, I find it difficult to believe that the four dissenting Justices and many who agree with them object to the Court granting human dignity and equal consideration under law to fellow American citizens of flesh and blood, and yet had no problem five years ago with granting that same dignity and personhood to… corporations!

To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts from his dissent, Just who do they think they are?

This isn’t the end of this particular story, of course. There is still strong opposition, some of it genuinely principled as I mentioned, but a lot of purely opportunistic pandering. That sort of thing will never go away in this country as long as someone thinks they can get a couple of votes or make a couple of dollars by opportunistic pandering. That, in my opinion, will be forever.

But I feel happier and more confident in this country by knowing that, at least on occasion, we can recognize that Freedom and Liberty are not static and unchanging things bequeathed to us over two centuries ago. They live, and breathe, and learn, and expand – as we are given new insights to know their new meanings.

I heard distinct echoes and emphases of these same ideas in the extraordinary words of President Obama on Friday, in his remarkably profound and moving eulogy in South Carolina for one of those lost at Emanuel Church, Pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

I can’t, and won’t attempt, to summarize the whole of Mr. Obama’s words. I will, first, refer you to watch his entire eulogy (well worth 36 minutes and 46 seconds, trust me!), or at least to read the transcript. Theodore Roosevelt once famously called the Presidency “a bully pulpit,” and a pulpit it was in Charleston on Friday. Barack Obama preached.

The main theme of the President’s remarks was Grace: the gift – should we choose to freely accept it – of finding in vile, wicked and violent acts the potential for hope, and learning, and healing. From the actions of a murderer whose clear intent was to spread hate and fear and discord, it is possible – not assured, but only possible – to draw strength, resolve, and even forgiveness. This potential power to produce such a contradictory result in the face of despair and pain Mr. Obama calls nothing less than Divine, a gift of a loving Providence. The gift of Grace:

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same.  He gave it to us anyway.  He’s once more given us grace.  But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  We see that now.

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.  It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.  By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.  Perhaps we see that now.  Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.    Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system — and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.  By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God’s grace.

Justice Kennedy didn’t use the word, but I think he says the same thing here. In the American legal and political tradition, we have on many occasions in our history been Graced with the ability to “learn” new meanings of liberty and freedom through “new insights,” and to address many claims to extend the benefits and blessings of that liberty and freedom and human dignity ever wider. We have been fortunate – lucky, maybe? blessed? – that so many of these claims are met peacefully, as we saw on Friday. How can this not be called Grace, as Mr. Obama told us? When the Supreme Court says, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” that is simply another way of saying, “I was blind, but now I see.”

President Obama reminded us that we are not so lucky to learn all of our lessons in peace. In fact some lessons, such as those that spring from the bottomless well of undying racial hatred that has been part of our history, are taught at fearsome cost in blood and lives. Yet we may still learn from those lessons, if we are so Graced. Amazing, indeed.

In one day, our Supreme Court and our President both drew on two strong and ancient traditions in this to teach us that we have the capacity – if we choose to accept the gift – not to be trapped by our past. We can more perfect our Union, and ourselves. It’s not a gift that is always given to us. It’s certainly not one that is given uniquely to this nation alone. And it is by no means given to all of us (I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum!).

But I feel to my bones that we in the United States of America were given the gift of Grace, twice, on Friday. After this week, did we ever need it!

And for that, I give thanks.

Trenton as a Fixer Upper

To a certain degree, trying to market the city of Trenton as a place for potential economic and business opportunity is a lot like trying to sell an old house in need of a lot of repair and restoration work. You talk about a great past, solid foundations and “great bones.” You point to nearby houses in great shape, talk about a terrific neighborhood and great location. You emphasize what a fantastic bargain it is, and the potential that can be realized with a modest additional investment, a lot of elbow grease, and a little time.  Yeah, a lot of this kind of pitch is hype. But a lot of people who are into fixer uppers, or places like Trenton, appreciate the hype. They share the vision of a future after the investment, the elbow grease, and the time. They relish the challenge, which makes the eventual payoff – financial and emotional – all the sweeter.

The thing is, you have to know the difference between hype and hallucination. Any old four-bedroom center-hall Colonial is not going to become Buckingham Palace. Most real estate agents know this. I’m not sure the City of Trenton does. Because some of the statements coming out from City Hall these days are so fanciful and so unrealistic to the point where they cloud the legitimate forward progress that genuinely seems to be stirring  here. And local press so eager to breathlessly and un-critically print these more fantastic claims do their readers no service in trying to figure out what’s really happening.

Take today’s Trentonian story by Penny Ray. The headline reads, “Former Bell Building to become mixed-use retail and residential property, expected to boost Trenton economy.” The project referred to in the headline does not even get mentioned until the 10th paragraph of the piece. Altogether, it merits only two paragraphs in the entire piece. What comes in the nine paragraphs before and the eleven after is little more than uncritical reportage of all the great things that are under way in Trenton that the current City Administration is claiming credit for. A lot of these claims stretch the City’s marketing attempts well past normal, boosterish hype and into the realm of hallucination. That strains the Administration’s credibility, and that of the Trentonian which  printed what is really just an extended press release.

The City’s Director of Housing and Economic Development, Monique King-Viehland, is quoted extensively in this article, in what Mr. Ray describes as a “recent interview,” apparently not one specifically about the Bell Building development mentioned in the headline. Ms. King-Viehland in turn refers to the findings contained in a city-wide Market Study dated Fall 2014 commissioned by the City of Trenton and performed by an outside research firm.

The main conclusion of this study is that, with Trenton’s population of over 80,000, there is enough disposable income available to be spent inside of the city limits to support much more economic activity in this town than is currently the case. According to this study, more than $40 Million dollars are being spent by city residents outside of Trenton on goods and services such as gas, groceries, shoes, health and personal care. This excess $40 Million, called “leakage,” is enough, according to Ms. King-Viehland, for her to claim, ““We have enough leakage in the community that there’s about 55,000 to 170,000 square feet of retail space that can be supported by the city of Trenton.”

That’s a very bold claim, indeed. According to Ms. Viehland, this study provides the numbers to support some further very specific goals.

King-Viehland said the city can support a grocery store in the West Ward as well as Downtown. She also said the city could support clothing stores and other businesses that sell the typical items found at big-box retailers such as Target.

“People are getting all of those things outside of the city,” King-Viehland said. “People are also obtaining services from lawyers, doctors, accountants and yoga instructors outside of the city of Trenton.”

This background mentioned in the article is the context, then, for the news about the Bell Building in downtown Trenton. Mr. Ray reports,

The former Bell Telephone building located at 216 East State Street is scheduled to be renovated into a mixed-use property with a retail store on the first floor and residential lofts on the upper six floors…  The mayor’s office said there is already a retail tenant lined up to lease the property, but city officials declined to release the name of the tenant. Ajax declined to comment because the project is in its infancy.

“The first floor is going to be 12,000 square feet of retail and the upper six floors will be 85 units of residential market rate loft apartments,” King-Viehland said. “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city, but this is significant because we’re talking about increasing retail, which is one of the five pillars of our citywide market study. It’s also significant because it increases walkability in the city, which is very important to us downtown. We want to fill storefronts, not with office, but with retail from a walkability perspective.”

Having disposed of the news about the Bell Building in those two paragraphs, Mr. Ray and Ms. King-Viehland then talk about some other wonderful things going on in Trenton.

On Thursday, New Jersey Association of Realtors will break ground on the site of their new headquarters at 10 Hamilton Avenue, which will be a 20,000 square-foot mixed-use building, expected to be completed next year. The building will host the NJ Realtors staff on floors two and three, and the ground floor will be leased out as retail, restaurant or office space.

“They had been looking at the city for some time, but they weren’t able to purchase the land necessary to build their building,” King-Viehland said. “We helped them facilitate that purchase. Their $9 million project will bring about 80 jobs into the city.”

That’s the second time in Jackson’s 11-month tenure that his administration has helped jumpstart a stagnant project that will bring jobs into the city.

By this point in the article, the fantasy quotient (or, less charitably, the bullshit) is running real high, and does Mr. Ray, the Trentonian, Ms. King-Viehland or the Jackson Administration no favors. There’s a lot here that needs a little unpacking.

In reverse order: the “stagnant project” that the Administration helped “jump-start”? The NJ Realtors (NJAR) project was announced back in January 2013 by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, in his annual “State of the County” address. This project, according to NJAR at the time, was facilitated by the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), and involved the sale of County-owned land. It was an accomplishment announced by the County 18 months before the Jackson Administration took office.

In fact, the City of Trenton’s role seems to have been more one of obstruction rather than “jumpstarting a stganant project.” In order to build a parking lot for the NJAR building, the project needed the city to vacate the right of way on an unused street called Conovers Alley. The County offered $1 (that’s $1 – One Dollar) for the alley. In June of last year, City Council balked at the price, holding out for $250. That impasse was settled, for $250, in September. This week, the NJAR construction project finally breaks ground.

If Ms. King-Viehland and Mr. Ray consider the City’s action on this project a “jump start,” remind me to look elsewhere when my battery’s dead. Or, God forbid, if I ever need a defibrilator.

Also, it seems to me that the City is leaning a little bit too much on the potential suggested by this Market Study, and ignoring Trenton’s actual experience on the ground. We read today that the Bell Building will offer 12,000 square feet of retail space, for which there is at least one signed, unnamed tenant. This may put a dent in the “55,000 to 170,000 square feet” of potential space we are “leaking” to other towns. But what about the thousands of square feet of retail space in the Broad Street Bank Building that’s been vacant for the near ten years since that property was rehabilitated? What about all of the other retail and commercial spaces shuttered and closed all over downtown Trenton? If there is so much “leakage,” why do so many buildings lie vacant and abandoned, and why do so many of the attempts to open stores downtown fail?

Ms. King-Viehland uses the Market Study to assert that the “city can support a grocery store in the West Ward as well as Downtown.” Then why did a grocery store on a Hermitage Avenue site in the West Ward fail more than six years ago, after two different operators? The same site, incidentally, for which the City of Trenton paid almost $700,000 in back rent back in 2012 after an ill-considered plan to use the site as a municipal courthouse. And why has the Ward’s only other grocery store on Pennington Avenue struggled to stay open, after a few changes in operators at that location?

And how can Ms. King-Viehland say “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city,” when so many buildings, even several right in the heart of downtown, have so much vacant space, such as the 39,521 square feet in this one modern building alone. A lot of the narrative in Trenton for the last several years has been of office closings and downsizings, so it is more than disingenuous to say something like “We’ve always had a strong office market in the city;” it’s positively batty.

As I said up top, a certain amount of hype is understandable, whether you’re selling a fixer upper, or a broken-down city. I get that. But this Administration is crossing the line from hype to hallucination. They are taking credit for actions not theirs, they are promoting a lot of their plans and aspirations based on a Market Study whose findings in many cases simply do not align with current conditions on the ground nor with recent actual history. And they are being aided and abetted by a local press too willing to print good news at the cost of accuracy and critical journalism.

I am encouraged by the news about the Bell Building, and the potential represented by some of the other projects on the drawing boards for the next few years. Any of them individually, and all of them collectively, suggest that this fixer upper on the banks of the Delaware may have some life in it yet, and that it is capable of drawing in folks with money, elbow grease, and time. Good Luck to them, and Good Luck to us all.

But, please, let’s be a little more real about things. OK?

Seven Phases of Project Planning

Phase I – Inspiration

“The Meadowlands Xanadu project is expected to generate 20,000 permanent jobs in New Jersey – translating into $1.24 billion in personal income annually – and 19,000 construction and related jobs – equal to $1.17 billion in annual personal income. The project is estimated to produce $133 million annually in state and local tax revenue.”  – BusinessWire, December 3, 2003

Phase II – Entanglement

“The project had been scheduled to open [March 2009], but that date was pushed back indefinitely in March amid news that project lender Xanadu Mezz Holdings — an affiliate of Lehman Brothers — had stopped funding its share of construction costs… Xanadu then sued the Lehman affiliate, seeking $11 million immediately and $25 million overall. A Xanadu attorney wrote in court papers that failure to produce the promised funds would put Xanadu ‘at grave risk of failure…’

“[NJ Sports Authority Carl] Goldberg said that ‘the likelihood of a facility this far along in its completion not being finished and not opening is de minimus,’ Goldberg said. ‘It will be finished and it will open.’”  – NorthJersey.com, March 3, 2009

Phase III – Panic

“Because of the legal battle and the construction delay, Real Capital Analytics, a research company that tracks real estate investments, has listed Meadowlands Xanadu as the largest of $9.2 billion worth of troubled assets in the New York area. But Dan Fasulo, a managing director of the research group, said he did not think the center would be suspended indefinitely. ‘In my opinion, the project is too big to fail at this point and will be completed,’ he said.” – New York Times, May 19, 2009

Phase IV – Search for the Guilty Ones

“[Billionaire Developer Steve] Ross is expected to announce soon that he has assembled the $500 million to $700 million in new investment needed to complete the project — though the grand opening probably would not happen before mid-2011.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, whose district encompasses the Meadowlands Sports Complex, said the name change did not surprise him. ‘I think the success of the Ross companies, from what I’ve read, is to re-brand the product if it has struggled,’ Sarlo said. ‘The timing here is great for the potential of jobs here, given the difficult economic times…’

“The long-stalled project has been called Xanadu since the fall of 2002, when now-defunct Mills Corp. launched a bid that beat out five rivals as the Sports and Exposition Authority board’s selection for a Meadowlands arena-site redevelopment project.

“Colony Capital took over the project from Mills in 2006, but the project ran into serious financial problems in March 2009, and little work has been done since then. The exterior, however, is nearly finished, aside from revisions to the much-criticized color scheme. “  – NorthJersey.com, May 14, 2010

Phase V – Punishment of the Innocent

“So yeah, the place is a barrel of laughs, except that it has already cost New Jersey taxpayers $1 billion in financing, tax breaks and highway improvements.” – Curbed.com, May 4, 2011

Phase VI – Prizes, Awards and Promotions for the Uninvolved

“An executive for the developer of the American Dream Meadowlands project said Wednesday that work at the site would begin early in March and that the long-delayed entertainment and shopping destination would open at the Meadowlands Sports Complex by autumn 2014.

“In an informal appearance before the Bergen County Improvement Authority, Tony Armlin said crews would begin working before the complicated financing for the project was in place. Armlin, the project director for the Triple Five company, said he expected the financial structure — involving both public and private sources — would be completed by May.

“Armlin told the board that the BCIA would be asked to serve as a “conduit” issuer for $400 million in bonds backed by tax incentives sought by the developer from the state and the borough of East Rutherford, the host community for the complex.

“He said the bonds would be offered to investors on a ‘non-recourse’ basis and would pose ‘no risk’ to the county, the borough or the state.

“‘The bond purchasers will take on the risk, and they will be aware of that before they buy them,’ Armlin said.” – NorthJersey.com, February 21, 2013

Phase VII – Burning the Evidence and Burying the Bodies

“More than three years after Governor Christie came to the Meadowlands Sports Complex to trumpet a new vision for the stalled Xanadu shopping and entertainment project, he returned on Monday to unveil revised plans with officials from Triple Five, the new developer of the revamped project now dubbed American Dream Meadowlands.

“The latest announcement came with plenty of new details, including a revised opening date target of fall 2016; the unveiling of a planned 20-story “drop ride” billed as the world’s tallest; and renderings of the proposed 639,000-square-foot indoor amusement park and water park that will feature 80-foot-high glass walls that allow drivers on nearby highways to see in — and park revelers to see out…

“Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, criticized the state’s endorsement of a $390 million grant from the Economic Development Authority that he described as ‘the largest business tax subsidy New Jersey has ever awarded.’

“Triple Five spokesman Alan Marcus said that the grant poses ‘no risk to taxpayers’ because no money is put out up front by the state. The developer gets the tax savings only if the project is completed, and then only via a portion of tax revenues refunded for a limited time frame, he added.” – NorthJersey.com, April 28, 2014

So, New Jersey, after all of that, what have we learned???


Phase I – Inspiration

“EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Developers and elected officials ratcheted up demands on Wednesday for a statewide referendum to expand gambling to the northern part of the state, a display of public pressure timed to coincide with the unveiling of a proposed $1 billion Hard Rock Casino in the Meadowlands.

“The casino would feature 5,000 slot machines and 200 tables for gambling, along with a giant guitar that operators said could be visible from Manhattan. It would be located west of New York City, adjacent to MetLife Stadium, where the New York Giants and New York Jets play.

“‘We are not looking to build slots in a box,’ said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, while releasing the proposal at Meadowlands Racetrack. ‘We believe this will compete with anything in the world.’

“Operators projected the casino could initially generate at least $400 million in annual tax revenue and create 5,000 jobs. Its doors could open by next summer or early 2017, they said.” – Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2015

What have we learned? Nothing. Not one damned thing.

A Casino in Mercer County Makes No Sense

During last year’s Trenton mayoral election, I was surprised and mystified when candidate Walker Worthy, seemingly out of nowhere, proposed bringing a casino to the city to jump start development here. I thought it was a horrible idea for the City, and wrote two pieces in March 2014 criticizing it. This morning, Worthy’s campaign proposal seems less mysterious as we read that Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, too, reveals himself as a fan of putting a casino in our neighborhood.

I can imagine the conversation between Brian Hughes and Walker Worthy last year going something like this:

HUGHES:  “Walker, you need a Big Idea to distinguish yourself from the other candidates. A Big Idea that will catch fire. A Big Idea that will bring jobs and revenues to the City. A Win-Win for everyone.”

WORTHY: “Terrific plan! How about a Hotel?”

HUGHES: “No, it’s been done. Didn’t work.”

WORTHY: “How about a stadium? Or an Arena?”

HUGHES: “No. No.”

WORTHY: “I have it! A monorail!!!”

HUGHES: “No, none of those. Listen to me. Trenton needs… A CASINO!!!

It’s still a horrible idea.

My objections to Walker Worthy’s proposal last year were two-fold: first, I thought that the oversaturation of gaming establishments in the Northeast over the previous few years suggested that one more casino might not be successful as a business. Second, I highlighted the conclusions of a group of scholars who had studied the social, economic and health impact of casinos on the communities in which they are located, and their citizens. Among the 31 conclusions made in this 2013 paper:

Some states are propping up failing casinos.

Over time, casino expansion within a state and in nearby states can create a downward economic spiral of market saturation, sluggish state revenues, and failing casinos, marked by an ever-growing competition in which each state tries to lure other states’ citizens into its casinos.

State sponsorship of casinos is a policy contributing to patterns of inequality in America.

Over the last year, we in New Jersey have only seen more evidence of casino failure. Governor Chris Christie’s nearly quarter-billion dollar state investment (thankfully not all spent) in the Revel casino itself failed to keep the place open. And three other Atlantic City casinos also closed their doors in the last year. AC has lost one-third of its casino industry in the blink of an eye. And the other eight are struggling.

Despite this disaster, there are efforts afoot to open more casinos elsewhere in New Jersey, possibly in Jersey City and/or the Meadowlands. And NJ isn’t alone, as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland are also getting in on the action. What are their prospects? One New Jersey State Senator quoted by the Associated Press in an article on the industry just last week offered his opinion:

“We’re at a point where we’re just moving money around,” said Chris Brown, a New Jersey state senator from near Atlantic City, who opposes a plan to extend casino gambling to other parts of the state. “All you’re doing is cannibalizing the market you already have.”

It was apparent last year, during the mayoral election, that proposing a casino for Trenton was a non-starter. One year along, it’s even more obvious. That’s why it is so disappointing to read Mercer County Exec Hughes saying things like,

It’s too early to tell whether a casino would make sense for Mercer County. But something that could be a revenue generator and job creator is worth taking a look at. The Capital County should be included in the conversation…

If casinos are going to be permitted in areas of New Jersey outside of Atlantic City, why not consider Mercer too? For example, we know from our ballpark how appealing a waterfront location can be and there’s waterfront real estate in the Capital City that’s ripe for development.

Mr. Hughes, it’s NOT too early to tell. A casino in Mercer County makes no sense. If you stop talking for a while, and listen, you will hear the only people in New Jersey and much of the rest of the Northeast talking about opening new casinos are politicians such as yourself, and the developers whose contributions support your campaigns, blinded by illusory prospects of “new jobs” and “tax revenues.”

The folks who are actually in the gambling business, such as Ed Sutor, the Delaware Downs casino president quoted in last week’s AP article, are saying that an expansion plan being discussed by politicians in his state “makes no sense:”

New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland — the entire market is down. That is, friends, saturation. You’re just moving money around. You bring in a new operator and the money just moves around and the entire market doesn’t go up.

Listen to the man! Talking about more casinos in New Jersey makes no sense!

Talking about a Mercer County casino MAKES NO SENSE, Mr. Hughes!!

It’s ironic to read an article such as today’s Times piece today. It’s Primary Election Day in New Jersey today, which I’ve already written about over the last few days. Today. Brian Hughes is running unopposed for re-nomination as the Democratic candidate for County Executive this November. If Mr. Hughes has any more development plans or re-election promises to offer as pointless as a Mercer casino, voters may come to regret that he ran for re-election with no primary opposition.

On Being a Trenton Democrat in the 15th LD

I had originally planned to conclude my piece yesterday, on the inadequacy of the “Dan Toto for Assembly” campaign, with my feelings about the other Democratic candidates for Assembly in Tuesday’s party primary election. However I decided that my emphasis on the SSNB (Same Shit, New Box) theme, directed as it was against the masquerading “Democrat” Toto might also unfairly tarnish the campaigns of the two incumbents running with the official endorsement of the Mercer Democratic Committee, Assembly members Reed Gusciora and Elizabeth Maher Muoio. Also, a too-brief mention of the two at the end of my long screed against Mr. Toto might come off too much as damning those two with faint praise. That would not have been my intention.

I’ve found, by personal experience with both Assembly members, Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio to be intelligent, effective, and compassionate legislators. I intend to vote for Reed and Liz, and endorse their nomination and election in the fall, for the reasons I will explain below. But my endorsement comes with some reservations.

Over the last several years, Reed Gusciora has often been responsive to issues here in Trenton, and I’ve found him on many occasions to be sympathetic and productive. When legislative boundaries in New Jersey were re-drawn after the most recent federal Census, I welcomed him to Trenton in 2011 after re-districting excluded the town of his previous residence, Princeton. I referenced the assistance he rendered to local neighbors of Trenton’s Carteret Arms apartment building when PSE&G had shut off power to the common areas of the large building due to non-payment of electric bills by the previous owners. After I reached out to him, Reed intervened with PSE&G to get the power turned on, and also arranged a press conference at the West Ward State Street building with his legislative colleagues Senator Shirley Turner and then-Assemblywoman and now Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. On behalf of the residents of the building, he drew attention to their plight and helped get the job done and the lights back on.

Before that, Reed and I worked together on the short-lived, massively unsuccessful, but terribly enjoyable 2008 NJ “Draft Al Gore for President” movement. It wasn’t exactly a “shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches together” experience, since we were firing the equivalent of pop-guns in those trenches, but it was enough to show me that he and I felt the same way on many public issues, then and since.

He’s been a busy and effective legislator with sponsorship of and effort behind a large number and diverse variety of legislation, as reader Joey Biscotti reminded me yesterday. In defense of Trenton’s interests, he and his former colleague Watson Coleman voted against last year’s deceptively-named “Water Infrastructure Protection Act,” although the two of them (along with Senator Turner) were sadly on the losing end of that vote. That act, which makes it far too easy for local municipalities to sell publicly-owned water utilities to private companies without public approval, is now on the books as NJ law. I feel confident that Reed Gusciora would defend Trenton’s interests if any effort is made to threaten the city’s ownership of its Water Works.

I’ve known and worked with Liz Muoio since she was a Mercer County Freeholder and chair of the local Mercer County Democratic Committee, and found her to be dedicated to the principles of the Democratic Party. She’s only been in the State Assembly since January, appointed to fill the unexpired term of Ms. Watson Coleman after her November 2014 election to the US House. But in that short time, I have seen her as a very responsive and active representative.

Back in March, I wrote to her via her official NJ Assembly e-mailbox, to ask her to support A3580, a bill introduced to the Assembly’s current session last September. Briefly (and I could go on about this, but I promise to be short!), this bill would ban in New Jersey the sale and distribution of Powdered Alcohol, a newly-developed (and legalized by the federal government) product which goes by the trade name of “Palcohol.” I wrote to her and expressed my opinion that Trenton, and New Jersey,  have enough problems with legal and illegal substances to have to contend with a new form of intoxicating substance that is so concealable, easily trafficked and inherently ripe for abuse as powdered booze.

Liz Muoio wrote back to me the very next day, and promised to support the bill as a co-sponsor, and to support the measure. This she quickly did, joining among others Assembly Members Paul “No Relation” Moriarty and Craig “No Relation” (my mother’s side of the family) Coughlin, who were two of the bill’s Primary Sponsors.

A3580 was reported out of the Assembly’s Law & Public Safety Committee earlier this month, and I hope it moves along to full passage in the Assembly, with Liz Muoio’s support, and the State Senate, where Shirley Turner is a Primary Sponsor of the companion bill.

I believe Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio are fine legislators, and I endorse them for election, at this coming Tuesday’s election and in the November general election.

And yet, I do so with some reservations. I still carry more than a bit of a grudge against both – along with the other principal leaders of the County Democratic organization, both officeholders and other leaders – for their near complete silence and inaction during the excesses of the mayoral administration of the disgraced convicted Federal felon Tony Mack from 2010 to 2014. During a time when the citizens of Trenton suffered under the missteps, excesses, and criminality of Mack and his associates, there were few to none words of criticism forthcoming from Democratic leaders – including Mr. Gusciora and Ms. Muoio – which might have been helpful in providing a moderating influence on the bastards, and which would certainly provided moral support to those few of us who were vocal and active in opposition to Mack during those chaotic days and years.

Even when the actions of these assholes endangered citizens outside of Trenton’s borders into greater Mercer County, there was little criticism. As early as October of 2010, when screwups at the Trenton Water Works led to the interruption of water service to thousands of TWW customers in the County, criticism was restrained. County Executive Brian Hughes was mightily dissed by Tony Mack at that time, when Mack failed to attend an emergency meeting that Hughes convened for the mayors of Trenton and the surrounding affected towns. Apart from being a personal insult to the County Executive, Mack’s wretched behavior should have brought down a torrent of criticism from not only Hughes, but Mack’s former colleagues on the County Board of Freeholders and other Democratic leaders on the County and even State level held their peace. Why, I still don’t know.

But no. Then and after for nearly four full years, criticisms of Trenton’s administration and moral support of its beleaguered citizenry was sadly absent. It was keenly felt and sorely missed by many of us, and not forgotten.

I must recognize the considerable tangible support provided during that time by Mercer County’s leadership. The significant application of resources and manpower from the County Sheriff’s Office during the time when Trenton’s Police Department had been crippled by layoffs, budget reductions and active opposition by Mayor Mack, support that continues to the present day, was and is invaluable and greatly appreciated. I just wish that help would have been accompanied by actions – or even just rhetoric – that might have helped us get rid of the bastard earlier.

That it took the United States Department of Justice, and the US Attorney’s Office, and the FBI, to get rid of Tony Mack, after nearly four years of “Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Speak No Evil” from local public figures will be a long-lasting mark against the local Democratic leadership of Mercer County. And that includes Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio, who then as now served in positions of local leadership and moral authority.

In a wider context, even before the dreary Mack days, there’s been long dissatisfaction on the part of local residents with the Democratic leadership in the County. Trenton has long been a city that has consistently delivered strong blocs of Democratic voters to local and statewide candidates. In return, though, people here have long felt not very well served by those candidates after their elections.

After decades of solid Democratic support from Trenton, the city shows little improvement and little apparent return from that support. And several constituencies in the City such as members of the  local Hispanic Community have long felt unrepresented by the local party, as their numbers have greatly increased with little to no apparent increase in their influence in local party affairs.

That dissatisfaction has, among other ways, manifested itself in support for “insurgent” election challenges such as Dan Toto’s, which is getting some traction among several Trenton Democrats. Whereas I believe there is a certain amount of legitimacy in the criticisms of the County leadership, I believe support of Mr. Toto is a bad, bad tactical choice for these disgruntled local Democrats. After all, to paraphrase Robert Bolt’s line for Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Dan Toto??”

Oftentimes, efforts taken on behalf of the State and County’s Democratic leadership, however well intentioned, miss the mark. Huge and expensive projects such as the Ballpark, the Arena and the Hotel failed to provide the sparks for further development in Trenton that were originally hoped. And measures such as 2013’s “NJ Economic Opportunity Act,” passed with a lot of Democratic legislative support (including co-sponsorship by Reed Gusciora) will actively negatively impact Trenton’s local finances for years to come, a prediction that Mr. Gusciora told me he shared, unfortunately after the bill had become law. A pledge made to me by Mr. Gusciora to improve that Act and mitigate the potential for damage to Trenton has not yet resulted in any legislative action to do so. But I remain hopeful.

On a local tactical level, I’ve been often disappointed in actions taken by the Democratic leadership. Last year’s support given to the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Walker Worthy, a competent local official having unfortunately zero experience and record on local city issues, came off as tone deaf to other more credible candidacies, and was resented by a lot of locals, including me. And support for other candidates in several other races often seemed unfairly preferential, rude and manipulative. This is New Jersey, though, and local party politics is often a contact sport. To some extent, hardball politics has to be expected, but they often do leave a long-lasting aftertaste.

Yes, county and state Democrats have not always been responsive to the concerns of Trenton’s Democratic constituents. But I have and will continue to support candidates like Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio. I share their priorities and trust their abilities, and the overall goals of the Democratic Party.

Another reason to support them is the hopelessness and cluelessness of their opponents. In the 15th District, one of the Republican candidates for Assembly, a former colleague of mine on the Trenton Zoning Board (and whose judgment and experience on that Board I greatly respected) is running on standard boilerplate Tea Party-esque policy positions that I believe to be totally discredited as not only ineffective, but positively damaging to our state and national economies and culture. At least on the local level of NJ’s 15th District, Republican philosophy is empty and bankrupt, another reason I find to support Democratic candidates like Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio. There is no reason for a Trentonian this year to vote for a New Jersey Republican.

To me, being a loyal Trenton Democrat in the 15th in 2015 is a complicated matter. I give you that. On balance, though, I feel confident enough in the candidacies of Tuesday’s Regular Democratic slate, including Reed Gusciora and Liz Muoio, to endorse them for election.

The polls are open on Tuesday from 6AM to 8PM. Go vote.

There's New. There's Fresh. And Then There's The Same Old Shit in a New Box

Watching the final several episodes of the AMC tv series “Mad Men” over the last few weeks led me to ponder, among other matters, the great role of Marketing and Advertising in our daily lives. For most of the 20th Century, and so far into the 21st, American culture has created an art form in the way it can turn into a commodity just about any one or anything, and do its damndest to sell the heck out of it. “Mad Men” showed us the ways in which Madison Avenue tried to persuade us to buy cigarettes, cars, air travel, potato chips, and slide projectors. An oft-recurring undertheme was how the same methods of hard- and soft-selling were turned into selling us lifestyles, wars, and political candidates. “Mad Men” often showed us subtly what we’ve also been hearing and seeing for close to the last 50 years, at least since author Joe McGinniss explicitly compared the 1968 election campaign of Richard Nixon to selling a pack of cigarettes.

Then, as now, the challenge for the ad man, the Mad Man – and the average consumer – is to know the difference between trying to sell what is genuinely New, honestly Fresh, or simply The Same Old Shit in a New Box.

Which brings me to Dan Toto.

Dan Toto is a candidate in this coming Tuesday’s primary election for the Democratic nomination to be one of the 15th District’s (which includes Trenton) two state Assembly members. He is running to unseat either of the incumbents, Reed Gusciora, or Elizabeth Maher Muoio. The incumbents received the endorsement of the Mercer County Democratic Committee members at its convention a few months ago. Mr. Toto did not receive the Committee’s endorsement, that rejection being the basis on which he is focusing his campaign strategy and approach.

Dan Toto is running as an “outsider” against the “insiders” of an allegedly corrupt Mercer County political machine. On the front page of his website he says,

Dan Toto is running for NJ Assemblyman because our leadership in Mercer County has been nothing but disappointing. The county ‘machine’ hasn’t delivered on their promises. In our district, the unemployment rate in areas like Trenton is nearly 50% higher than the state and national averages, and many in the district go to bed hungry every night. Our career-politician representatives have been unable to deliver results on growing our economy, bringing more jobs to our district, and reforming our education system.

He is running, he says, ” so that YOU can have a true Democrat in the State House.” And yet, on his Facebook page today, he encourages non-party-affiliated voters to register as Democrats on Tuesday, just to vote for him. Then they can change their registration BACK to non-affilated on the very same day!

toto

It seems Mr. Toto wants to be a “true” Democrat in the State House, but is relying on appealing to “false” Democrats to get there. He strikes me as being as much of a true Democrat as Joe McGinniss’ Lucky Strike Nixon. His campaign and his candidacy is a fraud. Let’s look at him a little more closely, shall we?

His supporters play up his theme of the insurgent Democrat running against a rotten party machine. In a Letter to the Editor published in yesterday’s Trenton Times, Victor Palinczar claims “there’s a difference between ‘legally corrupt’ and ‘morally corrupt.’ Dan Toto’s [campaign] mailer emphasizes the moral corruption in Mercer County.” He then goes on to cite a litany of “moral” corruption for which many of the mean old Mercer Machine Democrats are responsible.

It’s an odd argument to make, “moral” versus “legal” corruption. Because it positively screams out an invitation to examine Mr. Toto’s past recent association with the latter type – that is “legal” corruption – here in Trenton. Of course, by that I mean Toto’s past association with Tony Mack.

Mr. Palinczar’s Letter to the Times was in fact a response to another Letter published earlier this week in the Times, in which Trenton resident and long-time politically active Mercer Democratic leader Jeffrey Laurenti politely suggested that Emperor Toto was wearing no clothes:

The one critique in his recent mailer introducing himself to Democratic primary voters is not of Christie, but of Mercer County’s “corrupt” Democratic Party. Hmm. The only two political leaders charged with corruption in this county in recent memory have been Hamilton’s disgraced mayor John Bencivengo, who must be credited to the Republican camp, and Trenton’s feckless Tony Mack, whom the Democratic committee ousted from the freeholder board in 2008.

However, Mayor Mack’s campaign manager was … Dan Toto. If “corruption” is the reason for his campaign, he risks the reproach in the book of Job: “Your own mouth condemns you.” I wonder whether he can perhaps offer more convincing substance.

Toto’s association with Mack was not limited to running his 2010 campaign. You may recall that Mr. Toto was also involved in an attempt to get in on the Mack Administration patronage job money train.

In December 2010, Mayor Mack attempted to award a contract to Toto as the city’s Youthstat Coordinator coordinating Trenton’s policy on gang-related issues without City Council approval. Here’s a piece I wrote at the time, offered in lieu of the Trentonian article or Mack Administration press release I reference in the piece, and which no longer appear to be available online. In the piece I quote Mack as saying Mr. Toto was appointed immediately as of 12/4/2010 “on an interim basis subject to council approval but will start right away in a paid role.”

Mack’s attempt to hire Toto came to a sputtering stop after a very contentious City Council meeting, in which an earlier Mack campaign manager criticized Toto. In the Times account of 12/15/2010 by Meir Rinde,

As the mayor watched from his seat nearby, Jerrell Blakely, who served as Mack’s campaign manager at the start of his mayoral run last year, stood at the podium at last night’s city council meeting and accused his former boss of incompetence and cronyism. He pointed out that Mack recently selected a friend, Dan Toto, as the city’s Youthstat coordinator, an anti-gang position.

“Today, I’m here to implore the council to not vote for Danny Toto,” Blakely said. “He has no experience in gang fighting, anywhere. The only reason that Danny Toto is even being considered for this position is because of his relationship with the mayor.”

That’s the last Trenton saw of Dan Toto, until last year when he managed the mayoral campaign of then-Council member Kathy McBride. Trentonians will remember Ms. McBride’s campaign for two things. First, her continued refusal to participate in candidate forums or debates with the other mayoral wanna-bes, based on a strategy that her appeal was to low-information voters who did not care about debates. This campaign strategy, implemented by her manager Mr. Toto, resulted in the second memorable point about Kathy McBride’s 2014 mayoral campaign: her last-place finish in the field of 6.

Dan Toto may have experience and qualifications that may actually recommend him as a candidate for Tuesday’s election. I don’t know; I haven’t heard much about them, and what I have heard is truly unremarkable,

But I do know that anyone with a long record of close association with the likes of Tony Mack – he of the conclusively demonstrated “legal” variety of Mercer County corruption – and Kathy “Blue Waffle” McBride has no business claiming the mantle of Outside Reformer, True Democrat, or whatever other label he’s trying to pin on himself.

“Dan Toto for Assembly” isn’t New. It isn’t Fresh. It’s just more of the Same Old Shit in a New Box.

Trenton. Where Good Ideas Get Ruined.

Over the last several years, there’s been a lot to laugh at in Trenton, New Jersey. The things that have happened here; the words that have been said; the people that say them; have all provided us all a lot of smiles, chuckles, titters, and outright guffaws. Most of the time the humor is only appreciated by those of us who live or work here , but there are occasions when we cause the world to laugh.

Although, it has to be said, on those occasions the world is more often laughing at us than with us.

Because of all that enjoyment we’ve unwittingly provided to the world at our expense it was more than a little gratifying to see an event last year that, for one short and sun-shiny day at least, gave the planet a chance to smile and laugh (and dab at our lips and cheeks with napkins) at something in Trenton that was nothing but fun. I speak, of course, of May 24, 2014, the day Trenton celebrated Pork Roll.

As a transplant to this town, and as a non-native New Jerseyan, I will admit that, apart from the occasional taste of the stuff – I do like it – I can’t say I’ve ever gotten excited about pork roll. I didn’t go to last year’s festival, and was pretty non-committal about this year’s events. But I was more than pleased that there WAS such an event produced last year. It was a great idea, and it was pulled off with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It was far more popular than the planners ever thought it would be. There were the usual growing pains experienced by many similar events: not enough food ordered for the numbers of people who showed up, physical space too small for the crowds who showed, long lines for food and beverage throughout the day. But, by all accounts and any measure, the day was a smashing success. Those who attended had a great time, as the 46(!) pictures attached to this account in the Trenton Times of May 24 last year prove that. People ate, they drank, they had fun. In Trenton. Fantastic. As the headline in the Times  suggested, this day was intended to be the first of many. The “Inaugural” festival to create the mold for many years to come.It was a great day for Trenton. A day that had nothing to do with any of the other craziness that this town is too well known for. A day when the only thing to worry about was if the pork roll would run out before you got to the front of the line.

A completely and entirely Fantastic and Fun day, in other words. Even though I didn’t go last year, I looked forward to this year’s event, and beyond. For once, I thought, Trenton had come up with an idea that was so unique, so much fun, and so basically uncomplicated, that nothing and no one could screw it up.

Now, as I said above, I didn’t attend last year’s event, I don’t know any part of the behind-the-scenes drama about the falling-out that led to the creation of two rival events, to be held at two separate locations on the very same day this year. My initial, uninformed take on it, shared by many in this town I talked to, was that this kind of development, and the publicity it created, could be a good thing. Two dueling festivals in different parts of town on the same day might actually create more buzz and draw bigger crowds than last year’s. Heck, there’s even been talk of a Vegan Pork Roll Festival, if you can conceive such a thing, being planned for the same day!

Trenton seemed to be on the verge of a renaissance fueled by processed meats. Let a thousand pork roll festivals blossom!!

Well, once again, Trenton showed me that there is no good thing that can’t get screwed up. In this case, by a falling out among the two main organizers that has led over the last 12 months, first, to the prospect of two separate and competing festivals on the same day this year. And most recently this week, to the threat of legal action by one against the other.

This latest development became public on the pages of Facebook yesterday, and has been taken up by the local media this morning in both the Times and Trentonian. The wire services will no doubt pick this up today, and I have every expectation that the rest of the world will soon be chuckling at our most recent foibles.

Which to me is one damn shame. Because it will be further proof that this town is full of fuck-ups. Because it will show that it doesn’t take long for a good idea, even a relatively small (in the cosmic sense of things), light-hearted and affectionate idea like a local food festival can get screwed up by ego, greed and small-mindedness.

From where I sit, as a bystander, I have to look at the actions taken this week by Scott Miller and shake my head. He is the person who retained a lawyer to send a “cease-and-desist” letter to TC Nelson. Both were the principal organizers of last year’s event. The inspiration for the event seems to have been Miller’s. The venue was Nelson’s very successful Trenton Social restaurant. Both organized and produced the event in 2014, and apparently had a falling-out over the last year. Mr. Miller retained a lawyer to send a threatening letter to Mr. Nelson, accusing him of violating Miller’s “intellectual property rights, including the trademark and copyrights attached as Exhibit A.” Mr. Nelson, quite understandably, is upset, and he took to his Facebook page yesterday to vent his anger at his former associate.

The “Exhibit A” mentioned in the cease-and-desist letter is as of now unavailable for examination. But it is possible to examine applications for Trademarks, in an attempt to satisfy one’s curiosity about the validity of some of these claims. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government agency that grants trademarks, part of the “intellectual property” claimed by Mr. Miller. That office maintains something called the “Trademark Electronic Search System,” a searchable database for registrations applied for and granted by the office. A cursory search of the term “Pork Roll” returns some very interesting results.

An application by Mr. Miller’s company “Pork Roll Productions” was indeed filed with the USPTO, on March 26 of this year. A summary of the application can be seen here. There is a lot of information here, in his attempt to claim the phrase “pork roll festival” as a registered Trademark. Let me point out just a few key notes.

The application claims the “First Use Anywhere Date” of “At least as early as 3/15/2014,” which sounds about right for an event first held last May.

But in answer to an item that says “SECTION 2(f) Claim of Acquired Distinctiveness, based on Use” Miller’s  application states “The mark has become distinctive of the goods/services through the applicant’s substantially exclusive and continuous use in commerce that the U.S. Congress may lawfully regulate for at least the five years immediately before the date of this statement. [Emphasis mine - KM]”

Five years? Really? Seems to me that, if one of the requirements of getting an exclusive trademark for a phrase is five years of “exclusive and continuous use” then a statement that it has only been in use since 2014 makes the application about 4 years premature. Another statement about the status of Mr. Miller’s application says that his March 2015 application will not even be assigned to an internal USPTO attorney for review and approval three months after the application, or June of this year at the earliest. At that time, I would guess that the assigned review attorney will ask Mr. Miller about the discrepancy between his statement about “at least five years” of usage before a “first use” in 2014.

Seems to me that Mr. Miller’s cease-and-desist letter is nothing more than a bad-faith attempt to force Mr. Nelson (and, perhaps, the Vegans, too!) to cancel his competing festival, based on a very very dubious claim of exclusive intellectual property rights.

Shame on Scott Miller. Shame on him for turning what started out as a great idea turned into a great little event inspired by local Trenton pride – a little kooky yes, but isn’t Trenton more than a little kooky? – and trying to squeeze out everyone else who helped turn the event from an idea into a reality.In the process, he seriously risks the good will to this event that he AND TC Nelson earned last year.

Nothing will draw people to a street festival – and, really, that’s what this is, a great local street festival – like the promise of a few hours of fun, good food and drink, and good times. And nothing will keep them away like the smell of greed.

If Scott Miller has any common sense left in him, he should apologize to TC Nelson today for his stupid and ill-considered letter this week, and for what sounds like months of pig-headed selfish behavior leading up to it. He has a short window of time to that, before news of his bone-headed greed spreads more widely and spoils a good thing for everyone.

It would be a shame if one of the nicest things to come out of this town in years gets ruined by Scott Miller’s petty spite.

Lip Service

You know that old puzzle? “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I won’t worry with that one right now, but I will suggest a variation on that question to ask in Trenton, NJ: “If a street fight breaks out, and there’s no smartphone to record it, does anyone pay attention?”

The answer to that one, apparently, is “No!”

A very nasty fight broke out this week at Trenton’s Greg Grant Park. Two young girls, 16- and 17-year-old sisters were, in the words of the Trenton Times’ Kevin Shea, “punched, kicked and stomped by a crowd of people in Greg Grant Park in Trenton on Monday while onlookers videoed the melee and urged more violence… During the brawl, Lajahia Cooke was struck in the right ear with a brick, causing a wound that required 15 stitches to close, she said. Destiny Cooke lost a chunk of hair, leaving a bald spot. At various points in the attack, both women were held down while others throw punches and kick the teens.”

As I said, nasty. There are several unanswered questions about the fight that are as of this morning unanswered. The identity of the attackers is under investigation by Trenton Police, and the role of the Police is also at issue. A spokesperson for TPD confirms there were officers on the scene, having been sent there after police received a 911 call about the fight.What they did or did not do at the scene is being examined.

Although the fight took place this past Monday, it did not rise to public notice until some cellphone video started appearing on Wednesday. Local press started appearing online that day, and in print yesterday. The story also picked up some attention further afield, with TV stations in Philadelphia and New York running stories on the fight.

All this attention focusing on Trenton led to a public appearance by Mayor Eric Jackson yesterday. A news conference was held at Greg Grant Park headed up by the mayor, backed up by several members of City Council, senior Police officers, and community members.  A piece in The Times by Jenna Pizzi and Keith Brown describe the mayor as “visibly angry,” and that comes across in the video clip embedded in the online piece.

The mayor had strong words to say yesterday. “I will use the full power of my office to bring those responsible to justice.
We are better than that as a city and we are better than that as people. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city… This type of meaningless violence, no matter how it begins, will not be tolerated in the City of Trenton.”

Yes, strong words. But they are hollow and empty. Hollow and empty because we Do Tolerate behavior like this. The fight in the park this week was indeed horrible, and the injuries suffered by the Clarke sisters shocking; I wish them a quick recovery. That no one in the crowd stepped in to help the girls or attempt to stop the assault is sickening.

But I do not believe, for one minute, that this incident would have received this kind of attention had not the video of the incident not been posted online and picked up by the media. I don’t believe the Mayor and the Council members would have appeared at a press conference yesterday if the morning newspapers hadn’t covered the story. The assault and near riot occurred Monday. The Mayor spoke only yesterday. What happened in the meantime? The media got interested, locally and then in the region.

Am I being cynical?

Where was the outrage over this fight?

Or this one?

Did I miss the press conference about this?


Was there “visible anger” after viewing this video?

If you search for “Trenton fight” on YouTube, you’ll find these and many more videos. Some are recent, some are several years old. This sort of stuff happens in Trenton all the time. We do tolerate this, Mr. Jackson! This is all meaningless violence, and it is not uncommon.

The Clarke sisters were brutally beaten by a crowd after having done nothing wrong, and that makes this incident in my mind worse than the others. But that many of the people in these other videos were in many cases willing participants does nothing to excuse them and those incidents.They are, all of them, nasty and unacceptable.

That a lot of people choose to record video of these fights and attacks rather than take any action to help or defuse a situation means that too many look at these fights more as entertainment than as serious assaults or worse.

We do tolerate these, far too much. And we have, for far too long. And in making this entertainment, we do more than tolerate it. We are complicit in it. We encourage it.

That’s why when I see and hear Mr. Jackson express his outrage, I see and hear Lip Service. Cheap Theater.

When I see Council Members stand behind him, I see Council members who’ve been in office for close to five years now, and who’ve done Nothing in their time.

When I hear the bold proclamation, “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our city,” I say “Yeah, right. Until the next time. And only if someone records video.”