Christopher Conte is a former correspondent for GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Mayor Milton Milan was convicted in December on corruption charges, it seemed that the so-called "Curse of Camden" had dropped this dysfunctional New Jersey city to a new low. Milan was the third mayor in 20 years to plead guilty to felony charges, and his fall came as the state of New Jersey, which already supervises some of the city's finances, was pressing for legislation to assume complete control of city operations. But the Camden City Council earned at least a temporary reprieve by making an unorthodox choice as Milan's replacement. The council picked 75-year-old Gwendolyn Faison, the one public figure with a solid image of rectitude in a city tarnished by a full generation of civic crime.
Earthy, politically shrewd and remarkably energetic--she likes to skip down the corridors of City Hall at the end of a long day--Faison is a retired data-processing administrator and 16-year council veteran. She had become more and more estranged from Milan and angered by his personal excesses, such as the full-time security guard and the "Mayormobile," the black, customized Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows, police radio and flashing lights in which Milan raced around the city, enforcing codes and arresting alleged drug dealers. During her predecessor's last year in office, Faison cast the solitary vote against him and in favor of state intervention in the city's affairs. When a jury finally found Milan guilty of mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to solicit bribes from mobsters, money laundering and staging a burglary to collect insurance payments, Faison emerged from the situation with her reputation intact, if not enhanced.
Equally important, Faison is on good terms with state government. During Milan's tenure, she consistently was the only city official invited to ribbon-cutting and groundbreaking ceremonies for state projects. Last fall, she was the only council member to vote in favor of recognizing a new business administrator appointed by the state financial oversight committee.
Since becoming mayor, Faison has been determined to show that she is serious about cleaning up Camden's act. She has fired or reassigned holdouts from the Milan administration and reestablished the city's Purchasing and Review Committee, which Milan had effectively dismantled in an effort to take personal control of city contracts.
"I cannot afford to be arrogant because the city of Camden doesn't have enough resources," Faison explains (state aid covers 70 percent of Camden's $115 million budget). "But I have a feeling that if we continue to cooperate, there will be no need for [state takeover] legislation. We are putting our house in order."
Reformer though she may be, Faison knows how to operate in the city's patronage-based political system. Shortly after she took office, Hispanic leaders began grumbling that she was insensitive to their concerns. She met with the disgruntled politicians and immediately appointed several Latinos to city jobs. As a result, Councilman Israel Nieves, once a vocal critic, now says, "I support Mrs. Faison 100 percent--no, 1,000 percent." That's no small matter, since Faison plans to seek election as mayor after her interim appointment expires in June.
The new mayor also can play hardball when she wants to. In January, when Camden's chief financial officer came under attack, he struck out at Faison by noting that an audit pointing to irregularities in his office also cited problems in the municipal court, where Faison's son is a judge. The mayor was unfazed by the implicit threat of retaliation against her family. "If he's wrong," she said of her son, "throw his ass out."
Faison doesn't claim to be proud of that statement, but she stands behind it, and admits it worked to her political advantage. "I had to go to church and ask forgiveness," says the mayor. "But people all came up to me and said, `Good girl, now we know who's running the town.'"
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