The fight for Jersey’s Shining Star

In the Hamilton race for control of City Hall pitting Democratic Mayor Glen Gilmore against Republican businessman John Bencivengo, the dynamic involves that old struggle for the town’s identity, and the argument comes with particular urgency in a summer of countywide gangland violence that hit Hamilton hard last week.

Population near 90,0000, Hamilton looks like Jersey’s final, 40-square mile fortress of criss-crossing highways where every blue collar Davy Crockett backed up to the edge of the state can take a last, rifle-swinging stand at an affordable life for himself and his family.
Unlike upscale, gated suburban municipalities in perennial Norman Rockwell mode that require the insulation of other, lesser valued towns to act as buffers and then buffers on top of buffers as more towns press to provide plenty of distance security from urban encroachment, Hamilton dares to sit at the doorstep of Trenton and ask the question, “What do you want from me?”
This is one of those can’t-rid-of-me-easy towns populated with old, beer gut tough guys wearing Navy baseball caps and women who keep guys like that in line with one-liners. Here you can play a game of darts at the bar in the Ancient Order of Hibernians at 9 p.m ., catch an inning or two of the Mets game at the Elks Lodge before 9:30, nurse a beer at one of the local union halls before 10, and round it off with a chaser at the Veterans of Foreign War banquet hall, all before hitting the taverns.
Hamilton looks like it can take care of itself, and the 50,279 registered voters say as much come election time with that peculiarly Hamiltonian independent streak: 12,567 are registered Democrats, 7,935 Republicans – and 29,777 are independents.
Though it has a thriving feel to it these days, some of the town’s Trenton borders have that transient, danger zone quality, confirmed by the worried looks on faces of some older residents amid the for sale signs. One man who’s been there for years says he’s ready to fight to the finish, but his wife tells him bluntly he’s dreaming, and it’s time for them to move.
A lot’s happened in Hamilton in the time of Gilmore, the first Democratic mayor in almost 25 years, who announced his reelection bid earlier this year in a humble, front yard ceremony at the home of his friend, a retired Army colonel.
Being mayor is tough in Jersey’s eighth largest city, er… suburb. Well, technically municipality, but though their town edges Trenton in population, most Hamiltonians and even the town’s website insist on tagging it a suburban community. As chief executive here at a time of unprecedented growth, Gilmore continues to face criticism for taking campaign contributions from developers – two of them involved in big town projects, one of them, Transit Village, a 680-unit behemoth. Bencivengo wants to make an issue out of that in this campaign – as it was in the last council race that polished off two Gilmore allies.
But the more pressing matter for the challenger is the culture created by higher density development that he says has been a feature of the last seven plus years under Gilmore. Bencivengo says the mayor is helping to transform the tough nut burgh into a full-fledged city – an extension of Trenton. He contends that Hamiltonians would rather pay lower taxes, mow their own lawns and wave to policemen, rather than live in cramped quarters with a stunning array of government services, higher taxes, neighbors they don’t know and large expanses of public space.
“People came here to live in the suburbs,” maintains Bencivengo, a Trenton native and owner of an interior design business who moved from the Chambersburg section of Trenton to Hamilton when he married his wife Donna 33 years ago. “We want to build what’s reasonable and fair, I understand that. But the development that’s gone on during the Gilmore years has resulted in a net loss in terms of schools, public safety and police.”
And on the same week that Mercer County Sheriff’s Deputy Joshua Hahn was pistol-whipped and shot at point-blank range on Broad Street outside of Anthony’s Pizza by a self-proclaimed member of the Bloods Gang, Bencivengo said if elected he’ll be sure to crack down on crime.
“You worry about the kids,” says the candidate, who in part blames Trenton leadership for the spillover of gang violence into Hamilton. “Mayor (Douglas) Palmer and them are not doing what they should do. Our borders have to be preserved. It’s not going to be tolerated here. Washington, Lawrenceville, Ewing – we need to come up with a solution to this gang problem. This will be one of my most important initiatives as mayor. This is about urbanization and people moving here because they wanted the suburbs and they don’t want the suburbs turned into a city. This is a community of neighborhoods.”
Gilmore convened a gang summit weeks ago, and in the aftermath of the shooting visited Hahn in the hospital on the day he was shot and the day after, and met with the county executive, sheriff and other area mayors to discuss tactics.
“Trenton is our capital city, and what goes on there is painful and troubling,” says the mayor, a former municipal prosecutor who serves on the League of Municipalities Gang Prevention Task Force. “But it is a mistake to suggest the problem is Trenton.”
Everyone has to pull together for the battle against gangs, he argues.
“I’m determined to do all I can,” says Gilmore. “I am proud of the fact that we’ve been recognized as one of America’s safest cities for a seven-year period by CNN and Money Magazine. We are one of the safest communities at a time when communities near us are struggling with some of the most violent crime… We can’t for a moment become any less vigilant and the challenges are greater and greater in a culture of violence that is unlike any other I’ve seen before.”
There are 182 officers on the police force. The mayor’s critics say Hamilton needs more men and women in uniform. But if the classically conservative approach to social problems is to pour on a heavy barrage of law and order, Gilmore has tried to play on Hamilton’s other cultural strengths to cultivate a mostly safe and vibrant community.
As blue collar an image as Hamilton suggests – undeniably as the town contains more residents with union membership cards than anywhere else in the state – the presence of Grounds for Sculpture, a highly regarded sculpture garden and museum; Einstein Alley, a corridor of high tech businesses; and the recently completed Marketplace on Route 133 – a bells and whistles corporate spillzone of all the typical zeppelin-sized stock shops – makes Hamilton more than just a working class relic.
They even have a hip coffee house in Hamilton now.
Gilmore concedes there has been higher density development here, but he says his administration’s attention to aesthetic detail – buffer zones for the Marketplace, plantings all over town, historic street lights in the Grovesville neighborhood, upkeep of parks like Anchor Thread and use of the old, abandoned textile mill located there for community movies, and renovation of the Dwier Recreation center for young people – provide evidence that “we’re here for the long haul.” A champion of “smart growth,” the mayor says there’s been more public open space preserved during his time in office than at any other time in Hamilton’s history.
“I’ve tried to identify open space so every neighborhood has a park or woods they can walk to, not drive to,” says the mayor. “We’ve preserved a couple of hundred acres. There are not many homes from the 1700s left in America. I’ve been able to save three of them.”
And he’s paid attention to seniors with the unveiling of a new senior center.
But all of the cultural events and Jeffersonian urbanity in the world plus a tax hike over the last four years of 25% that clobbers seniors harder than anyone aren’t a substitute for bulking up the town’s crime fighting fitness, the challenger argues.
“Movies in the park are a nice thing,” says Bencivengo. “We need additional police on the street. We need to strengthen public safety. We need to propose a gang free zone at the schools, install cameras on outside of the buildings. The gangs are starting to take root and we must stop them.” The candidate promises that if elected mayor he would serve as public safety director – not hire someone to fill that job as some of his critics have suggested he might do.
Gilmore says Hamilton’s taxes are among the lowest in the county, and burnishes the town’s police surveillance system among other crime fighting measures.
They anticipate a tough, expensive campaign (Gilmore will likely have the money edge, incidentally), these two men who butted heads back when Bencivengo ran the Hamilton Partnership at the behest of Gilmore’s successor, Republican Mayor Jack Rafferty. Bencivengo says a politics-frenzied Gilmore pushed him out in 2004. The mayor denies it.
In any event, for all of their differences, which no doubt will be underscored in a typically bloodletting Hamilton contest, Gilmore and Bencivengo come from similar working class backgrounds. Much is made of the fact that Gilmore, 44, wasn’t born in Hamilton. But he comes from Manville, onetime site and namesake of the Johns Manville Asbestos Company. Gilmore’s father worked for Manville and died of asbestosis, a lung disease that slowly killed many of the workers who toiled at that plant.
Bencivengos’ father, a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, is 88 years old and campaigning for his son. The candidate’s mother is 84.
“My father worked in a refrigeration supply factory in Trenton as a machine operator,” says the 54-year old Bencivengo. “He lost two of his fingers when he got his glove caught in the rollers of a roll form machine, which took long sheets of metal and bent them and put holes in them. My mother was a seamstress.”
Now Gilmore and Bencivengo are contending not only with each other – but with the remnants of the manufacturing era that died with their fathers’ generation, and left the neighboring state capital’s motto hanging on a bridge like a bad punch line: “Trenton makes and the world takes,” along with the accompanying trio of joblessness, despair and gangs that they can’t escape – not even in “New Jersey’s Shining Star,” Hamilton’s nickname.
The day after Hahn, 29, was shot, the mayor’s car again pulled into Capital Health Trauma Center just across the Hamilton border in Trenton. The sheriff’s deputy detective had been upgraded over night from critical to stable, but he was still in the intensive care unit.
Driving with his father on Broad Street, Hahn had seen a man screaming at his sister on the street near the pizza parlor. When Hahn intervened, the man beat him and shot him. The white gangsta was later arrested with the help of the Hamilton Police Department.
In the hall outside ICU last Monday, a friend of Hahn’s told Gilmore that the detective said he wore his hero’s underwear on the morning of the shooting. The lawman’s father shook the mayor’s hand and thanked him for coming to the hospital. Gilmore entered the ICU unit and walked over to the detective, who was lying in bed. There were two family members in the room with the officer and they stood on either side, clutching Hahn’s hands. The mayor reached out.
“We’re praying for you,” Gilmore told him. “Get out of here.”
The lawman grinned beneath the oxygen tubes, under the scratches and welts on his face evidently made by the butt of the gun, and he nodded in acknowledgment of the mayor’s words, nodded forcefully, as if saying, “I’ll get out right now.”
Downstairs in the lobby were two Hamilton police officers and as he passed them, Gilmore said, “Hey, guys, be careful out there.”
The feeling everywhere was Hahn was going to be all right, he was too tough, but the police were shaken, it was obvious, and the undercurrent in the town – half suburb, half city – was what’s going to happen now with this gangs situation and to the question, “Where is Hahn from?” the mayor confirmed, “Hamilton.”
The fight for Jersey’s Shining Star