TRENTON – Roman Hall.
An older era refuge from a city in shambles.
With its expansive gilded mirrors, chandeliers, and statues sprung from the pages of a working class volume of Dante’s Paradiso, the place – now called Infinity’s – looks like the carefully wrought vision of an Italian American patriarch.
You can’t go far amid the maze of walls and bars in here without hearing the clink of bottles or catching the same recurring face at an odd angle in a reflective surface.
Or recurring faces.
This is the fifth candidates’ forum in as many nights and the sluggishness of the contest with less than three weeks to go hangs over the hall. It feels like Koch versus Cuomo in that New York mayor’s race when the two combatants had so tired of each other that they could barely stand to sit next to each other and hear the same platitudes mouthed repeatedly.
Then Frank Weeden steps to the microphone, his feeble voice nearly breaking with anger as he charges in his opening remarks at Department of Public Works Director Eric Jackson.
“This afternoon I was in court and I didn’t do anything wrong – the city was wrong,” announces the candle factory owner.
There is a rustle in the crowd with the expectation of breaking news.
“Last year, the city administrators took a ten percent raise at the same time that the city laid off city workers,” Weeden says. “We filed a complaint and today Judge Feinberg ruled it invalid. she felt sorry for the highest paid officials in our city. I left the courtroom shaking my head thinking that the highest paid officials – and yes, that includes Eric Jackson – are getting paid that kind of money while workers are being laid off.
“There’s a lot of fat at the top and we want to get rid of that fat,” adds the candidate.
That prompts a gruff laugh from a man at a nearby table, who follows it up with a clap just before Weeden winds down and sits down to a rush of applause.
He and Jackson have been entangled in this mano-a-mano for at least a week, and with Weeden landing first now there is conflict in a room that moments earlier was devoid of dramatic tension.
The forces of retiring Mayor Doug Palmer say Weeden’s focus on the mayor’s ten-person cabinet doesn’t examine the underlying budget expense, which is police and fire salaries and overtime, or 70% of the city’s budget.
“Ten sergeants make what ten cabinet members make and then there’s overtime,” says an insider. “We’re talking sergeants, not lieutenants, not captains!”
Next up is community activist Shahid Watson.
Former Mercer County Freeholder Tony Mack moments earlier briefly sketched the outline of a hard luck background in a city where 32% of the population depends on public assistance, but Watson lays out a nightmarish biography that completely silences the audience.
Mother a heroin addict. Father a dope fiend. Brother died. Parents died of AIDS. Another brother in the pen. Homeless on the streets of Newark.
“I’m driven by a different set of circumstances, which is why I pledged to my God that I would fight against these ills for the rest of my life,” says Watson.
“We in Trenton have to come together,” he adds.
Two weeks ago, Watson went nuclear on his fellow candidates in defending the legacy of his “dear brother” Mayor Palmer.
But now – and maybe he’s been told he’s a no-go for a mayoral go-bro, and yes, there were rumors this week that the retiring mayor may publicly endorse a candidate – he throws Palmer headlong onto the same downgrade.
“The present administration who have been a part of this disaster for 127 years, for a century and a quarter have not gotten it right. So what makes you think they’ll get it right in four more years?” Watson exclaims.
He doesn’t have time to elaborate. Time’s up.
Later, Watson goes on a tear, in the process criticizing DPW chief Jackson.
“Let’s get real,” Watson says. “Quality of life? When you drive in Trenton, are you going for a comfortable ride, or are you driving in Beirut? We don’t have potholes in Trenton. We have MINEFIELDS!”
Jackson later dismisses Watson.
“We don’t need jokes about our city, I’m being serious here,” he says.
Battling the storyline that he’s not from Trenton, At-Large Councilman Manuel Segura at the microphone for the first time tonight announces that he graduated from Trenton State College and people clap.
Chambersburg is Manny country.
He doubles down on what Weeden expressed earlier.
“This administration laid off 177 people and wants to privatize school lunch to save those people up at the top making six figures,” he says.
Council President Paul Pintella steps to the microphone.
Disparaged in the circles of his adversaries as a Palmer homunculus, he tries to aovid implosion at the hands of everyone else’s attacks on City Hall leadership by training his sights on Gov. Chris Christie, who has proposed slashing $43 million in state aid to Trenton on top of its budget deficit.
“This country has deprived us of money that we cannot tax you on, money that we do not have the capacity to make up,” he says. “I am here to tell you we are in a fiscal state of emergency.”
On his way toward assuming charge of a broken city, Pintella has a political problem, and part of it includes Jackson.
Both men take punishment from the other candidates for being in power now as the city struggles: Pintella as the council president hand-picked by Palmer and Jackson as the DPW director. In a field of ten in which eight of the other candidates are runnign against the power, Pintella begins the race fighting his ally Jackson for dominion over a key voting bloc: City Hall employees, their families and portions of the current mayor’s existing political infrastruture.
The next man at the microphone has other challenges.
Running as a political outsider and polar opposite of Pintella/Jackson, businessman John Harmon steps up and takes a swing at Segura in front of the councilman’s home crowd.
“Mr. Segura, thank you for joining us, you’ve been absent from the last two debates,” he announces shortly before generating a big positive response from the crowd when he says Trenton could generate $50 million by imposing a wage tax on people who work here but don’t live here.
Moments later, a still animated Harmon protests when one Jennifer Godowski is announced as a stand-in for mayoral candidate West Ward Councilwoman Annette Lartigue.
“I don’t think it’s right,” he says, referring to the presence of a surrogate.
There’s a commotion.
“All right, I’ll yield,” Harmon says finally. “But I still don’t think it’s right.”
If Harmon expends more energy attacking Segura than any of the other candidates, it’s because Segura – despite his arrival in City Hall as an ally of Palmer’s – is himself trying to run as a grassroots outsider.
The graver threat for both Segura and Harmon is that Mack – running what in the opinion of even his enemies appears to be a very strong and organized campaign – is also fighting hard to maintain his role as the absolute counterweight to the Palmer nerve center.
Once Mack and Pintella were two Howard University graduates prized by Freeholder Doug Palmer as homegrown disciples. For 16 years, Pintella stood by the mayor and now runs as the loyal would-be successor in an environment Palmer doubted he could weather as an incumbent.
Mack runs as the man who couldn’t wait, who nursed his ambitions as long as he could before challenging the aging Palmer in 2006, losing, and suffering in return the mayor’s wrath when he lost the county line and subsequently his seat on the freeholder board.
They were both Palmer men, establishment officials – but Mack’s loss put him on the outside; painful at the time, but ultimately useful. In the middle of Trenton’s financial meltdown, Mack’s counting on being the outsider.
It’s a big crowd, filled with a lot of recognizable faces.
Former Councilman John Cipriano occupies one of the round tables in front of a stage where the mayoral candidates sit at a table behind a bright white table cloth.
“Mack,” Cipriano says in response to the question of who he backs for mayor.
“John Harmon,” another guy in a suit and wearing an earpiece phone answers when asked the same question.
“Good guy, Harmon,” says Cipriano, grinning devilishly. “I wouldn’t mind if he comes in second. But Mack’s going to win.”
Watson, entertaining the crowd with his theatrical delivery – a confluence of street and Shakespeare – boasts at one point that he will go to Chicago to meet with President Barack Obama’s brain trust on behalf of Trenton.
“Chi is where you need to be to talk to Obama’s people,” he says and there are giggles in the crowd.
His real adversaries are elsewhere and the biggest one among them may be his old fellow Palmer protege turned prodigal son Mack, but Pintella can’t resist the opening Watson gives him as he once again targets Christie.
“Solving our crisis starts at home,” he tells the crowd. “Before I start hopping on an airplane and flying to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, it starts with holding this governor accountable.”