During a routine business meeting in a conference room in Trenton on Thursday, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority approved its third largest tax break in state history — $260 million for a new manufacturing plant on the waterfront in Camden.
The unanimous vote was remarkable in that it is yet another indication that Camden – routinely derided as the poorest and most dangerous city in America – has become something of a laboratory for Gov. Chris Christie to experiment with urban renewal.
Through a mix of state intervention in police and schools, tax incentives for large businesses and a personal touch with local Democratic politicos, Christie has created a potential legacy for his governorship and a platform for winning swing voters in a 2016 presidential race.
But to some long-time Camden residents and political observers, Christie is repeating a failed pattern of the past by building up institutions without directly helping the people. To that end he has partnered with George Norcross, the de facto leader of the South Jersey Democrats, the chairman of Camden's Cooper University Hospital and the former co-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. For decades Norcross has been able to amass political donations to become a kingmaker in New Jersey politics.
After Christie took over the Camden schools last year — a move that had Norcross’s support — Christie spoke at an event that Norcross held at Cooper University Hospital.
“This stuff isn’t easy to do,” Christie said. “But nor should it be easy for us to continue to ignore these children. Let’s be honest. That’s what we have done. We can rationalize as much as we want. We have ignored their futures. And today is a symbol of the beginning of the end of that conduct.”
Christie speaks in grand terms when visiting Camden — and he has visited often. Christie held about two dozen public events in the city, more than any municipality besides Trenton since 2012. That’s an extraordinary number — especially for a Republican in a city that went 97 percent for President Barack Obama in 2012.
Recently, Camden has offered Christie safe haven when things in Trenton get hot. It was one of his first public stops after the Bridgegate story broke in January; he held five events in one day last month while his chief of staff was testifying about the lane closures before the legislature, 40 miles away.
Unlike Newark, New Jersey's largest city, which has a more fractious political climate, Christie is welcomed in Camden because he has the support of Norcross. Christie has relied on the bloc of votes that Norcross controls in the legislature for initiatives like public worker benefits reform, which forced Democrats to buck their labor union base. And Christie has supported Norcross’s priorities for remaking Camden, from expanding higher education institutions to signing a bill, sponsored by Norcross’s brother, State Sen. Donald Norcross, that created a new kind of publicly-financed, privately-run school in Camden. The first such school, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, is now under construction.
Sen. Donald Norcross also co-sponsored a bill that created new corporate tax incentives in Camden. It was signed by Christie. One result of that bill was $260 million for Holtec International, which manufactures industrial energy equipment, over 10 years — that's the deal that the Economic Development Authority approved on Thursday. Holtec's CEO, Krishna Singh, was George Norcross’s partner when he owned The Inquirer, and Norcross sits on Holtec’s board of directors. The company is expected to create 235 new jobs in Camden, but there's no guarantee Camden residents will get those positions.
A spokesman for Norcross said Norcross will not financially benefit from the deal, and is not paid for his board position. Michele Brown, the close Christie adviser who is his top appointee at the Economic Development Authority, said she was not aware of Norcross’s connection with the company until the press reported on it this week. She told WNYC that she had no contact with Norcross about the deal.
But the Christie-Norcross relationship has been publicly evident elsewhere in Camden. Last year, citing the fact that the city had 23 of the state’s 26 worst performing schools, Christie initiated a state takeover of the district and appointed a new superintendent who subsequently laid off teachers to deal with a budget gap. But Norcross-backed Democrats, most notably the mayor and city council in Camden, continued to support Christie. By contrast, leaders of other urban school districts under state control are agitating for independence.
This political support is the reason why Christie has spent so much time here, his advisers say — he can get things done. Christie long worked with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, but Booker has moved on to the U.S. Senate and anti-Christie activists there have grown more vocal.
In Camden, Christie has built alliances with African American and Hispanic politicians that his advisers believe will resonate in a presidential race. And they think it could help him not just in cities, but in towns that surround those cities — like in the nearby Pennsylvania suburbs around Philadelphia, filled with swing voters.
A photographer and videographer document Christie’s trips to Camden (as they do for his visits to other towns), collecting images of cute moments, like when he plays catch with a bunch of kids at a Little League field or shoots free throws at a rec center. Last month, he missed 11 of those shots, but asked for the ball back one more time — when he finally banked it in.
That constant presence is bearing fruit. He got just 604 votes in the city in 2009, but tripled that in 2013. Small numbers still, but a trajectory his advisers like to see.
“In all the years of previous governors, we were always the forgotten city, they never came to Camden and showed the love that Christie does,” said Emiliano Reyes Jr., a 40-year-old Camden truck driver, who sees new development near the waterfront as an optimistic sign. “It’s like flowers growing out of concrete, man it’s awesome, it’s awesome.”
But for some who have been involved in Camden politics for years, skepticism abounds.
Kelly Francis, long-time head of the NAACP here, stood one afternoon at a parking lot on the Camden waterfront — on the very site where yet another tax incentive will lead to yet another development that Francis doesn’t believe will have any impact on the community.
This one is for $82 million, so the Philadelphia 76ers can open a practice gym. Fifty new jobs are being created, but none are guaranteed for Camden residents.
The waterfront is filled with similarly-gleaming investments that were intended to revitalize the economy here — an aquarium, a battleship museum, a minor-league ballpark — but so far none of them has had a transformative effect, and few jobs for city residents have been created. All make so-called PILOTs — Payments In Lieu of Taxes. None of that money goes to the Camden school district, which relies on the state for almost all its funding.
The state also funds most of the city’s municipal budget, and Christie has found another way to save money in the long-term: He provided $10 million in state funding so the city police department could be closed and replaced with a countywide force.
Camden officials had long complained of overly-generous police contracts. By eliminating the police department they said they could roll back those perks. He has said he would consider replicating this experiment in other cities, too.
The police chief, Scott Thomson, ran the old force and is at the helm of the new one. He says there are more cops on the street and violent crime is rapidly dropping.
“You have to remember our residents were being victimized at Third World country rates,” Thomson said. “It was time for a new paradigm.”
But activists think Christie created a problem he could then fix. When he first came into office, Christie didn’t provide enough state dollars to maintain staffing levels. Nearly half the department was temporarily laid off, leading to a drop in arrests and a record-setting murder rate. That created a crisis, said the NAACP's Francis, that allowed the local police to be taken over by outside politicians.
“It hasn’t made any impact on the resident of Camden,” Francis said. “We’re still the poorest, we’re still the most dangerous city in the country.”
Other budget cuts have negatively affected Camden’s poor even as Christie argues that he is trying to help them. He eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. He rolled back benefits for businesses in cities’ Urban Enterprise Zones. And he slowed the school construction program, so century-old buildings in Camden continue to fall apart.
The governor cites state fiscal woes, saying he is trying to balance all residents’ needs. And like he demonstrated that day on the basketball court, he promises to keep coming back, to keep doing more, to keep trying to get the ball in the hoop.