How the Democrats Destroyed Camden
A city's unwavering allegiance to the Party that ruined it.
A century ago, Camden, New Jersey was a thriving model of prosperity. Indeed, the city was home to 365 active industries that employed scores of thousands of people in companies like RCA Victor, Campbell’s Soup, and the New York Shipbuilding Company. But today, Camden is an economic and social basket case. Virtually wherever one looks, one can readily see evidence of its decline: abandoned houses with collapsing roofs, crumbling facades, missing or boarded-up windows, and “lawns” choked with several years worth of weeds and brambles; churches with bullet holes in their stained glass windows; walls of buildings defaced by all manner of graffiti; the stench of sewage pervading run-down streets and avenues; and small, melancholy shrines (often adorned with empty liquor bottles) marking the spots where someone was once murdered.
Camden has not had a Republican mayor since 1936. The first mayor of this Democratic era was George Brunner, who served six terms from 1936-59. He was followed by Alfred Pierce (1959-69), a native of Camden who was raised in poverty and grew up to practice law. As mayor, the white liberal Pierce emphasized the need for racial diversity in city government, urging blacks and Hispanics in particular to run for City Council.
But Pierce’s efforts to promote racial harmony were unable to quell the black militancy that was rising in Camden, as in so many other American cities, during the Sixties. Violent race riots—complete with arson and looting—struck Camden in 1969 and again two years later. Though some degree of “order” was eventually restored, the city has never been the same since the riots. In the aftermath of those uprisings, legal businesses left Camden in droves and were replaced, to some degree, by unlawful ventures. It is estimated, for instance, that the city today has approximately 175 open-air drug markets—outdoor locations throughout Camden where dealers make rapid, furtive transactions in streets and alleyways—through which some $250 million worth of narcotics move each and every year. Most of these illegal dealers are affiliated with gangs like the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos, and MS-13.
Also in the decades that followed the riots, Camden’s government was beset by high levels of malfeasance and mismanagement as the Mayor’s office took on some of the qualities of a police line-up. Mayor Angelo Errichetti (1973-81), for instance, was convicted of federal corruption charges and went to prison in 1981; Mayor Arnold Webster (1993-97) pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in 1998; and Mayor Milton Milan (1997-2000) was convicted in 2000 on 14 counts of drug-money laundering, insurance fraud, and taking bribes from organized crime leaders. All were Democrats.
During these decades of political corruption and economic decline, Camden became increasingly dependent upon financial help from New Jersey’s state government. This had a profoundly negative impact on Camden as a whole because it was a period during which the city’s population and tax base alike were declining at a rapid rate—and thus a period when local government should have been scaled back accordingly. But instead, Camden’s Democrats exploited state aid as a means of artificially propping up their city’s hollow economy while continuing to expand Camden’s government apparatus. Between 2000 and 2008, city spending in Camden rose by 20%—a trend propelled in large measure by steep hikes in the salaries and benefits of city employees. Today those seeds of financial improvidence are bearing a bitter harvest, as Camden’s $150 million annual budget dwarfs the meager $25 million it receives in tax revenues each year.
In short, Camden, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars it has received in loans, grants and direct aid from the state, remains a financial train wreck. Its annual per capita income of $12,581 is 56% below the national average and scarcely one-third the statewide average. The city’s median household income, meanwhile, is $22,043—about 60% below the national median. And its 42.6% poverty rate is about 4 times higher than New Jersey’s statewide average.
In 2011, Camden’s political leaders sought to close a $26.5 million budget deficit by laying off one-fourth of all city government workers—including half of the 375-officer police force. Camden residents, already fearful of the rampant crime in their city, knew that lawbreakers would be further emboldened by this development. “They’ll be coming into the houses,” one resident ruefully told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “They know you can’t call the cops. There won’t be any cops to call.”
This was hardly an exaggeration. Indeed, there were occasions in 2011 and 2012 when no more than a dozen officers at any given time were tasked with patrolling the entire city of Camden. Dispirited and overwhelmed by this state of affairs, Camden police began taking sick days in record numbers. As NBC reporter Mike Taibbi put it: “After the 2011 layoffs, police went into almost total retreat. Drug dealers cheerfully gave interviews to local reporters while slinging in broad daylight. Some enterprising locals made up T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from the cops back to the streets, [bearing slogans like] ‘It’s Our Time.‘” “They let us run amok,” recalls a Camden-based ex-convict and drug addict. “… It was like Armageddon.”
In 2011 Camden’s violent crime rate was an astounding 7.3 times the national average, including 12.9 times the national average for murder, 3.2 times the national average for rapes, 9.7 times the national average for robberies, and 6.3 times the national average for assaults. The bloodiest year in Camden’s history was 2012, when 67 homicides were committed in this city of just 77,000 people. On average, someone in Camden was shot every 33 hours.
“The carnage,” wrote Mike Taibbi, “left Camden’s crime rate on par with places like Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and with other infamous Third World hot spots, as police officials later noticed to their dismay when they studied U.N. Statistics.” Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson lamented that his city’s murder rate, on a per capita basis, was “somewhere between Honduras and Somalia.” “It’s gotten to the point where even in our daytime hours in this city people are scared to leave their homes,” added Thomson. Locals, meanwhile, observed that the police were “just out here to pick up the bodies.”
But crime and poverty have not, by any means, been Camden’s only serious problems. The children who grow up in fear of the mortal danger that constantly surrounds them in this city are herded, en masse, through one of the most dysfunctional education systems ever created. As of 2013, Camden was spending more than $25,000 yearly per public-school student—more than twice the average for school systems nationwide. Yet the _Washington Post_ reports that in terms of standardized test scores, fully nine-tenths of Camden’s public schools are in New Jersey’s bottom 5%. Moreover, just 2% of the city’s high-schoolers scored above 1550 (out of a possible 2400) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), compared with 43% of students nationally.
Camden is a pathetic, dying testament to the decay and destruction that decades of Democratic leadership have brought to city after city after city across the United States. But the residents of Camden have not, by any means, been unwitting victims of those Democrats. Rather, they have been their willing partners in a dance of death, where an endless parade of Democrat victories at the ballot box predictably bring ever-greater levels of pathology to a population that simply refuses to abandon—or to even question—its blind faith in the Democratic Party.