End of an era: Palmer reflects on 20 years leading Jersey’s capital city
By Meir Rinde
June 27, 2010
TRENTON — If Mayor Douglas Palmer had an epitaph for his 20-year career leading the capital city, it might be this: Nothing came easy.
“Some people, they don’t even know how it was here in the ‘90s,” he recalled during a recent interview in City Hall. “Or things that they look at now, how we had to do it, how we had to struggle, how I had to fight — for everything.”
He was referring specifically to the financing and construction of downtown Trenton’s Marriott Hotel in 2002, a characteristically colorful Palmer saga that involved the intervention of then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an uncooperative bond market, and the unpopular decision to give the project the city’s financial backing.
But Palmer could have been talking about any of the other headlining events of his tenure: his inauguration as Trenton’s first black mayor in 1990; the anger over revaluation in 1992, which led to the establishment of Capital City Aid; the construction of the Mercer County arena and ballpark; the highly controversial revamping of the police department; the fight against devastating gang violence; and the construction of thousands of new housing units, among many other endeavors.
Sitting in the City Hall conference room where he has held countless press conferences and staff meetings, dressed in his customary perfect suit and tie, the 58-year-old Palmer said he had very few regrets, no matter how intense the criticism of his policies has been at times.
“I look at the results, and I wouldn’t do anything different,” he said.
The crucible of police reform
Take the police department. As Palmer tells it, the department was out of control in the 1990s. Crime levels were high, officers were paying their superiors to get promoted, and the public was incensed.
“We had decades of terrible police-community relations,” he said. “It got even worse when I became mayor. There were a lot of racial things that were going on. People continued to complain that the police never show up, or police brutality complaints and those things.”
In 1998, a police officer who fired on a stolen car killed a 14-year-old passenger, Jenny Hightower. A few days later, another officer accidentally shot a baby and her mother during a drug raid, ratcheting up the pressure to restructure the department.
Critics have charged that the Democratic mayor’s real aim in pushing reform was to prevent deputy chief and county Republican leader Joe Constance from becoming chief, but Palmer says he was responding to intense public discontent.
In 1999, voters approved a referendum that created mayor-appointed civilian police and fire directors, eliminating the chief positions.
“It was very close,” Palmer said. “They really disparaged me, told lies about me. It was a very nasty campaign. But we won.
“As a result, we reduced crime, and we have a real police agency that is doing great work. Our response times are low. You don’t hear people complain about that,” he said.
In 2003, he appointed a new police director, Joseph Santiago, who was widely reviled by the rank and file. Santiago was later forced to quit after residents sued over his failure to abide by the city’s residency ordinance, another contentious issue that has won the mayor enemies.
“If we want to build the city up, why don’t we give the jobs to people who have chosen to make their homes in the city?” said former city attorney George Dougherty, the lawyer on the residency case and other suits against the city. “We have so much good talent here in Trenton.”
But Palmer continues to defend the former director.
“I believed he was one of the best law enforcement people in the country, and he could do what he did in Newark, in Trenton,” the mayor said. “The police department is now one of the best in the state, thanks to Joe Santiago. I would never do anything different.”
Triumphs and defeats
Palmer spoke of his tenure with his usual mixture of self-assured pride and humor, colored by an enduring hunger for achievement. So much accomplished, so much left to do.
The mayor has always had an upbeat personality, a quick laugh and an easy connection with constituents, his associates say. He typically starts press conferences with a funny anecdote, or at least one that makes him laugh himself.
“That personality, that charisma went a very long away in helping us move our agenda forward,” said Bill Watson, Palmer’s chief of staff in his first term.
“Even when people didn’t necessarily agree with whatever the initiative was, there was a certain amount of respect, and you could tell they were listening to what his reasons were,” he said.
Palmer took his show on the road as well, serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 2006 to 2008 and persistently lobbying on behalf of the nation’s urban areas in Washington, D.C.
“Doug has done well by the city, particularly by being the chief cheerleader,” said former County Executive Robert Prunetti, who worked closely with Palmer on the arena and ballpark construction projects.
“And that’s important. Unlike any other mayor in my memory, Doug Palmer was always out there on the front lines. He was out there nationally,” Prunetti said.
Palmer has been subject to intense criticism over the years, whether from Chambersburg residents who were livid over soaring tax bills after their homes were reassessed, or firefighters who picketed his 2002 wedding over firehouse closures.
But he has also been persistently self-confident — perversely so, to his political rivals and critics — and never slow to tout what he sees as his administration’s many accomplishments.
In addition to police reform and the hotel, Palmer said he’s proud of leading a corruption-free government. Whatever else he’s been criticized for, Trenton has been notably free of the indictments and perp walks endemic to New Jersey cities. The mayor attributed the city’s lack of a culture of corruption to the legacy of his predecessor, “honest” Arthur Holland.
Another accomplishment he touts is the construction by developers of more than 2,500 new units of housing over the past 20 years, including projects that revived the Battle Monument area and a long list of other developments around the city, most recently at the old Magic Marker factory on Calhoun Street and the former Champale brewery on Lamberton Street.
“The Battle Monument was wreckage when we started,” said Andrew Bobbitt, a longtime city employee who was Palmer’s driver during his first mayoral election campaign. “Now it’s a beautiful establishment, with homes and businesses.”
While it was Mercer County that led the construction of the Sovereign Bank Arena and Waterfront Park ballpark, Palmer said it was his close working relationship with Prunetti, a Republican, that helped ensure those projects would happen in Trenton and not in the suburbs, as some people wanted.
“I was able to forge a partnership with him, for the betterment of the city and the county,” Prunetti said last week. “Neither one of us, I think, let ego get in the way, and we had a mutual sense and passion for the city. We both wanted to see it grow.”
While the city lacks many of the amenities it had in the 1960s, such as movie theaters and a big restaurant scene, Palmer’s defenders said the city enhanced residents’ quality of life.
“I think this city is a lot better. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of places and things to do,” Bobbitt said. “The best thing that he’s done is bring in more recreation with kids, and a lot more businesses came into the city. When he started to get more businesses to come from out of town, that was great.”
There were many defeats along the way as well, some relatively minor and some indicative of the city’s persistent social and economic deficits.
The biggest regret that Palmer identified was the concession to the police department in 1994 to use a “four on, four off” shift system. While having four days off in a row boosts officer morale and is said to reduce sick days, city officials have said it has the effect of reducing manpower and increasing costs.
“I did it early in my first term. We couldn’t really evaluate it in the time we needed to, and then the time ran out,” he said. “Over the years I tried to eliminate it, but it was too costly. If we ever had enough money to buy our way out of it, we would.”
“That was the one thing, if I had a do-over, I would do that over. I made a mistake,” he said.
Another wish he could never realize was to promote the arts much more actively, he said.
“I just wish that I could have done more with arts and culture, with kids ... and had our cultural department really doing some great things that also boost economic development,” he said.
Slow economic growth
Many would say economic development of any kind, and the accompanying jobs, vibrancy and social stability it brings, is what Trenton still desperately needs.
Palmer can count a number of victories, such as the Marriott, a Wachovia regional office that moved to Trenton, a partial revival of downtown retail, a major renovation of the train station that he pushed for, and the construction of the Roebling and Pennington Avenue shopping centers.
But thousands of buildings, both homes and businesses, remain vacant. Office towers proposed for the train station area are far from realization, and the county’s efforts to redevelop around the arena have faced repeated setbacks. The unemployment rate is among the highest in the state, and the paucity of taxable properties has contributed to an annual crisis when it comes to balancing the city budget.
For years, Palmer has lobbied for a development scheme in which the state would give up control of its sea of parking lots just north of Route 1 and east of the Delaware River. The city would reclaim the land, turn a rerouted Route 29 into a boulevard and bring in developers to build a mixed-used neighborhood.
Such a development would bring in more affluent residents and enliven downtown, Palmer said. If former Gov. Jon Corzine had been re-elected last year, the state would have begun the process by moving to give up its Health and Agriculture building, he said.
The mayor said not getting the state to sign a memorandum implementing the plan is one of his regrets. Despite the hundreds of millions in aid the state provides annually to the city and schools, the fight for its help in revitalizing Trenton is one that has not been won, he said. It’s a fight Palmer fears may drag on until the city’s underdevelopment leaves it completely starved of resources, he said.
“We haven’t taken off because there has not been that concerted effort by our biggest landlord, the state,” he said. “There has to be a consistent and sustained approach to the capital, like they had for Newark, like they had for Jersey City, like they had for Camden and other cities.”
“We shouldn’t have to wait until 10, 15 years from now, when the place is desolate, because we don’t get what we should get,” he said.
Another persistent flaw in Trenton’s image and quality of life are the city’s schools, which have, on the whole, also failed to improve in the last two decades, remaining mired in a constant crisis of low test scores, high dropout rates and occasional bursts of violence and scandal.
Improvements have been spotty despite Palmer’s personal interest in the system — he was the district’s purchasing director when he was elected mayor — and his close involvement in the selection of several superintendents.
Palmer said he almost took direct control of the district in 1998, as mayors did in Chicago, Boston and other cities. He changed his mind when he met James Lytle, who served as superintendent until 2006.
Palmer noted some signs of progress, such as the 10 schools the state has built or renovated in Trenton during his tenure. He also spoke vaguely of reforms that the federal government is encouraging and that he would have pushed for if he were staying for another term — higher student standards, teacher pay tied to performance, a longer school day.
But those reforms will have to wait for attention from his successor, mayor-elect Tony Mack.
“Unless you can really change some of the tenure laws, do some innovation with schools, it’s going to be tough,” Palmer said. “Education is tough. There is always more to be done.”
A life beyond City Hall
Palmer said he’s looking forward to his next set of projects. Mayor has been his job, not who he is, he said.
“I’m certainly ready to move on for whatever else God has in store for me,” he said.
He has something lined up but declined to say what it is. He said he will not be working for New Jersey American Water, the company he wanted to see buy Trenton Water Works’ suburban infrastructure. He’ll make an announcement about his plans later this summer, he said.
“There are certainly a lot of people who are interested in what I want to do, or who want me to come in with them, but I haven’t really done a lot of (thinking about) that,” he said. “I pretty much know what I want to do.”
Palmer said he was offered a position teaching at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a common waystation for retired politicians, but declined it because he would have to move to Boston, away from his wife, Christiana Foglio-Palmer, and their 7-year-old daughter, Laila.
It appears that Palmer will not have to worry about earning a living. His wife is a successful affordable-housing developer and last November became president of CareOne, a leading national nursing home operator with 15,000 employees.
The mayor did say he wants to write a book of “humorous but telling stories” about race and politics based on his experiences as mayor, and as a young black man growing up in the mostly white, Jewish West Ward in the 1960s and ’70s.
He also offered advice to his successor, Tony Mack.
Attack the hard things first — that is, the ugly city budget expected to result from the loss of up to $43 million in state aid. Run an ethical administration. Hire good people. Make a point of setting aside time to spend with the wife and kids. Call if you need help.
“And understand, and I think he does, that his life is going to change, and it already has so much, because there’s so much responsibility. People think and look to the mayor, and the responsibility and accountability is going to be immense,” he said. “Greater than he even can imagine.”
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Copyright © The Times of Trenton 2010