The political organization that has long dominated life in Camden and beyond is often called a machine — although a more apt term might be limousine.
A machine suggests back rooms, cheap suits, and ashtrays — images that are too retro for the sleek operation that is the Camden County Democratic Party under George E. Norcross III.
A limousine, on the other hand, is a far more fitting metaphor: Contemporary, powerful, intimidating.
Those invited to ride in it are pleased — even grateful — to be going somewhere in style.
Especially if they end up going farther than they'd ever imagined.
The limo came to mind last wee, as the revealing drama about former Camden Mayor Dana Redd's future reached an unsurprising and uninspiring conclusion.
The story began in early 2017. After several months of public speculation and personal reflection, Redd announced she would not seek a third term.
A loyal Democrat, Redd has been a staunch ally of Republican Gov. Christie, who gave Norcross a shout-out during a valedictory Statehouse speech last week.
Redd opted not to run for mayor again with the unstated but obvious expectation that a new public job would soon be made available to her.
In other words, she was waiting for the limousine.
Supposedly designed to help others as well, the tailor-made-for-Redd measure was signed into law by Christie on Monday and will initially boost the former mayor's annual pension from $32,408 to more than $50,000. And if Redd stays for three years in her new job (see below), her pension will more than triple, Politico reports.
Redd, who was paid $102,000 annually as mayor, was named CEO Friday of the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors, a post that more than doubled her salary and will pay her $275,000 a year. The job was recently vacated by Kris Kolluri, who, like the former mayor, is a talented, respected, and wired South Jersey Democrat.
Kolluri, in turn, was chosen as the new CEO of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a quasi-public entity that is essentially in charge of redeveloping much of the city. Or perhaps all of it, depending upon the results of newly inaugurated Mayor Frank Moran's proposed "forensic audit" of the Camden Redevelopment Agency.
Meanwhile, Kolluri won't say how much he's making in his new job. It seems the partnership that is tasked with redeveloping public land and rebuilding public infrastructure in Camden (who decides this, anyway?) actually is a private enterprise, so Kolluri says the CEO's salary is private.
Some had expected Kolluri, a lawyer and former state transportation commissioner, might be offered a job in the incoming gubernatorial administration of North Jersey Democrat Phil Murphy.
When it appeared this would not immediately be the case, Cooper's Ferry CEO Anthony Perno was shown the door so Kolluri could take that job and
After all, she'd been waiting quietly for the limousine to show up for a year.
The Camden job-arama was made possible by the longtime Democratic strategy of having the city abdicate key functions, sometimes with welcome results.
The replacement of city cops with county cops has made Camden safer. An effort largely engineered by Norcross Democrats and the Christie administration is transforming public education in the city into a hybrid menu of choices, including a far smaller but arguably better traditional school district. And the same bipartisan alliance is behind the unprecedented array of ambitious — if heavily subsidized — development projects in the city's core. Anyone who, like me, has long marveled at how excruciatingly difficult it can be for anything at all to get done in Camden can't help but be impressed.
But politics in the city, the county and to some extent the rest of South Jersey has become zero-sum: You're either in the limo, or you're not. Or perhaps you've been thrown out of it and are now on the curb.
Aspiring public servants must either pledge allegiance to the Party and its demanding — if not dictatorial — culture, or migrate to the dwindling handful of towns where Republicans or independents may occasionally manage to win a seat on a local school board.
The chances for an independent city candidate to win any elective office or be appointed to any position of power is virtually nil. So it's no wonder the interior of the limousine breeds an intense loyalty with elements one might find in a cult of personality.
Mainly, however, the fierce devotion stems from the fact that generations of families in some way owe their livelihoods to this system within a system.
In an insular and in some ways elitist political community like this, leaders can suggest, with straight faces, that cutting a special deal for one mayor symbolizes fair play for many, even as the state pension system that ostensibly serves the many is running out of money.
This insularity has especially pernicious effects in Camden, where so many have been disenfranchised for so long.
There, the ostensible leaders have precious little actual authority.
Because they don't own the keys to the limousine.