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Faison looks back on years leading Camden

Everyone waits: the cameramen, the top Camden police officials, even the governor. Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, 84, has yet to arrive at this news conference to announce a modest drop in crime. Faison doesn't have control over the Police Department; she may be the least powerful mayor in America. But her title - and her personality - keeps everyone waiting.

Everyone waits: the cameramen, the top Camden police officials, even the governor.

Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, 84, has yet to arrive at this news conference to announce a modest drop in crime. Faison doesn't have control over the Police Department; she may be the least powerful mayor in America. But her title - and her personality - keeps everyone waiting.

When Faison finally walks in, on her famous titanium prosthetic hip, she is trailed not just by her two plainclothes police bodyguards but also by 30 bewildered Rowan University students, in matching T-shirts, whom she picked up along the way. The students stuff themselves into the crowded room. Then the Faison Show begins.

She praises the governor for caring about Camden. She teases the city's state-appointed chief operating officer: "He's a pain, but we work together to get the job done." And she casts a glance at the 37-year-old police chief: "Look at the young man here, all handsome and everything."

At every news conference or groundbreaking, Faison commands attention in this state-controlled city, mixing charm, flirtation, showmanship, and an omnipresent smile that belies her fiercely competitive political side.

On Thursday, after Faison's nine years as mayor and quarter-century in elected office, the show will end. She is reluctantly retiring, leaving the keys to the city to a fellow Democrat half her age, Councilwoman and State Sen. Dana Redd.

"I'm going home to bake cookies," Faison said, giggling, over and over as hundreds of well-wishers filed past her at her annual open house in the mayor's office.

Faison hopes such moments are what Camden remembers of her. Yet her defining legacy may well be her handling of Camden's unique power structure.

She is paid more than $100,000 annually, but since 2002, less than two years after she took office, the city has been under state control, with most mayoral duties assigned to a gubernatorially appointed chief operating officer whose office is nine floors above hers in City Hall.

Camden's was the biggest municipal takeover in U.S. history, prompted by the city's history of corruption and fiscal crises. Faison lost say and sway over budget-making, appointments, layoffs, and public safety.

The last chief operating officer, Theodore Z. Davis, with whom she sparred privately while only teasing him publicly (as at that August news conference), even fired her righthand man in City Hall.

The law called for consultation with the mayor over big decisions, but that rarely happened as the takeover wore on. Faison complained about her lack of power, but never publicly demanded it back.

With state leaders, she always put on a friendly, nonthreatening face.

Faison became the ceremonial head of state, Camden's closest thing to royalty. The tools of that job - mock shovels for groundbreakings at new developments - line her City Hall office, and will be donated to the Camden County Historical Society.

"The state just completely negated her control, and it turned into a monumental disaster," said Kelly Francis, a longtime Camden activist.

Statistically, life in Camden has not improved under the state takeover and the concurrent Faison administration. The city of about 70,000 is the most impoverished and dangerous its size nationwide.

And it is about twice as dependent on state aid as it was when the decade began.

But statistics don't tell the story of Faison's legacy, according to her former righthand man, the Rev. Tony Evans.

Considering that three of the four mayors who preceded her were found guilty of corruption, Evans lowered the standard for a successful mayoralty. "She's one of the few that came around all the bases and came out clean," he said. "I'm happy that she's leaving with good health, all her capacities, and her integrity intact."

Just by not getting indicted, he said, Faison provided stability to City Hall, and therefore a foundation for new development projects at the Delaware River waterfront and in the growing education and health campus downtown.

"All you have to do is look at the shovels," Evans said. "Her results are hanging on the wall."

Faison, a widow and a retired data-processing supervisor, became mayor nine years ago this week. As City Council president, she was sworn in to finish Mayor Milton Milan's term after he was convicted of corruption.

At City Hall, the new mayor found her office in chaos. Desks were turned over and boxes empty from the federal investigation. The city's finances were in disarray.

"You don't have no money, but you're the mayor. You don't have no secretary, but you're the mayor," Faison said she had been told. "I said, 'It's just me and you, Lord.' "

She handled that transition remarkably well, according to Dennis Kille, her longtime aide and attorney.

"She was able to cobble together a working government again, and also get things moving in the right direction, and leave a foundation for what came after her in terms of development, infrastructure," he said. "Most of what ultimately went into the ground were initiatives that were started in her tenure."

Still, with the state takeover and her fall from the inner circle of county Democratic politics, Faison was sidelined when it came to big decisions about Camden.

"People did bypass her," Kille said. "And the reasons for that I won't pretend to guess at . . . but she did not hesitate to assert herself at the appropriate time."

Kille said that without "legal power," Faison was a "moral force." But he rejected the notion in government circles that she was just a "symbolic" leader, saying she was "involved in the nuts and bolts."

And Evans said Faison had played a role as a cheerleader who used the bully pulpit to speak on behalf of "the people."

"She was at the table hollering from a residents' standpoint: 'This is what we need!' "

Yet on the biggest issue to face the city during her term - the 2002 state takeover - Faison supported the political establishment, which pushed the plan despite passionate objections from some residents.

Maybe that was the only hand she could play.

"These power brokers, man, how are you going to [oppose them]? She's a senior citizen," said Evelyn Morton, a longtime ally and activist. "She was frustrated the whole time, I mean, completely frustrated."

In her farewell address, Faison said that once she realized the "takeover would happen despite my opposition," she "decided to shift gears. My goal became to secure as many resources as possible for the city."

"Stripped" of governance, Faison said, she "carved out my own niche."

"I said, 'People are important,' " she said. "Bricks and mortar are one thing, but if you do the right thing by people, they stand by you."

An expansion of programing and funding for senior citizens and children tops her list of successes. She also built an infrastructure for constituent services, focusing on communication between residents and government.

Supporters say she has quietly devoted a considerable part of her salary to needy people and programs the city could not afford.

Still, Faison could be a fierce political competitor. In 2005, she won her second election by allying herself with a popular independent and defeating the candidate endorsed by the powerful Camden County Democrats.

Two years later, voters approved a county-party-backed proposal to move from nonpartisan May elections to partisan November elections.

That cut Faison's four-year term by six months, and at the time she said she was targeted by party leaders: "They thought I'd be old and brain-dead by now. They know I know too much and can think."

In the first partisan elections, in November, Redd, vice chair of the state Democratic Committee, easily beat three unaffiliated candidates in a city where 90 percent of voters are registered Democrats. Faison only tepidly endorsed her successor.

An openly spiritual woman, Faison has relied on a political base of senior citizens and African American church leaders. For a kitchen cabinet, she had the "mayor's posse" - senior-citizen advisers.

"This mayor's office will never be the same. It's about people," Faison said, looking around during the open house, which she said she had paid for.

"This is what they'll remember."