No Hillary Clinton, but Camden concert was a hit for those who had tickets
Thousands of Democratic National Convention staffers and volunteers, a host of South Jersey politicians, and hundreds of Camden residents on Thursday took in performances by Lady Gaga and Lenny Kravitz at an event hosted by George E. Norcross III, the Democratic superdelegate often described as New Jersey's most influential power broker.
The "Camden Rising" concert at the city's waterfront BB&T Pavilion was billed as an invitation-only affair, but in the days leading up to it, several community groups and Camden residents received stacks of tickets to hand out. As a result, many in the audience were Camden City or County employees, or members of well-known community groups.
And though the concert was intended to showcase the city as an example of progress and change, it was officially closed to the press except for PhillyVoice.com, the news site managed by Norcross' daughter, Lexie.
Officials with the Delaware River Port Authority said ridership to Camden Thursday afternoon was light. When Kravitz took the stage Thursday afternoon, some of the 7,000 seats in the arena's covered pavilion remained empty, with perhaps a few hundred people gathered on the lawn. The venue holds 25,000.
"At first we were like, where is everybody?" said Chili Cilch, a San Diego resident attending the DNC to support Hillary Clinton. "But then people showed up."
DNC volunteers Zeke Hernandez and Katie Longo said they were excited to come to the event, but many other volunteers could not because they were still preparing for Thursday's closing session of the convention.
Kravitz welcomed the crowd shortly after 1:30 p.m., saying he hoped people were enjoying the convention and apologizing for trouble he was having with his voice.
"I didn't want to cancel, I wanted to be here," he said. "Because it's about us. … We're going to make the most of what we've got."
Near the end of his hour-long set, which included hits like "American Woman" and "Are You Gonna Go My Way," torrential rain began falling and staff members urged those on the lawn to seek shelter in the covered pavilion, where they were invited to take any empty seats.
There the audience waited for Gaga, some singing along to music played by Philadelphia native DJ Jazzy Jeff.
Clinton, President Obama, and Vice President Biden were sent tickets but did not attend. When Rep. Donald Norcross, George Norcross' brother, took the stage briefly, he said Mayor Kenney and labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty were there.
Sen. Cory A. Booker took the stage around 4 p.m. to introduce Gaga, saying she "preaches a gospel of love that she puts to a pretty powerful soundtrack." Gaga performed a set of mostly covers.
Booker also said Camden was on its way to becoming the nation's "comeback city."
"We're going to cast away all the cynics and show them the strength of American cities," he said.
George Norcross, a millionaire insurance executive and head of Cooper University Hospital's board of trustees, had said he would raise about $3 million to fund the concert. Other hosts were Democratic strategist Susan McCue and PhillyVoice. According to Norcross, the event was funded by Convention 2016, an account of the Washington-based General Majority PAC, which funds efforts to get Democrats elected. McCue is president of General Majority PAC as well as a cofounder of the Senate Majority PAC. Last fall, the General Majority PAC spent more than $1 million on New Jersey's legislative races for November's Assembly elections.
Before the concert, Bob Patterson, the Republican candidate running against Donald Norcross in New Jersey's First Congressional District, drew about a dozen people to a protest just outside the concert entrance.
"Camden is not rising," Patterson said. "Look at all the economic indicators. … It is a ruse."
At another nearby protest, Camden resident Roy Jones said the concert's name misrepresented the realities of life in Camden.
"We wanted to let people know that [Camden rising] is completely untrue," Jones said, pointing to a high homicide rate and economic development that has led to few new jobs for city residents.
And as the concert was going on, a water main broke elsewhere in the city. Residents in neighborhoods west of the Cooper River must boil their water until it is fixed.
But for many in attendance, particularly those who spent the week toiling at the Wells Fargo Center, the concert was nothing short of a success.
After volunteering at the DNC this week, 18-year-old Gaga fans Connie Zhang and Bonnie Stright, both from Berwyn, said they were thrilled when a delegate from Washington gave them tickets.
"As volunteers, we don't get invited to any of the parties," Zhang said. "So this is awesome."