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Camden elections are usually formalities. Two mayoral challengers are trying to make this one a race.

“They told us we can’t pick our own mayor,” said one candidate challenging the party-backed incumbent.

Elton Custis in Camden on May 24. Custis, a school board member seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in Tuesday’s primary election, is one of a few candidates taking on South Jersey Democratic leaders and their pick in the race.
Elton Custis in Camden on May 24. Custis, a school board member seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in Tuesday’s primary election, is one of a few candidates taking on South Jersey Democratic leaders and their pick in the race.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Standing on his North Camden doorstep, Armando Orta told Elton Custis that the roads need repaving. He was the second person in less than two blocks to mention a perennial issue in Camden, where some streets are practically un-drivable.

Orta, 53, blamed county and state government officials who have offered companies millions in tax incentives to bring office workers to the city while the asphalt deteriorates. “The people who call the shots, these politicians who live in the suburbs and spend our money and don’t care what happens to us,” Orta said. “These people have been stealing from us for 50 years.”

Custis, a 39-year-old school board member seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in Tuesday’s primary, lamented that Camden typically elects leaders handpicked by the powerful South Jersey Democratic establishment. This year, that’s Vic Carstarphen, a former City Council member who was sworn in as mayor last month after the resignation of Mayor Frank Moran.

“We grew up being told to vote a certain way, because we’re Democrats. But I’m a Democrat, too,” Custis told Orta. “And we need to get people to that polling booth so we can make a change.”

Camden elections are usually formalities, due to low voter turnout and the advantages bestowed on candidates backed by South Jersey political leaders. But this year is a little different.

» READ MORE: Camden mayor Frank Moran is resigning

Moran’s resignation, followed by City Council’s swift appointment of Carstarphen to finish his first term, caught voters off-guard. Moran, 52, cited health reasons, but some saw him as being cast aside by party leaders to whom he’d been loyal for decades.

And Custis saw opportunity: a new way to make the case that Camden’s powerful are more concerned with maintaining control of the city than serving its people.

“They told us we can’t pick our own mayor,” Custis told one voter last week. “That’s what it comes down to.”

The shake-up also prompted Council member Felisha Reyes-Morton, a Moran protégé, to enter the race. Reyes-Morton came up through the local Democratic machine but has renounced her allegiance to it, decrying Carstarphen’s appointment as a power grab. Local teacher Luis Quiñones is also running.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary is all but certain to prevail in November in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. As the party-endorsed incumbent, Carstarphen will appear in a prime spot, a few lines below Gov. Phil Murphy. Under the state’s unusual ballot rules, his challengers’ names are printed several rows away, which could make Carstarphen appear unopposed.

Incumbent Camden mayors have won with huge margins in recent years. Carstarphen is still widely seen as the front-runner, but Custis and Reyes-Morton hope to make it a more competitive race.

“I’m tired of us being disrespected,” Custis said. “A lot of us are.”

The city of about 73,000 across the river from Philadelphia has long been known as one of the nation’s poorest and most violent. That narrative has shifted in recent years to one of a city on the rise, thanks to explosive commercial development, a state takeover that closed public school buildings while expanding charter-public hybrids, and the creation of a Camden County police force that’s been lauded as a national model.

Custis and other residents say that’s an overly rosy picture of a city still struggling with unemployment, drugs, poverty, and political disillusionment. They point to how control of Camden has been given away piece by piece.

The waterfront transformation is, for some, the best example of how Camden has been used to enrich others. Businesses like the 76ers were lured there by tax incentives from the state Economic Development Authority (EDA), thanks to a 2013 law championed by South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III. Several companies with ties to Norcross, including his insurance brokerage and Cooper Health System, were awarded credits.

In 2019, a Murphy-appointed task force investigated possible abuses in the program and said Norcross and his allies benefited from behind-the-scenes lobbying. That sparked a fight between Murphy and local Democratic leaders, with then-Mayor Moran telling the governor he wasn’t welcome in Camden.

The factions made peace last year, and Murphy has since supported a new version of the incentive program with more oversight. Norcross has denied wrongdoing.

While Norcross and politicians say the tax credits are revitalizing Camden, the development has created relatively few local jobs.

Custis, who’s counting on voters who are angry about the tax incentives, said his campaign is more than a long shot. In 2019, he won a citywide school board race without party support. He’s backed by the progressive group New Jersey Working Families, which has been a Murphy ally. Custis’ campaign is largely funded by a $10,000 donation from EDA Chairman Kevin Quinn.

Murphy praised Carstarphen during a visit to Camden on Tuesday, saying the mayor of three weeks is “doing an outstanding job.”

Carstarphen, a Camden High School basketball star-turned-coach who joined Council last year, is well-known and widely liked. Custis and Reyes-Morton speak highly of him while attacking how he became mayor.

In an interview, Carstarphen sidestepped questions about that process, saying, “Everything happened fast.”

“I was honored and humbled that they looked to me,” he said. “You just want to continue to build on our progress, and continue to empower our residents.”

Carstarphen last week toured a park under construction on the site of a former landfill in East Camden. With trees, biking trails, and a view of the Philadelphia skyline, the project is emblematic of the best of the city’s revitalization. Carstarphen said he’d push for more investment in neighborhoods other than the waterfront.

“The people that are quote-unquote disenchanted, I want to work with them, too,” Carstarphen said. “Let’s do something together instead of pointing fingers. I know I got to work hard.”

Council members threw their support behind Carstarphen before Moran even announced his resignation. Reyes-Morton, 32, said she got a call from a Democratic strategist seeking her endorsement for Carstarphen just minutes after The Inquirer first reported Moran’s coming resignation.

“There was no shame in their game,” Reyes-Morton said. “It just didn’t seem democratic to me, or transparent, or right.”

While Custis can cast himself as an antiestablishment insurgent, Reyes-Morton has long been part of the system she now says is corrupt.

She acknowledged she’s benefited from party support, but said she never advocated for things she didn’t believe in. She supports charter schools and waterfront development, but wants suburban workers to pay a small wage tax to fund city programs. At campaign appearances, she urges voters to defy expectations of low turnout.

“What’s being done in Camden now with this race is what should be done here and in other cities. It’s just the democratic system,” Reyes-Morton said. “And the city has been robbed of that. It’s an honor and a privilege to be a thorn in this process.”