Former Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, the first woman to serve as mayor of the City of Camden, has died. She was 96.
During her nine years as mayor, Faison was able to restore integrity and dignity to a city that had watched three mayors – Angelo Errichetti, Arnold Webster and Milton Milam – go to prison.
Following Milan’s conviction on corruption charges in December 2000, Faison became mayor. She was serving as city council president at the time.
Gwen had an extraordinary impact on our community and was a mentor and friend to many who still hold elected office in Camden City and Camden County today,” said Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli, Jr. “She was a fighter unafraid to do what she thought would benefit the residents of her city, and she shattered glass ceilings and antiquated barriers for women, and specifically women of color, along the way”
“A leader of unmatched quality during an unprecedented and tumultuous time, Gwen served Camden as its first elected woman mayor and guided the city through an eight-year period of state control,” Cappelli said. “She was a fighter unafraid to do what she thought would benefit the residents of her city, and she shattered glass ceilings and antiquated barriers for women, and specifically women of color, along the way.”
A longtime fixture of the city’s 10th Street Baptist Church, Faison entered politics in 1983 when she was appointed to the City Council Second Ward seat following the resignation of Councilman Golden “Pete” Sunkett. A former Kansas City Monarchs pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Sunkett had left to take a security job with the Camden Park Authority.
Faison was an ally of Mayor Melvin “Randy” Primas.
In the days of dual officeholding, Faison appointed to the Camden County Board of Freeholders. Faison replaced Brenda Bacon, who resigned for personal reasons.
Boosted by the coattails of Gov. Thomas Kean, Republicans Michael DiPiero, Michael Bristow and Richard Wooster won all three freeholder seats in the 1985 general election. Faison lost by over 3,000 votes.
In 1995, Faison lost her council seat to an off-the-line Democratic primary challenger from Ali Sloan El by about 125 votes in a three-way race that included Alberta Martin.
Two years later, after the city switched back to May non-partisan elections, she mounted a comeback and won an at-large council seat and became the council president. She ran on a slate allied with mayor Arnold Webster.
Faison ran for a full term as mayor in May 2001 and defeated City Councilman – now Camden County Sheriff – Whip Wilson – by a 53%-47% margin and a plurality of more than 500 votes.
Four years later, at age 80, Faison sought re-election and was forced into a runoff with Assemblywoman – now State Senator – Nilsa Cruz-Perez.
In the May election, Cruz-Perez led Faison by about 900 votes, 40%-30%, with 25% going to Sloan-El and 5% for Keith Walker.
But Faison won the June runoff by about 550 votes, 53%-47%. Dana Redd and Curtis Jenkins, who backed Cruz-Perez, were re-elected, along with Wilson, who supported Faison.
Faison did not seek re-election in 2009 and was succeeded by Redd.
“She was a trailblazer, a person of integrity, and warrior,” said Angel Fuentes, a former assemblyman and council president. “Her memories will live forever in our hearts and minds.”
Cappelli called her a “leader of unmatched quality during an unprecedented and tumultuous time.”
“She was an undeniably recognizable figure in city council chambers, whose talent in governing was matched only by her affinity for fashion,” he said. “Gwen was unmistakable in her signature suits and hats, and we will forever miss the life and color that she brought with her wherever she went.”