It’s been a rough few years for local government in New Jersey’s capital city.
Ever since Mayor Reed Gusciora took office in 2018, relations between the mayor’s office, the city council, and various arms of the city bureaucracy have steadily deteriorated. Trenton, already one of the state’s more economically challenged cities, has become known in statewide political circles for dysfunction and offensive statements, mostly coming from its rancorous city council.
But 2022 offers the chance for a major reset, since all eight of the city’s elected offices are on the ballot.
In the mayor’s race, Gusciora faces a challenge from the two councilmembers who have contributed the most to government dysfunction, while six of the city’s seven council seats are hosting open races – meaning that no matter what, Trenton city government will look hugely different come 2023.
Four candidates are running for mayor and 22 are running for seven city council seats; each race will be conducted via a nonpartisan blanket election, with a December runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote in the first round. This will be the city’s first municipal election to be held in November – it was moved from May to increase turnout – as well as its last in which all seven council seats are up simultaneously, since ward elections will be held in off years from now on.
Trenton has made a lot of drama in the last few years, but after this November’s elections, the world may not have to take it anymore.
Few mayors have been as frustrated by their own city councils as Reed Gusciora, and his two chief antagonists, Council President Kathy McBride and Councilwoman Robin Vaughn, are both bringing the fight to the mayor’s race this year. Gusciora’s many years repping Trenton and building relationships should make him the favorite – and if he wins, he’ll have the opportunity to work with a refreshed city council that includes neither McBride or Vaughn.
A former congressional aide and freeholder candidate, Gusciora achieved his first political win in 1995, holding a 15th district Assembly seat for Democrats alongside then-Assemblywoman Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence).
Gusciora was based in Princeton at the time, even running for Princeton mayor in 2003 but narrowly losing the Democratic nomination to Joseph O’Neill; he also made a bid for Congress against Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester) in 2000. When he came out as gay in 2006, he became the first openly gay state legislator in New Jersey history, and his fierce advocacy for same-sex marriage led to Gov. Chris Christie calling him a “numbnuts” in 2013.
In 2011, the state legislative redistricting commission threw a wrench in Gusciora’s career when it moved Princeton from the 15th district into the 16th district, a seat represented by three Republicans at the time. Rather than trying to flip his new district to Democrats, Gusciora moved to Trenton and continued his legislative career there.
The retirement of Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson opened up a new political opportunity for Gusciora, and he launched his campaign to lead his adopted hometown in 2018. After finishing in second in the initial round, Gusciora beat businessman Paul Perez 52-48% in the runoff, a margin of 305 votes.
His victory made him first white elected mayor of Trenton in nearly 30 years – Trenton was just 9% white as of the 2020 Census – as well as its first-ever gay mayor.
Gusciora came in with high hopes for turning Trenton around, with a special focus on reducing crime, increasing the city’s tax base, and improving Trenton Water Works. In a city that sent a mayor to jail as recently as 2014, he also has worked to maintain strong ethics at city hall.
But tussles with the city council, which has often resisted anything Gusciora tries to do, and the onset of the Covid pandemic have made the mayor’s goals hard to achieve.
The most headline-worthy drama has come from the mouths of Vaughn, McBride, and Councilman George Muschal, each of whom has caught serious flak for their offensive and often bizarre comments. Vaughn called Gusciora “an old pedophile running around with little boys,” while McBride said a city attorney was able to “Jewed [a woman] down” on a settlement, a statement Muschal happily defended.
Gusciora has sometimes responded in kind, at one point calling Vaughn a child and saying she needed a “lobotomy.”
There have also been serious problems with the day-to-day affairs of running a city, as the Trentonian’s Isaac Avilucea has extensively documented. Former city clerk Matthew Conlon abruptly left his post after being investigated for sexual harassment, and his successor Brandon Garcia has struggled to perform the job; the city council has also been unable to agree on a replacement for former Councilman Santiago Rodriguez, who resigned in March.
Gusciora said in an August interview with NJ Spotlight News’ David Cruz that Vaughn and McBride have both put politics over policy during their tenures.
“Instead of running on their own records or what they would do, they’ve spent the last four years obstructing things that I was trying to accomplish,” Gusciora said.
In the same segment, Vaughn responded that Gusciora, by now a resident of Trenton for 12 years, is still an outsider in the community.
“All the previous mayors of Trenton were sons of Trenton,” she said. “He’s not.”
Given that McBride’s campaign infrastructure is more robust than Vaughn’s, and given that she’s run citywide before, the council president appears to be Gusciora’s most serious challenger this year; an outright Gusciora victory or a McBride-Gusciora runoff in December are probably the likeliest outcomes. Also running is Trenton Housing Authority commissioner Cherie Garette.
When he beat Perez in 2018, Gusciora’s coalition was primarily composed of white and Black voters, while Perez did best with the city’s Hispanic residents, who now make up a narrow plurality of Trenton’s population but who tend to vote at substantially lower rates. (Trenton has never had a Hispanic mayor.)
This time, those dynamics are scrambled, since Gusciora is facing a field of three Black candidates without any Hispanic candidates in the mix.
Adding one further layer of unpredictability is the fact that the election will be held in November, putting the mayoral and council races on the same ballot as congressional and countywide general elections. Gusciora, McBride, and Vaughn have all won city elections before, but that was in low-turnout May elections; it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll fare under a far larger electorate.
Due to an odd collision of circumstances, all three at-large seats on the city council are open this year, leading to a nine-candidate free-for-all that’s all but impossible to handicap.
Council President McBride, one of the three sitting at-large councilmembers, is running for mayor; former Councilman Santiago’s seat has been vacant since the spring; and appointed Councilwoman Sonya Wilkins is dropping down to run for the South Ward instead.
Running in their place are former Councilman Alex Bethea, Trenton Housing Authority chairman Clifton Anderson, congressional staffer Jasi Edwards, teacher Crystal Feliciano, Trenton United Family Foundation vice president Yazminelly Gonzalez, activist and army veteran Kadja Manuel, tech industry professional Michael Ranallo, former school board member Waldemar Ronquillo, and 2018 council candidate Taiwanda Terry-Wilson.
Bethea may have a leg up over his opponents due to his previous stint on the council, although his 2018 mayoral run ended in a 6th-place finish, and his two campaigns against Assemblymembers Anthony Verrelli (D-Hopewell) and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Trenton) – first as an independent in 2018, then as a Democratic primary challenger in 2019 – were both flops as well.
Outside endorsements also provide a clue for who may be among the top contenders for one of the three spots. The AFL-CIO is backing Terry-Wilson and Feliciano, while Garden State Equality has endorsed Feliciano and Manuel, the latter of whom is openly gay.
But several of the biggest potential endorsers, including Gusciora, Reynolds-Jackson, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), have not gotten involved. Every candidate is running independently; unlike in Newark and Jersey City, for example, there aren’t any slates that give voters a clear indication of who is aligned with whom.
The overwhelmingly Black West Ward includes Hilltonia, where Gusciora lives, but it’s also the political base of Vaughn, his longtime adversary. Running to succeed the controversial councilwoman are three candidates: Atalaya Armstrong, Teska Frisby, and Mary Horne.
Armstrong and Vaughn ran against each other in 2018, both seeking to challenge then-Councilman Zachary Chester. Armstrong finished in fourth place in the first round while Vaughn reached the runoff with Chester; boosted by endorsements from Armstrong and third-place finisher Shirley Gaines, Vaughn won 67-33%.
It’s not clear where Armstrong’s allegiances stand now, but Horne is very much a Vaughn backer. She was one of the Trenton residents who sat on the committee to recall Gusciora – a committee that also included now-mayoral candidate Cherie Garette – and Gusciora called her out by name as Vaughn’s “Facebook echo bunny.”
Frisby, meanwhile, is no fan of the councilwoman. This summer, Vaughn attacked Frisby’s family as “ugly, ignorant, and disabled,” seemingly a reference to her son, who has cerebral palsy. Frisby, the wife of Mercer County Commissioner Sam Frisby and the daughter-in-law of top-notch political strategist Jeannine Frisby LaRue, called for Vaughn’s resignation in response to the insult.
With Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson retiring, the North Ward faces a momentous choice on who will succeed her.
There’s activist and historical reenactor Algernon Ward, who ran for the same seat in 2014 and 2018 and lost to Caldwell-Wilson both times. There’s former Public Works Department director Merkle Cherry, currently the chief operating officer of the Henry J. Austin Health Center. There’s Divine Allah, a Black Panther Party leader who once called Gusciora a faggot.
And finally, there’s Trenton GOP municipal chair and Zoning Board chairwoman Jennifer Williams, who would make history if she won as the state’s first openly transgender councilperson. Williams previously ran for Assembly in 2019, and while her Republican party affiliation prevented her from getting particularly close, she worked harder than just about any candidate in the state; since Trenton’s local elections are nonpartisan, her party may be less of an issue this time around.
Ward, Cherry, and Allah are all Black, matching the largely Black demographics of the district; Williams, like Caldwell-Wilson, is white. Whoever wins will represent the heart of downtown Trenton, including the New Jersey Statehouse.
Bizarrely, while every other council seat in the city is hosting an open race, the South Ward has not one but two incumbents running for re-election.
The man who currently holds the seat, East Ward Councilman Joe Harrison, is running for re-election. So is at-large Councilwoman Sonya Wilkins, who was appointed in February to fill former Councilman Jerrell Blakeley’s seat after Blakeley resigned to take a job with the Indiana State Teachers Association.
Joining them is New Jersey Transit employee Ophelia Adderley, who probably has little chance against two sitting councilmembers.
Harrison first arrived in the council in 2018 after beating Taiwanda Terry-Wilson, now an at-large candidate, by just five votes, and he’s often found himself aligned with Gusciora against Vaughn and McBride in the four years since. Wilkins, on the other hand, is a former McBride aide.
The East Ward is majority Hispanic, but that’s not an attribute matched by any of the three candidates running – part of a broader trend of Hispanic political underrepresentation in Trenton, which has seen a dramatic influx of Hispanic residents since the turn of the century. With Councilman Rodriguez’s resignation in the spring, the council has not had a single Hispanic member for most of the year.
Finally, the South Ward is hosting something of a rematch from 2018, but without the ultimate winner of that year’s contest.
Councilman George Muschal was challenged four years ago by state Department of Children and Families investigator Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg and Mercer County Parks employee Damian Malave; Malave made it to the runoff, but was defeated 61-39%.
This time, Muschal is calling it quits, and Malave and Figueroa Kettenburg are going at it once again. Each would bring Hispanic representation to the ward, which was once the heart of the city’s Italian population but which is now nearly 70% Hispanic.
A third candidate, Trenton Parking Authority commissioner Evangeline Ugorji, will also appear on the ballot, but she’ll probably be remembered more for her foibles than for her campaign itself. Her petitions were challenged for including a deceased voter’s signature, leading to a legal battle that delayed the crafting of the South Ward’s ballots, and Muschal had to personally step in and tell her to stop falsely claiming she had received his endorsement.
This story was updated at 1:23 p.m. on November 1 with a correction: former City Clerk Matthew Conlon was investigated for sexual harassment, not sexual assault.