Trenton’s mayoral debate began as something of a sordid affair on Sunday, with candidates wasting little time before taking shots at one another or preparing to defend from the same.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora was the first to preface such a battle, in a way. Anticipating attacks on his ties to the state and county establishments, and the support he’s received from the same, Gusciora framed his familiarity with the state’s government as relationships that could aid the capital city, but in doing so, he mentioned his opponent, Paul Perez.
“My opponent says I’m part of the establishment, what it really is is relationships, and that’s what we need,” Gusciora said. “We haven’t had those relationships in the last couple administrations, but we need those relationships with the state to do this all together – 50% of our properties are tax exempt.”
Because Gusciora mentioned Perez, the latter was given an opportunity to rebut the Assemblyman’s opening statement.
In the rebuttal, Perez responded to a different portion of Gusciora’s statement – one about how the city’s current administration had left money from the Transportation Trust Fund, which is supplied by the state’s gas tax, on the table – to attack the assemblyman for raising taxes.
“Transportation Trust Fund, 23 cents tax hike or increase to get gas. He voted for that. November 2016, our state senator, Shirley Turner, said no,” Perez said. “If you go back, Trentonian, and you look at how he was quoted, he thought it was a game.”
Gusciora was then provided a rebuttal to Perez’s rebuttal, one which the latter interrupted to a chorus of shouts – with the majority demanding that he let Gusciora talk – prompting the debate’s moderator to rein the crowd and participants in for first of several times.
The candidates kept it civil for a time after the initial outburst, answering questions on police policies – Gusciora called for community policing and hiring practices that would make the force more closely reflect the neighborhoods in which they worked, while Perez suggested bringing in a consultant to create a training program for current officers and an advanced placement early responder course to help young Trentonians be recruited as police officers and firefighters.
The two seemed to agree on licenses for the city’s undocumented immigrants, and they posed similar answers to a question about waterfront development, but the conversation eventually moved back to the vitriolic tone that marked its early minutes.
Following a jab from Perez over former Gov. Chris Christie, whose treatment of the city and policies Gusciora credited for some of Trenton’s decline, no longer being in office, Gusciora repeated a campaign line likening Perez to President Donald Trump.
“We need to tell Donald Trump, another inexperienced chief executive, we have to tell Donald Trump ‘hands off the census,’” Gusciora said, jabbing his opponent while referring to a proposed census question on citizenship that could impact the way federal aid is distributed.
Perez’s response prompted another outcry from the audience, some crying in affirmation and others not.
“Here’s what I would say: Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Perez said.
The moderator interceded once again, but audience members continued to heckle the candidates intermittently for a few minutes.
The debate continued in that matter for a little while longer, but it eventually found a civil groove once more.
Following the interruptions – which did not completely abate for some time – candidates addressed questions on what types of businesses Trenton might attract, how the city’s blighted hotel might be revitalized and how the city might work with state and county officials to improve conditions in Trenton.
The two candidates’ approaches here differed somewhat, with Perez leaning towards Trenton making itself a desirable partner to businesses and other officials and Gusciora advocating moving state buildings into the downtown area to draw money and foot traffic into the area.
Despite one or two more unsavory incidents, the two candidates ended the debate on a lighter note, perhaps sensing that further vitriol could serve to cement apathy and resentment among the city’s voters.
“It’s not ok to just walk away and say, ‘I’m done.’ That doesn’t get you anywhere. We all have to realize that we are living in a tough situation right now, and nobody – not me, not Reed – can do anything without the other. We can’t,” Perez said. “I just said, sticks and stones break your bones, but you can’t take my education. You can’t break me either, so let’s be nice to each other. Let’s stop telling lies. Let’s stop spreading rumors.”
Gusciora returned the upward note in kind, calling for unity on the day after the election.
“I think deep down, Paul and I like each other in some strange way,” Gusciora said to laughs from the audience. “I had the privilege and honor of visiting Paul and his wife, Janet, at their house after they moved into their house in our neighborhood … and deep down, I know that Paul is a nice guy, and it is unfortunate that politics brings the worst of us. It is a blood sport to a degree, and I know his side is just as passionate as my side. But, at the end of the day, yes, we all have to come together as a community.”