"Kingmaker" Looks at 2009
The affable real estate broker and former Third Ward councilman must be salivating at the prospects for 2009 – four school board seats, the mayoralty, the Fourth Ward City Council seat, the Democratic Party chairmanship and numerous other political positions up for grabs. Never mind that Campbell is a registered Republican in Democratic-dominated city, his avowed independent stance and clout mean that he always has a say in political outcomes.
Most recently, Campbell took part in a primary victory celebration for Annie McWilliams and Adrian Mapp, who bested Democratic incumbents and party nominees Harold Gibson and Don Davis in the June 2008 primary. Mapp and McWilliams coasted on to win the general election and will be sworn in Jan. 1 for four-year terms on the City Council.
McWilliams and Mapp are self-styled New Democrats, a group reviled by longtime Democratic Party Chairman and Assemblyman Jerry Green as nothing more than Republicans in Democrat clothes. It’s true that both McWilliams and her father, the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, attracted bipartisan support from people seeking independence from iron-fisted Union County Democratic party politics.
Denied a third-term nomination from the Democrats in 2005, Mayor McWilliams mustered enough of a coalition to mount a strong challenge to party choice Sharon Robinson-Briggs, losing the June 2005 primary to her by just 325 votes. Neither a party change nor a general election write-in campaign succeeded in saving his political career, but his New Democrats never disbanded, even after his untimely death in 2007.
By winning the June primary, Mapp and Annie McWilliams found themselves to be titular members of Green’s Regular Democratic Organization. But as they prepare to take office in January, they retain their independent stance.
Campbell, 65, came to Plainfield from North Carolina in 1968. He served as Third Ward councilman from 1985 to 1989, but decided he did not want a career in elected office. Regarding his “kingmaker” remark, Campbell said, “I’m kind of independent. I jump on the horse that’s going to give me the best ride.”
If that sounds like a quid pro quo statement, understand that Campbell’s livelihood in real estate is inextricably tied to the quality of schools and government in Plainfield. His wife and business partner, Wilma, is now serving her second term on the Board of Education, where she calls herself “the voice of reason.” She was an enthusiastic supporter of the hiring of new schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III, who has pledged to turn around the troubled district. Campbell himself frequently comments at school board and council meetings on policies and direction.
Once he targets an issue, Campbell is tenacious. During a phone interview, he turned the subject to his ongoing pet peeve, tax overpayments. Campbell has waged a three-year battle with the city over former Tax Collector Constance Ludden’s proposal to put more than $800,000 in tax overpayments into surplus. The Robinson-Briggs administration took the stance that each of more than 900 taxpayers who overpaid had to prove they were owed the money. Outraged, Campbell sent letters to each person on the list alerting them to the situation. But by March 2007, only $29,919 had been repaid to taxpayers and the City Council voted to place the remaining $780,065 into surplus.
Campbell called the move “very unreasonable” and said he had heard some “horror stories” from people who tried to make claims, especially those not fluent in English. The situation persists, he said, despite a recent promise by Robinson-Briggs that she was committed to refunding the money.
Mapp and Annie McWilliams will undoubtedly bring to the seven-member council more of the independent thinking that Campbell prizes. Mapp previously served on the City Council before winning a three-year term on the all-Democrat Union County freeholder board. But he refused to check his New Democrat affiliation at the door and was denied the line for re-election. When he filed for the 2008 Democratic primary against Davis, he reaffirmed his will to buck the organization.
“Mr. Mapp brings a wealth of political expertise,” Campbell said, albeit not the kind that warms Jerry Green’s heart. He also said Mapp is a “man of integrity.”
“You can teach people all the other stuff, but not integrity and common sense,” Campbell said.
Newcomer Annie McWilliams took on City Council President Harold Gibson, who boasted 50 years of public service. But Campbell called her a “fast learner” and said, “I think she’ll do just fine. I’m sure her daddy taught her some good politics.”
Though only in her twenties, she had enough backing to capture the citywide-at large seat.
The two winners will join Councilman Cory Storch, who won re-election on the party line last year but has continued to take an independent view on city issues; Councilman Rashid Burney, who backed Barack Obama while Green was still in the Hillary Clinton camp; Councilman William Reid, a Regular Democrat stalwart who ran unopposed; Councilwoman Linda Carter, also re-elected last year; and Councilman Elliott Simmons, whose 4th Ward seat is up for re-election in 2009.
Given that Storch, Burney and Carter initially came into office as New Democrats, Campbell sees a political shift coming.
“I think they’ll be able to count to four,” he said. “I don’t think that’s asking for a lot.”
It could be a lot for Robinson-Briggs, who will need council support for her administration’s moves in an election year. She has been campaigning for months, even though the filing date for the June primary doesn’t come up until April.
But first the school board filings take place in February. Despite his wife’s effusiveness over Gallon, Campbell said he didn’t like the way the superintendent denied a popular track club’s request to practice in the high school. Protesters swarmed school board meetings and even a council meeting where Gallon was present before he agreed to the request.
“I believe the future is with the kids,” Campbell said, adding he didn’t want to see the board just go along with whatever the superintendent proposes.
Three three-year school board seats and one unexpired term will be up for election in April.
Besides sending shots over the bow to the mayor and board, Campbell appears to have Green in his political crosshairs. Green will be seeking his ninth two-year Assembly term in 2009 and his party chairman seat will be on the line in June, after 68 Democratic City Committee seats are filled in the primary.
In 2004, Green’s longtime tenure as chairman was broken by Mayor McWilliams, who garnered enough supporters in committee seats to win the leadership. In April 2005, Union County Democratic Party Chairman Charlotte DeFillipo denied McWilliams the right to name the party slate for the primary, prompting his formation of his own slate. Green later resumed leadership of the fractured party.
If Campbell can replicate the late mayor’s ability to fill committee seats, Green may again face a challenge.
Since 2005, Green has been not only party chairman and state legislator, but mentor to Robinson-Briggs. Because the city's special charter prohibits dual office-holding, Green himself cannot be mayor.
“I think Mr. Green would be more effective if he was just wearing one hat,” Campbell said.
The two power brokers were once close, although Campbell said he hadn’t spoken to Green for “perhaps a year.” In 2009, Campbell said, “I think people are looking for a different kind of politician.”