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Opinion: Trenton residents need endorsements, voting records to guide election of next city mayor

At first blush, the idea of encouraging candidates who are running for mayor of Trenton to submit a credit report with the city clerk’s office sounded good to me. However, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it as a tool to evaluate the aspirants. Though I oppose the idea, I strongly favor two others: urging elected officials to endorse the city’s mayoral candidates and making candidates’ voting history readily available.

The argument for making credit reports public was made succinctly by former New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., who said, “It is an attempt to make sure that people who hold office are people willing to submit a full disclosure. If a person cannot handle his or her personal finances, then how can we trust that same person to handle public finances?” In some cases, Soaries is probably correct, but not always.

Some people may find themselves in a difficult financial situation due to events beyond their control. Stuff sometimes happens that is not a reflection of one’s ability to handle one’s personal finances. Someone can lose his or her job, not because of poor performance, but due to a “Great Recession.” Someone can be hit with extraordinary bills due to a weather emergency or an accident that becomes incapacitating and prevents him or her from working.

A negative credit report, regardless of the reasons for it, should not preclude someone from running for public office. I suspect those who favor providing credit information would argue that the person with poor credit would have an opportunity during the campaign to explain the reasons.

The City of Trenton would have gone down a slippery slope if candidates had been asked to provide their credit history. However, the discussion did serve a useful purpose by giving exposure to how important it is that the next mayor of Trenton possess fiscal acumen.

In the past, I have urged elected officials who represent Trenton to endorse candidates in Trenton’s nonpartisan mayoral election. I am not looking for them to sit behind closed doors and attempt to anoint someone as Trenton’s next mayor. I also recognize that endorsements by elected officials, like newspaper endorsements, are not the most important determinant of an election’s outcome. However, endorsements, like campaign money raised, are significant as they can help to separate the top-tier from the bottom-tier candidates in a race with many candidates, such as the eight at present: Wiley Fuller, Jim Golden, Patrick Hall, Eric Jackson, Oliver “Bucky” Leggett, Kathy McBride, Paul Perez and Walker Worthy.

This type of sorting can be helpful to the electorate. I’m not suggesting that endorsements are more important than a candidate’s experience, position on key issues or performance in debates but, because they often garner significant press coverage, they can be significant.

To maximize the impact of their endorsements, elected officials should spell out the reasons for their support, i.e. the candidate’s relevant skills, experience, background, temperament, education, special talents, etc. I believe that had Trenton’s elected officials endorsed candidates in Trenton’s last election for mayor in this way, most of them would not have endorsed Tony Mack, and the outcome might have been different.

For this reason, I’d strongly urge County Executive Brian Hughes, Rep. Rush Holt, Sen. Shirley Turner, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, county clerk Paula Sollami-Covello, county surrogate Diane Gerofsky and the freeholders not to sit on the sidelines in the upcoming race for mayor. They should each make their views known as to which candidate they believe is best equipped to lead the city into the future and the reasons for their assessments.

If Trenton City Council is looking to provide voters with objective information that would help them decide whom to vote for, I’d suggest it consider making candidates’ voter participation records available. Voting is a clear indicator of concern and interest in government. If a person believes in government, other than incapacitating illness, there is no good explanation for not voting.

If you are concerned about who represents you and you have a very hectic life (e.g. work two jobs, have to pick up a child after a workday) and can’t get to the polls for whatever reason, you can vote by absentee ballot. In New Jersey, you do not need a reason to vote by absentee ballot.

I, for one, would not vote for nor endorse a candidate who had a checkered voting history. It takes a lot of chutzpah to ask constituents to vote for you when you have not taken the time to vote in the past.

If the Mayor Tony Mack fiasco has taught us anything, it’s that who is elected really matters. I hope elected officials who represent Trenton will carefully scrutinize the field of candidates and provide their best judgment as to who they believe is most qualified to lead the city. One criterion I’d use is whether the candidate had voted consistently in the past.