“It Doesn’t Matter Where You Put a Building”

It’s not often that a public figure, such as a candidate for elected office, will offer up a succinct soundbite that – in a dozen words or less – serves as a quick and handy guide into that person’s political mindset. In Paul Perez, we’ve seen a moment like that in each of his mayoral campaigns, his first back in 2014 and the current one that will be won or lost next Tuesday, June 12.

In 2014, the recently returned (after an absence of nearly 30 years) Perez surveyed the political scene in Trenton and judged he was the right person to fix the City. His diagnosis as written up in one of his first press releases of the main problems in the City was pretty spot on and concise – “Th[e] absence of a secure environment negates any possibility of economic development and investment in the city, therefore the poor jobs situation and limited tax base.” But, in his very next words, he blew whatever credibility he had been seeking. “The problem is not that difficult to correct, however, it does require seasoned business acumen to get it done.” [Emphasis mine – KM] I wrote a piece in response to that press release and a Trenton Times (remember them?) article in which Mr. Perez made another big promise, saying “Make me the mayor today, and tomorrow you will have 105 police officers back on duty.”

More than anything else, those two lines, appearing days apart, summarized Mr. Perez’s 2014 candidacy in a nutshell: grand, bold, over-confident, over-simplified and under-informed.

You have to admit, to a great extent it worked pretty well for him. The statements quoted above didn’t really seem to hurt him any, and he upped his game significantly over the following year. The recently returning native son and political newbie came in as a very impressive second-place finisher in 2014, although carrying a great deal of electoral baggage unresolved to the present day, in the form of un-filed campaign finance reports and evidence of multiple violations in those reports that had been filed for his first race.

By the way, today’s reported endorsement of Mr. Perez by retiring mayor Eric Jackson represents an alignment of two fellow campaign finance scofflaws, for what that’s worth. The news today does nothing to advance the compelling public interest that Trenton’s citizens have in knowing that their mayors are fully transparent with their campaign finances and compliance with state law. On that scale alone, I hold Eric Jackson’s endorsement of Paul Perez as a net negative, leaving me even less inclined to vote for Mr. Perez next week.

Hubris has not been in short supply with Mr. Perez the politician, from the time he returned to Trenton five years ago to the present day. For someone who is openly running against what his campaign disparagingly calls “a career politician,” Paul Perez has certainly become a “second career” politician, seeking Trenton’s mayor’s office nonstop since his return, and including a couple of bouts of testing the waters for other county and state offices as well. He’s been well truly bitten by the political bug, with his several private commercial ventures often spoken about but never really visible other than as props to burnish his resume.

This year, Mr. Perez is running a strong race, having finished first in the first round on May 8. He arrived yesterday at the downtown Trenton campus of Mercer County Community College, location of  the final public town hall event before next Tuesday’s runoff election as if he was  already elected, accompanied by an extensive entourage and a readiness to mix things up with his opponent, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora.

The Trentonian’s account, written by David Foster, accurately catches the often-combative tone of the afternoon’s discussion. But Foster’s article missed the one single line spoken by Mr. Perez that summarizes this year’s campaign as neatly and revealingly as his “the problem is not that difficult” line four years ago.

In a discussion about the prospects for economic development for the City, reference was made to the fact that Mr. Perez changed his stance on a key State of New Jersey initiative begun in the last months of the Chris Christie Administration to demolish several currently-occupied state office buildings and build their replacements far from downtown. This plan, announced last year, generated a great deal of opposition among Trenton residents and business-owners, who argued that the State’s decision to abandon Trenton’s downtown was a heavy blow to other efforts by the city and other redevelopment organizations to draw business and traffic in, as well as action in serious opposition to Trenton’s long-range Master Plan, Trenton250. This opposition, which went as far as an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the plan filed by several people including Mr., Gusciora.

Mr. Perez initially joined that opposition, but later reversed his stance to support it. The timing of his reversal suggested to many in Trenton that it was a cynical and politically expedient move, made in order to gain the politically potent endorsement of the Mercer County Building and Construction Trades Council, which strongly supported the Christie plan for the new office buildings, providing jobs for Trades Council membership, regardless of the impact to Trenton’s Downtown, its Master Plan, or its local business community.

In his statements yesterday, Mr. Perez pretty much, however inadvertently, confirmed the cynical, politically charged view of his reversal on the State Building plan, in a one-liner that deserves to be remembered.

“It doesn’t matter where you put a building,” he claimed, at 2:44:08 in to this video recording of the event, in a dismissive comment that will come as a true surprise to anyone who works in city planning and development, anywhere and anytime. He went on to say that no matter how far away from downtown the city puts these new buildings, workers and visitors will engage with downtown attractions and business, and suggested the main factor involved with this would be public safety, and not geography. “If the city is safe, people are going to walk distances.”

He then went on at length to minimize the importance of this State building project. He is seeking to develop Downtown as a whole, and the entire City. “[W]e don’t need just two buildings. We need the City to be developed.” He even went as far as to say that the State plan to move the buildings downtown was really unconsequential. “Because they moved it, you know, two feet away, now people aren’t going to walk? How many of you believe that?” he asked the audience. He was visibly taken back by the strong response to that rhetorical question.

Many in the audience were clearly more familiar with the history of Trenton’s development follies over the last 60 years than Mr. Perez was. They’ve seen too many times that state office buildings cut off from the economic hearts of the city in downtown and the Transit Center do not contribute to Trenton prosperity. They’ve seen that it sure as hell does “matter where you put a building!” They know that if, for instance, Trenton’s only hotel had been sited closer to the Route 129 Arena, it very well might have seen much more business over the years, and have become a successful business.

As they say in Real Estate, “Location, Location, Location.” It DOES matter where you put buildings!!

And this state office project has to be seen not as “just two buildings.” It’s a major initiative by the State of New Jersey, which is still de facto the biggest developer in play, by far, in this city, and the state’s decision to build far away from downtown makes all other plans and aspirations for the area incalculably harder to pull off.

Many in the audience got all that yesterday. Mr. Perez didn’t, and it sure looks like he changed his mind in order to receive a political endorsement and the likely contributions that came along with it.

There were other moments in the discussion in which, both Mr. Perez and Mr. Gusciora struck some odd notes. Mr. Perez conflated the current budgetary impasse between State House Democrats in the Legislature and the Governor into what would be an unlikely long-term retreat by the State from facing responsibility for its Capital City. He also tried unfairly and inaccurately to pin the Eric Jackson Administration’s failure to apply for Transportation Trust Fund monies on Mr. Gusciora. For his part, Mr. Gusciora’s discussion of dining with Governor Murphy as proof of access to the levers of state power were less than compelling.

Most of what was said yesterday will probably be forgotten by most people by the time that they go back to the polls on June 12. But, in my opinion, “It doesn’t matter where you put a building” deserves to be remembered. And not in a good way.

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