Gusciora among seven vying for Trenton mayor

As a Democratic state Assemblyman, Reed Gusciora usually can count on the backing of the Democratic apparatus in Mercer County to help him get elected.

But not this year, not when he is running to become the next mayor of Trenton in a crowded field of candidates that includes a candidate Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes, a Democrat, is supporting. The politics of the race mean Guscoria is running against the party machine, a prospect from which he is not shrinking.

“The people are with me,” he said in a recent interview. “I find people in Trenton, a lot of the voters are resentful of party leaders telling them what to do.”

Election Day in Trenton is less than a month away, in a contest to decide who will replace Mayor Eric Jackson, who is not seeking re-election to a second term. The mayor of Trenton is paid $130,253 a year. The winner of the May 8 election must get 50 percent of the vote plus one to avoid a runoff.

Gusciora is on the ballot with Democrats Alex Bethea, Darren Green, Duncan Harrison Jr.,  Annette Lartigue, Paul Perez and Walker Worthy. There are no Republicans seeking the position.

To his allies, Gusciora, 58, is ready for the job. To one of his opponents, he is running to lead a city he has barely lived in and where he lacks deep connections to the community.

“I’m supporting Reed Gusciora,” said Mercer County Freeholder Andrew Koontz, a Democrat from Princeton who worked on Guscoria’s 1995 race for Assembly. “He and I have a long-standing political relationship that dates back many years.”

Koontz pointed to Guscoria’s experience as a lawmaker and “good ideas” for the city, in terms of economic development.

“He seems to me, out of all the candidates I’ve seen thus far, to have the best articulated policy chops in terms of a future direction of the city,” Koontz said.

On his campaign website, Gusciora talks of investing in the city’s public works department, running city government better, having police interact more with the public and outfitting police officers with body cameras.

In the interview, Gusciora was critical of Mercer County government. He said he does not think it has “necessarily been a good partner for Trenton.” He said the county pays no property taxes, does not promote the Trenton Thunder stadium and has done nothing to develop the waterfront.

“The county is very much a part of the problem of why Trenton is not successful,” he said.

“I’ve got no problem with Reed and I hope he doesn’t have a problem with me,” said Hughes, the county executive.

Hughes rebutted Gusciora's assertions by pointing to a $2 million investment by the county into the Trenton Thunder stadium and the investment in public safety.

Gusciora has represented Trenton for 22 years in the state Legislature and worked in the city as a municipal prosecutor. He used to live in Princeton Borough, but when Princeton was removed from the 15th Legislative District when New Jersey was redistricted, he moved to Trenton. Gusciora still has ties to Princeton, where he serves as the municipal prosecutor.

Former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican who served with Gusciora in the Legislature, described Gusciora as “hands on,” intelligent and hard-working. He said he never got the sense Gusciora was looking to go beyond being a lawmaker.

“But at the same time, this (run for mayor) doesn’t surprise me, because anyone who serves in the Legislature, I think, possesses the same initiative to want to serve in a chief executive officer capacity,” said Ciattarelli, who expressed disappointment that no Republican is in the Trenton race.

For his part, Hughes is supporting Worthy, the Mercer County deputy clerk. Worthy ran for mayor four years ago and finished third.

Hughes said Worthy has been “working hard the last four years trying to make amends and really looking at constituents and really the aspirations of the constituents’ children, which is (to have) a better educational system (and that) puts him in a good place. But with a seven-person race, who knows? It could be anybody coming out. It’s just who gets the machine working and who gets people out on Election Day.”

In an interview, Worthy said he and Gusciora share a lot of the same ideas, “but we do have some differences.”

“Reed is not in touch with the community,” said Worthy, 54. “Reed moved in here to follow his legislative seat. He doesn’t have the grassroots side of the community.”

Worthy said he believes that connection with the city is critical to being mayor.

“You need to have contact with the boots on the ground, with the people in the community — the churches, the mosques, the housing projects,” he said. “You need to be in touch with the schools, with those people on the grassroots level and he doesn’t have that, and the result of the election is going to show that.”

Worthy’s mother, Cookie, is the clerk to the Mercer County Board of Freeholders.

Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello said she is supporting Worthy, with whom she has worked for 12 years.

“I know he is a person of integrity and a person who really cares deeply about the city and wants to see it improve economically and in safety and in many ways,” Sollami-Covello said.

Worthy calls Trenton the “base of the Democratic Party” for the county and for the legislative district.

“So all the elected officials who are Democrats, they have a lot at stake on who’s in City Hall, they really do,” he said.

“We are going to come up with a Democrat who is ready to take on the problems of Trenton and the county is going to be there to support whoever it is,” Hughes said.

Democratic State Sen. Shirley K. Turner represents Trenton as part of the same 15th Legislative District as Gusciora, but she has stayed publicly neutral. Turner did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, who chairs the Mercer County Democratic Party, declined to comment.

U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, Union) also has not weighed in. An email message sent to Coleman's re-election campaign was not returned.

Reed Gusciora