City on Fire

Trenton’s mayor, Eric Jackson, entered office in the wake of a corruption scandal – the type of which has become rather common for the capital city.

The office’s fall from grace parallels that of the city itself. Since the exodus of manufacturing jobs and wealthier residents decades ago, the city has been struggling to be more than just a shadow of its former glory.

Jackson came into office seeking to repair both the community and the community’s trust in the office.

He’s laid out a nine-point policy goal that, according to City Spokesman Michael Walker, he feels will help restore community pride in the city and by extension restore faith in the office.

The goals include everything from improving public safety to supporting art and culture to supporting public schools.

There is much to accomplish and not as much time to accomplish all the Mayor’s goals. “Picture a city on fire – what do you put out first,” said Walker.

These goals take time to accomplish and gradual results often go unnoticed. That’s why public perception is very important to politicians – and nothing is more crucial to crafting public perception than the local media.

Politicians know this which is why they must create media strategies. Not only to present themselves to the public in a certain way but to raise awareness to their ideas and actions.

Walker acknowledges that this is a difficult task in Trenton for two reasons.

One is that the city can’t afford to spread awareness of what’s going on through any means other than press-releases.

“It’s a very difficult job,” he said. “There are no resources to spread awareness of what’s going on.”

Every year the National League of Cities holds a convention to discuss community growth and health.

“I’m the city’s chief spokesperson and I can’t go,” he said.

The other is that the loss of local journalists has created a void in which only the most exciting stories are selected for publication.

“Trenton suffers from the fact that there aren’t a lot media outlets covering what we’re doing,” he said.

With no funding available to promote the events and meetings, Trenton officials must be proactive and ever-present in the city they govern.

Trenton has two newspapers. The often-tabloidesque Trentonian and the Times of Trenton which is ran by NJ Advance Media.

“The two paper dynamic has the effect of amplifying the story – for good or bad.”  said Sam Fogelgaren, President of the College Democrats of New Jersey, who worked on Mayor Jackson’s 2014 campaign in a variety of roles.

“While the reputation and practices of the newspaper is important, equally as important – if not more – are the practices and reputation of individual reporters,” he said. “The relationship they form with contacts on the campaign – including the candidate – play an important role in determining access to information and the scope of the story.”

For all politicians – or least those who know what it takes to get elected – the process of developing a political strategy begins in – and even before – the campaign phase.

“Most campaigns look to expand the voter pool – it gives the advantage to their party, constituency and campaign in both the short and long term,” Fogelgaren said.

“Campaigns exist for short periods of time with limited resources, and are singularly focused on electing their candidate,” he said. “So while the commitment for expanding the vote is often there, the resources aren’t.”

To work around this Fogelgaren had to invest a large amount of time in a number of community-based roles.

“I worked on a variety of fronts – including the advance team, voter registration team, door-to-door and phone banking operations,” Fogelgaren said. “However, my central role was as a member of the campaign’s Youth Council.”

“The council was created to identify and engage Trenton youth in the campaign and political process,” he said. “We hosted social events, large community events, and small group meetings of youth with the candidate.”  

The youth council was an attempt… to bring a low-voting demographic into the fold through social and community events,” he said.

“The campaign incorporated a similar form of outreach to seniors. It wasn’t necessarily enough… there are limits to what a campaign can do in this area,” he said.

Some of those limits weren’t even due to lack of resources or the unavailability of media coverage. They are due to the action of previous administrations – those too shape media strategy and the message conveyed to potential voters.

“In many ways, ending the Mack era was the underlying theme of the campaign – not just for my candidate, but all of them,” he said.

“For our campaign, the focus was more ethical and transparent government – which may have been a focus regardless of the previous administration, but it took on an urgency which didn’t previously exist,” he said.

“Mack’s actions set an extremely low bar for competence and morality, and it created a major leadership vacuum. It demoralized a lot of residents, but served as a call to action for others,” he said.

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