A winner by just 300 votes in 1990, Doug Palmer has easily been re-elected Trenton's mayor ever since.
| On June 12, 1990, Douglas H. Palmer made history, winning election as Trenton's first black mayor, just as his parents had dreamed from the time he was a little boy.
It was a victory as bitter as it was sweet, however, because the close vote showed the racial divide of the city as well as the role of the Trenton police force in the rift.
Palmer ousted Mayor Carmen Armenti by less than 300 votes, out of 25,500 cast, on an Election Day marred by questions about all the off-duty policemen acting as challengers for the incumbent at polling places in Trenton's black neighborhoods.
Something like this had occurred a generation earlier in Newark. White politicians and cops said the Newark "Ballot Patrol'' was aimed at rooting out the rampant voter fraud in black precincts that always voted heavily for Democrats.
In the Trenton of 1990, however, the tactic was seen the way Newark's minorities had viewed it: The last-ditch effort of Republican forces to prevent black leadership in a city that had been predominantly black for decades.
Every election is a fight for the power-made appointments to government jobs, and Trenton's voters knew it. Black leadership at City Hall meant more of the pie for Trenton's blacks.
That June, Election Day was warm and breezy, the sky was blue, and voters started showing at the polls in strong numbers early. Soon, the Palmer forces were howling that people in black neighborhoods were turning away when they saw the white cop at the entrance.
The cops, wearing election challenger badges on their street clothes, were questioning identifications closely and checking for outstanding warrants on some potential voters.
A black cop allied with Palmer, Willie Smith, made no bones about calling it "intimidation'' as he stood outside a voting place in a housing project.
"Anytime you see white guys up here, it's cops in plainclothes,'' said Smith. "The kids will tell you: The only time they see a white guy up here is when he's coming to arrest somebody.''
As they headed into court for an injunction, Palmer's Democrats said it looked like the police force had become an arm of the Republican party, which was backing Armenti.
Lieutenants for Armenti argued it was coincidence that 25 city policemen were among the ranks of the mayor's challengers at polling places. The cops, they countered, weren't bothering anyone who had proper credentials and wasn't wanted on any charges.
In late afternoon, the Palmer and Armenti forces agreed to a consent order saying their challengers would not question anyone at polling places.
And Palmer has been jousting with Trenton's cops ever since.
To understand why, we go back to Oct. 19, 1951, when Palmer was born to parents settled on Edgewood Avenue in Trenton's West Ward.
Accountant George Palmer — a native of Charleston, S.C., whose grandfather was Chinese — and Trenton college girl Dorothy Vaughn Palmer thought their baby boy was destined for greatness from the moment they saw him.
Trenton was a destination for southern blacks seeking a better life in the 1950s. The changing demographics of the city told the Palmers it was only a matter of time before Trenton would get a black mayor.
The Palmers set about preparing their son for leadership in the same way presidential sire Joe Kennedy had with JFK and his other sons.
By the time he was 10, Doug Palmer was dreaming his parents' dream that he'd be a historic man, the first black mayor of Trenton.
Palmer went to public grade school in the days when the West Ward's educational institutions were heavily populated with children from Jewish families and ranked among the best in the nation.
He was sent to Bordentown Military Institute for high school and later to Hampton University, a prominent black college in Virginia, where he starred on the baseball and football team.
When Palmer graduated from college and returned to Trenton in 1973, he was a handsome, well-spoken young man whom many political leaders, black and white, immediately pegged as a hot prospect.
With help from his father, Palmer went into business running a tavern on South Warren Street and, later, worked as coordinator of community education programs for the Trenton school district.
Palmer caught the eye of Walter Bliss, chairman of Mercer County's Democratic Party, who viewed the young man as perfect for a seat on City Council and, eventually, the post of Trenton mayor.
But advancement in city government was going to be slow given the strength of the veteran Dems on the council and the popularity of Mayor Arthur Holland, who would end up holding the post until his death in 1989.
Palmer bided his time until the election of 1981, when the Democrats put him up to run for countywide office as a Mercer freeholder. Palmer was 30 when he won the one-year, unexpired term created when Freeholder John Watson of Ewing, the first black on the board, won a seat in the state assembly.
For the next eight years, Palmer learned the political ropes as a freeholder, twice winning re-election to three-year terms. When Holland died in office in November 1989, Palmer and Trenton's Democratic organization were ready to run.
But first they had to get past Armenti, who would be running as the incumbent because as president of the City Council, he got to succeed Holland as mayor.
Elections are in May under Trenton's supposedly non-partisan system of government. On May 8, Palmer and Armenti had to run against two others who wanted the job, including Trenton's leading Hispanic figure, former Board of Education President Pedro Medina, who was also a city detective.
In the election, Medina ran a strong third, which under the rules of city government required a runoff election between the two strongest vote getters, Palmer and Armenti.
In the weeks leading up to the runoff, Palmer and Armenti forces tried to convince Medina to throw his support to them, giving one the added votes needed to win. Armenti won the lobbying effort, which promised him many Hispanic votes.
So Palmer knew he was in the battle of his life by Election Day on June 12. And the sight of cops standing outside polling places spelled trouble for a candidate dependent on a strong turnout in black neighborhoods.
It would be late afternoon before the argument about the cops at the polling places would be worked out. And later that night, as the vote count showed Palmer and Armenti running neck and neck, some Palmer supporters expressed fear that the alleged intimidation by policemen had been a successful tactic.
When the last votes were counted, however, Palmer had eked out a victory, 12,933 to 12,636. During the celebrating that night, many Palmer supporters said the police force had become an arm of Trenton's GOP.
Still, Palmer would not blame Armenti for what the cops did. He called the incumbent mayor a "gentleman," expressed his admiration for him and said the vote showed the people of Trenton were ready for a change.
"We never resorted to negative tactics or to playing the race card,'' Palmer recalled last week. "That's a credit to him and to me, I think, because it would have been easy to do that."
But there was no ignoring the division of the city when the polls came out. Palmer had won big in Trenton's black wards and ran poorly in white neighborhoods.
"I didn't want to be just a black mayor, but I also had to know where my strengths were,'' Palmer said the other day about his approach to the campaign.
"There were nay-sayers from every corner of the community and the community at large said Trenton wasn't ready for a black mayor,'' Palmer said. "Whites wouldn't vote for me, Latinos wouldn't vote for me and even some blacks wouldn't vote for me because I was young and because of the racial makeup of the city.
"They weren't ready for me, so it was an uphill battle, but I had a good team and a good message, and with God's blessing we put together a good campaign and we won by 297 votes."
Palmer won re-election by 73 percent of the vote when he ran four years later and did even better when he ran again in 1998.
But within months, Palmer was again battling with the cops.
Buoyed by two overwhelming reelection victories and spurred on by constituents angry about the fatal Trenton police shooting of a teen joyrider in a stolen car and alleged racial profiling by New Jersey troopers, Palmer made a move to gain control of the police.
He proposed new, civilian leadership for the force, which City Council said was something voters should decide on in a referendum.
During the referendum campaign, cops argued that police forces are supposed to be run by chiefs who came up through the ranks, not civilians more likely to be swayed by political factors like the need to keep voters happy.
Keeping voters happy in Trenton could mean overlooking offenses, the cops argued, noting that city criminal suspects increasingly cry "racial profiling'' or play some version of the race card when hauled in for drugs or other offenses.
Palmer, who said he really didn't want a referendum, campaigned hard for his position, saying civilian leadership would help root out law officers with bad attitudes toward minorities.
On June 22, Palmer won in a vote that showed the racial divide of the city. He took Trenton's black wards by 5 to 1 and lost by 2 to 1 in white neighborhoods.
And so it goes.
|1990: Doug Palmer
|By PAUL MICKLE and LAUREN M. BLACK / The Trentonian|