October 6, 2010

First Black Mayor of Trenton, N.J., Speaks About Challenges, Lessons

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Douglas Palmer, the first black mayor of Trenton, N.J., spoke at Bradfield Hall on Wednesday, discussing his time as mayor of a racially-divided city. The talk, titled “Overcoming Barriers in Business, Politics, Entrepreneurship,” was part of Business Opportunities in Leadership and Diversity’s “Points to Success” speaker series.

Palmer served as Trenton’s first African-American mayor from 1990 to 2010. From 2006 to 2008, he was president of the United States Conference of Mayors. Palmer said his ability to make people laugh helped him to be elected president of the conference. Upon leaving office earlier this year, he has been involved with entrepreneurial ventures and has served as an “active participant” on local levels of the Obama administration, he said.

“Whether you’re in politics or you’re an entrepreneur … there’s always going to be obstacles,” Palmer said. “When people present obstacles to you, you have to peel back the onion and find out what the obstacle is and see what caused it.”

The first obstacle Palmer faced as mayor was a city divided along racial lines. Palmer ran against the white incumbent and won the election by a mere 297 votes.

“I was shocked I hardly got any white votes,” he said, adding that almost all of Trenton’s black citizens voted for him, most white citizens voted for the incumbent, and the Latino vote was split. Palmer said he decided to get to know his white constituents in order to bridge the divide.

“Most people you don’t like are people you don’t know, so I made a point, as mayor, to let them get to know me,” he said.

Palmer recounted his first attempt to reach out specifically to voters in a traditionally white district. Speaking to a blind man in a retirement home, the man began to complain — using racial epithets — about the fact that a black person had just been elected, not realizing to whom he was speaking. When the man realized he was talking to the mayor and tried to leave, Palmer used humor and told the man, “I’m going to change the name of Amtrak to Soul Train.”

Despite this encounter, Palmer’s attempt to get to know his constituents was successful, he said. In the next election, this traditionally white district voted in his favor — the first time it was won by an black candidate.

As well as overcoming voters’ racial biases, Palmer noted that his “greatest accomplishment was changing policing. It took courage, commitment, and overcoming barriers.”

The Trenton Police Department had deep seated corruption, with officers often paying for promotions, he said. Police also frequently came into conflict with the African-American and Latino communities.

“For over half of my tenure, we had terrible police-community relations,” Palmer said.

A month before the 1998 mayoral election, Trenton police fired shots at a stolen car, killing 14-year old passenger Jenny Hightower. A week later — on the day of her burial — an officer tripped during a police raid and his gun accidentally discharged, injuring a two-year old. The two events aroused community anger about the way the Trenton Police Department was run.

Palmer was reelected with 87 percent of the vote, the highest ever in a municipal election in Trenton, which he referred to as a “mandate” to fix the police system. He faced an uphill battle to get the system reformed, but ultimately prevailed, he said.

Palmer said he was never worried about what would happen if he failed to reform the department. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t let that become a barrier or an obstacle,” he advised.

After the speech, Shawn Goldsmith ’12, the student seminar director of Business Opportunities in Leadership and Diversity, presented Palmer with a plaque for a “Distinguished Speaker in the BOLD Program.”

Students were receptive to Palmer’s advice and said that he was an engaging speaker.

“It was very interesting to hear from someone who was involved in politics for so long,” Charles Cho ’11 said. “I thought [his advice] was really realistic.”

Michael Fortino ’11, agreed, adding that Palmer was “endearing and pretty sincere.” Fortino said he particularly liked Palmer’s “advice for coping with failure.”

“He’s someone that has courage but is also able to lead with laughter,” Goldsmith said. “He’s able to rally people around him.”

Original Author: Joseph Niczky