The city's mayor-elect has a vision of bringing the middle class to her impoverished hometown. But Dana Redd's first task is to try to get full mayoral powers restored.
Seven years ago, the state implemented a $175 million bailout designed to invigorate commerce in Camden, a city weighed down by poverty, crime and corruption. In exchange, the governor got final say over the actions of governing bodies from the planning board to the school board to city council.
Now that most of that aid has been spent, Redd says it's time to put the mayor back in charge.
"I fully expect to be in control of leading the city," Redd said in an interview days after her easy victory.
Gov.-elect Chris Christie, a Republican, supports the idea. Though Redd campaigned for fellow Democrat Gov. Jon Corzine, the Republican might be a better ally when it comes to self-rule.
"I think the people who live in those cities should make the determination of who their elected officials are," Christie said Monday, "and should hold those people responsible for their success or failure."
In January, Redd will take over for 84-year-old Gwendolyn Faison, who became mayor in 2000 after her predecessor was convicted of corruption. Without much power, Faison was often cast into the role of a feisty civic cheerleader.
Meanwhile, state appointees oversaw redevelopment and tried to streamline government by updating financial systems.
Redd talks about building a middle class in a city that's long past its industrial peak. She envisions upscale shops and a population trained for work, whether they find jobs in Camden, across the river in Philadelphia or in the suburbs.
Her vision clashes with today's Camden, a city rife with crime, poverty and hopelessness.
Nearly two in five Camden families lived in poverty between 2006 and last year, according to U.S. Census statistics. Only four U.S. cities had higher poverty rates _ and all of them are much smaller than Camden, where the population is estimated at about 70,000, down from a peak of 120,000 a half-century ago.
Homicides have declined. Officials credit police department changes that put more officers on the street. Still, there have been 30 so far this year, down from 55 in 2009.
The poverty and population loss are plainly visible. There are blocks in almost every neighborhood with as many abandoned homes as occupied ones.
At age 41, Redd represents a generational shift. She aligns herself with pragmatic black political leaders who came of age after the Civil Rights Movement, a group that includes President Barack Obama and the mayors of Washington, D.C., and Newark.
While those men attended elite private colleges, Redd toiled through night school, graduating from Rutgers University's Camden campus at 28.
Like many others in Camden, her childhood was marred by violence. Her parents were found dead in a motel room in Bordentown in 1976, when Redd was 8. Authorities say her father, a union leader at Campbell Soup Co., killed her mother and then himself.
Redd says that tragedy helped her learn about the way the maligned city can create a support system. She was raised by her grandmother.
She's been in government most of her adult life, serving as an aide to a county freeholder and then director of the county's buildings and operations office. She was elected to the city council in 2001.
Last year, she was appointed to the state Senate to replace state Sen. Wayne Bryant after he was convicted of corruption.
She says she's never been tempted to leave Camden.
"I've felt my place is here," she said.
But many residents don't share her optimism. Maria Feliciano, a 27-year-old mother of five who has worked as a home health aide, wants to get more training and a good job. She's lived here her whole life, but said, "I'm trying to get out of here myself."
Fifty-two-year-old Janice Funches, who is out of work on disability, says she hasn't been paying attention to local politics.
"It seems like nothing ever changes," she said. "That's why you don't need to vote."
The state's recent revitalization efforts centered on building up the city's educational and medical institutions with the aim of creating job opportunities, bringing some new higher-income people to the city and spurring private investment.
The project has led to expansions at places such as the city's aquarium, Cooper University Hospital and the Rutgers Law School. Other nonprofit and government efforts have put suburban-style homes in some neighborhoods.
But the private investment has been slow to come as the national economy has tanked.
So have jobs. In September 2002, 23,450 Camden residents had jobs; in September 2009, 22,387 did, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
AP reporter Angela Delli Santi in Hamilton Township contributed to this article.