On Thursday August 18, 2022, Camden Mayor Victor G. Carstarphen invited a few hundred of his closest friends and supporters to witness the “2022 State of the City Address” in the beautiful state of the art auditorium on the Camden High School Campus. As one would expect, Mayor Carstarphen spelled out in painstaking detail the manner in which his administration has addressed the primary challenges associated with the physical and fiscal infrastructure of Camden City. In the wake of decades of diminished federal and state resources and scarce local revenue, Carstarphen emphasized the extent to which he and his formidable “Team Camden” wake up every day and address Camden’s fiscal shortfalls, improve it’s economic growth, and revamp aging infrastructure.
Providing clear empirical evidence of progress toward his policy priorities over the past year, Carstarphen focused primarily on economic development, quality of life concerns, and Camden’s infrastructure. The progress was well-documented and presented in a deft yet accessible manner. The issues Carstarphen views as Camden’s’ biggest keys to growth and vitality—economic development and infrastructure—were a central focus of his address. But, Carstarphen also placed a high degree of emphasis on quality of life concerns, including public safety, urban planning, and improved sustainability.
One is tempted to focus on the expansive details he shared with his constituents… The drastic reduction in crime, the investment grade A- bond rating, the on-time city budget with a surplus, the expansion of businesses, the brand new Hilton Garden Inn on the Camden waterfront, the 8,700 repaired potholes and the list goes on and on…
However, the aim here is to provide readers with a sense of what it was like to be in the room. On the surface, the State of the City Address was an opportunity for Carstarphen to update City Council, School Board members, business leaders, political supporters and other stakeholders on the substantial process his administration has made over the course of their first year a the helm.
In reality what we witnessed was a masterful performance by a former student-athlete, educator, coach and accountant who is quickly evolving into a charismatic political orator. Carstarphen is developing a speaking style that is agentive. From the moment he appeared in the room, he was actively and creatively mixing and matching sociolinguistic resources. Carstarphen was able to skillfully constitute and portray multiple types of personae, identities and various understandings of self. He was, simultaneously, Camden “homie”, businessman, son, neighbor, advocate, coach, Mayor and, dare I say it… Pastor. Carstarphen seamlessly shifted personae over the course of his inaugural State of the City Address, depending on his goals and the audience reception at different moments of the speech.
Of course, one of the main goals of the speech was to convey the significant progress his administration has made toward policy objectives. Nonetheless, I would argue that an equally important goal was the accumulation of political capital.
Political capital can be understood as a form of symbolic capital. It is a way of conceptualizing the accumulation of resources and power built through relationships, trust, goodwill, and influence between politicians or parties and other stakeholders, such as constituents. It looks like, Carstarphen’s coffers are overflowing with political capital. He clearly understands that political capital can be understood as a type of currency used to mobilize voters, achieve policy reform, or accomplish other political goals.
So… How do we measure political capital? Some political theorists consider things like the number of votes, the amount of people present at a meeting, size of crowds at marches, or total amounts of money donated to political campaigns, public opinion polling results, and other and measurable variables. It’s only year one… Give me sometime we’ll flesh out our barometer… We’ll come up with a way of gauging increases (or, heaven forbid, decreases) in Carstarphen’s political capital.
Today though, the point I want to make is that Carstarphen is evolving into a very skillful and purposeful political orator. He has clearly recognized that his personality is a very important tool in the necessary task of accumulating political capital. He did an admirable job spelling out the early accomplishments of administration and the level of constituent service his administration is providing. Of course, the political minutia is very important and must be spelled out for those keeping political score.
However, of equal importance was the way Carstarphen delivered his message. We are witnessing the emergence of a highly skilled politician. Carstarphen understands that his personality and speaking style are an important means of accumulating of political capital. Tonight, at various points Carstarphen’s speech style was characterized by what one could call a ‘speaking in earnest’ dimension. He is a Camden native, a highly educated and articulate son of this proud city. By delivering a virtuoso Camden speech, Mayor Carstarphen banked a lot of political capital this evening.
The question becomes: What will he do with it?
I’m sure Carstaphen anticipates tough battles around many of the pressing issues he highlighted, and plans to expend some of his political capital to further realize his policy goals.
Nonetheless, should he set his sights on higher office one day, he will most certainly have enough political capital to make a run for Congress, Senate or the Governor’s mansion. While he has a masterful command of Camden City politics, I see no reason why Carstarphen couldn’t take his show on the road.
Heck… He’s almost as popular and influential as young DJ Wagner…