Camden Remembers a Longtime Watchdog

Mayors and council members came and went, sometimes exiting for prison stints. But for more than 30 years, when Camden's city council met, Frank Fulbrook was the constant, with his ponytail flowing over the flannel or denim work shirts he always wore.
"Frank taught us that you can fight City Hall," said Mike Hagan, another native of the city where the poverty and murder rates are among the nation's highest and there's a reputation for political corruption. "Not only can you. You must."
City activists, some local officials and Fulbrook's relatives gathered at a church Friday to remember the nocturnal, rail-thin activist who died of a lung infection last month at 64.
In an open casket, one last meeting agenda was tucked into his hands.
Fulbrook grew up in the city, but his family, like most white folks from Camden, scattered. Fulbrook stayed and became immersed in the history and politics of the city that once boomed with industry.
More than 30 years ago, he bought his first rental property in the downtown Cooper Grant neighborhood. That brought him enough money to quit his job in the mailroom at The Philadelphia Inquirer, his brother Jim Fulbrook said, and spend all his time trying to save the city.
He studied agendas, went to meetings, organized a group of independent Democrats, got himself appointed to the zoning board and library board. And when there was something he thought was wrong, he went to court, where his arguments often persuaded judges.
His suit forced a delay a decade ago of a $175 million state bailout and partial takeover of the city. He helped block a redevelopment plan that would have displaced thousands in the Cramer Hill neighborhood and stopped billboards from going up in some areas.
He fought curfews on business hours and tried to stop the Campbell Soup company from razing a long-closed Sears store, which was finally reduced to rubble the same month that Fulbrook died.
Away from court, he advocated for New Jersey to allow needle exchanges for IV drug users, lobbied for drug legalization, reasoning that would stop the city's drug-related crime, and was something of a Sherpa for investigative reporters. He'd leave messages before dawn but insist no one call him until after 11 a.m.
Though he'd left Rutgers University after just a couple of semesters in the 1960s, he eventually returned to earn a degree in his 50s so he could be an adjunct teacher at the school's Camden campus.
He ran for mayor and city council. Jim Fulbrook, wearing one of his brother's flannel shirts for the service, said Frank financed the campaigns by mortgaging his home.
His style may have been one thing that cost him the elections. "I'd say, `Frank, take your shirt off and put on a jacket and you can be on council,' " said Mangaliso Davis, another longtime rabble-rouser. "He said, `I'm not going to change.' "
A leftover yard sign from one of his campaigns was on display Friday. "Your full-time watchdog," it read. "Nobody's rubber stamp."
Mary Cortes, another activist who has run for office, was delighted to see another Fulbrook signature, his work boots, sitting atop the casket. Someone, she says, will need to fill them.
In the meantime, his legacy lives on. The poll question on November's ballot asking voters to hold nonpartisan elections was drafted by Fulbrook.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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