TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — As the first new mayor of New Jersey's impoverished capital city in two decades, Tony Mack had his work cut out for him. The once-booming industrial town of Trenton is today known more for its troubles — high taxes, crime, poverty and low-performing schools — than its attributes and rich history.
But as his administration has staggered from one crisis to another in his first year, critics in the gritty city say they've had enough. Acknowledging that a recall effort is a long shot, they say it may be the city's only shot at surviving.
Mack's critics say he has used the city's payroll like a personal piggy bank, hiring unqualified friends for key posts and focusing on minor projects like parks and parades as the city struggles with serious problems.
"The city is dying, and any hope I had for it is dying with this administration," said Councilman George Muschal, a retired city policeman who has lived in Trenton's South Ward most of his life. Muschal initially backed Mack but now says City Hall has been corrupted.
"It won't stop until someone takes him out in handcuffs or he's removed by recall," Muschal said.
Among Mack's first moves as mayor of the city of 85,000 was firing the existing department heads, including a deputy city clerk hired by the City Council but escorted from City Hall by police.
The housecleaning opened the door for Mack's staff picks, who quickly turned it into a revolving door as a dozen people came and went. Some ran for the exit; others were pushed out after pressure intensified over their credentials. And some left to face criminal charges.
He blew through a string of business administrators. The first resigned after a month, saying the mayor didn't believe in "good government." Another resigned just ahead of pleading guilty to embezzlement on another job.
His housing director quit after it was learned he had a theft conviction. His chief of staff was arrested trying to buy heroin. His half-brother, whose authority he elevated at the city water plant, was arrested on charges of stealing. Most recently, his law director resigned after arguing with Mack over complying with open-records laws and potential violations of laws prohibiting city contracts to big campaign donors.
"It would be amusing if it weren't so tragic," said Bill Guhl, Mack's first business administrator, who had more than three decades of municipal and state government experience and volunteered his time to help Mack with the transition.
Mack, who took office in July 2010, acknowledges mistakes but says he is optimistic about getting things done in his second year after a steep learning curve in his first.
"I'm concentrating on being the best mayor I can be," he told The Associated Press.
"I don't look at things as regrets. I look at things as learning experiences," said the 45-year-old Mack, who has a master's degree in public policy from Fairleigh Dickinson University and who spent most of his adult life working for municipal government and as an elected county official.
While New Jersey ranks among the nation's wealthiest states, Trenton is one of the nation's poorest state capitals, with about 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. It also ranks among the country's most dangerous cities and has some of the state's lowest standardized test scores.
Trenton was once a major manufacturing hub for everything from rubber and wire to ceramic and cigars, an accomplishment celebrated with a giant neon sign, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes," which has remained affixed to a steel bridge across the Delaware River even as industry has disappeared.
And it has a prominent role in American history: Trenton was city of George Washington's first military victory — depicted in the painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" — and briefly served as capital of the United States in 1784.
Various efforts to stem its decline have failed, from an attempt to rebuild the commercial center after devastating race riots in 1968 to a bid by the state to stabilize the city by putting up a warren of new government office buildings.
The city's largest employer is the state, and it has a big footprint; of the city's 7.5 square miles, half are state-occupied property. More than 22,000 employees flood into the city each weekday and leave each night primarily because there is little to keep them in town.
Because New Jersey is so small geographically, lawmakers can all drive home within a few hours and don't have to stay in Trenton, unlike in larger states. Even the governor's mansion is two towns away, in tony Princeton.
"Most state capitals are coveted by their Legislatures," said Doug Palmer, the previous mayor. "The problem is the state has never looked at Trenton as its capital."
Mack's personal history has also been marked by troubles.
His home has been placed in foreclosure several times since taking office, and at one point he owed back taxes on a property he owned and used for campaign headquarters.
Questions have arisen about how he financed his campaign. When reporters asked about his finances at a news conference, he tried to have them removed from the room.
Removing Mack from office would be more difficult than electing him; organizers need to get 10,000 signatures by Nov. 15 — only slightly fewer than the 12,000 who voted in last year's mayoral runoff — before a new election can be held.
Supporters say he has done the best he can with what he was left — a $55 million budget hole, shrinking state aid to fill it and a City Council made up of freshmen.
"Everyone at City Hall was new. We stumbled," said council President Kathy McBride, a Mack supporter. "But we need to move the city forward, not point a finger at an individual."
Mack said he's not worried about a recall, but a Stand By Tony Committee has been formed to defend his record. He also recently announced that he is coming out with a self-published autobiography: "Detours to Destiny: Life Under Construction."
Stand By Tony committee spokesman Orlando La Santa supports Mack, but also worries what would happen if he were ousted: "There are no other true leaders to step up in his place should he get recalled."