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South Jersey

November 16, 1999
Azzolina apologizes for murder comment

Courier-Post staff

TRENTON - Some bad blood between Camden and Bayonne was washed away Monday when Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, apologized for calling Camden the "murder capital of the world."

Bayonne and Camden both want the Navy to permanently anchor the battleship USS New Jersey as a floating museum and memorial. A decision is expected by January.

On Monday, the state Assembly honored Azzolina with a resolution praising his "exemplary leadership" for decades of work to bring the battleship home. Shortly after the Assembly vote, Azzolina apologized for remarks published last week in The New York Times.

In the article, Azzolina suggested the battleship be berthed in Bayonne because Camden was too dangerous for tourists.

The chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission, which recommended the ship be placed in Bayonne, Azzolina was quoted as saying: ''As soon as you walk off the (Camden Waterfront's) parking lot, you're in the middle of the murder capital of the world.''

In fact, Camden's murder rate does not even rank the city of 85,000 in the nation's top 10.

On Monday, Azzolina was contrite.

"Banging each other is not right, and I apologize for that," Azzolina said from the Assembly floor.

"I apologize to everybody if I said some unkind things about any city, or whatever," he later elaborated. "The Navy's going to make the decision, and we're all going to be together when it happens. . . . Let's work together now."

Standing outside the Assembly chambers in Trenton, Camden County freeholder Patricia Jones said she appreciated Azzolina's "wisdom - even if it came a little late."

"He needs to understand that everyone in the state is grateful for his work to relocate the ship to New Jersey," Jones said. "But to insult an entire community was inappropriate."

Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, said Azzolina "has earned my respect now."

"This is not about a battleship. This is about the human beings who live in the city of said. "And now I feel great."

Camden's per capita murder rate is the state's highest and ranks among the top 20 in the nation, according to a Courier-Post analysis of the FBI's Uniform Crime Report data for 1998, which tracked murders in all U.S. cities of more than 10,000 people.

But Camden's crime rate has dropped dramatically in recent years and is far from earning the title ''murder capital of the world.'' So far this year, 20 homicides have been reported in the city - well behind the pace that led to 42 murders in 1997, and 31 in 1998.

"His apology is a step of correction in the right direction," said Assemblyman George Geist, R-Camden. "I respect his advocacy for veterans, but I do not respect his disrespect for our city."

An emotional Azzolina passed out USS New Jersey baseball caps to all 120 members of the Legislature.

"This is the greatest achievement of my life," he said. "It's a legacy for the future generations to see this great ship, this icon. It'll last for 100 years - 200 years if they take care of it."

The resolution honoring him was orchestrated by Assemblyman Sam Thompson, R-Monmouth. It was kept secret until a few moments before the vote and came as a "complete shock," Azzolina said.

Greeted by cheers from thousands of people, the battleship last week completed a two-month, 5,800-mile journey from Bremerton, Wash., to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

On Monday, the cheers were for Azzolina in the Assembly.

"If Joe Azzolina had not begun the effort in 1981 to bring the New Jersey back, it never would have happened," said Assemblyman Joseph Doria, the Hudson County Democrat who also is mayor of Bayonne.

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