Editor's note: This is the third in a series of profiles on newly-elected members of the Camden City Council and School Advisory Board. The first in the series focuses on Nyemah Gillespie and the second on Shaneka Boucher.
CAMDEN, NJ — When Victor Carstarphen walked into the Camden council chambers to be sworn-in on Jan. 3, he says he remembers minute details.
An undulating fan. Nondescript chatter. Footsteps behind and in front of him.
He remembers being nervous, trying to take stock of the moment.
Suddenly, he told TAPinto Camden while sitting in his office a month later, he heard one of his father’s hit singles from a speaker somewhere in the room.
“I don't know where it was coming from but it felt like my father was telling me, ‘Your life has been built for this, who you are, what you’ve been through... You got this,’ Carstarphen said, tears coming to his eyes.
The song that was playing? “Bad Luck” written by Carstarphen’s father, whom he shares his namesake with — a music legend who worked on the song with Gene McFadden and John Whitehead for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
The 49-year-old councilman said he’s felt anything but bad luck since he was elected to the post last fall.
As it's his first publicly-elected role in the city, “absorbing” has been more important than anything else, he says. The needs of the community. The priorities of Ward 2. And, most importantly, how he can best maximize sitting on a council seat.
“That's the good thing about being in my position, that I’m able to get out and talk to the individuals every day looking to improve our city,” Carstarphen said, hours after he did a walk through at a local school.
Last month, he was also part of a reader’s series at Forest Hill Elementary.
“When the city is having different events, I love to be the homegrown guy,” he said. “I feel good about spreading my history, how Camden has been good to me, and how it can be the same for our youth.”
Homegrown and eager to start
You may also know Carstarphen for his basketball prowess.
Once a star player for Camden High School, Carstarphen led the Panthers to Group 4 state titles in 1986 and 1987. He was also an elite college player at Temple University where he played alongside current-Panthers head coach Rick Brunson — taking flight with the Owls as far as the Elite 8 during the 1991 NCAA Tournament.
Carstarphen is still fourth on the high school’s all-time scoring list with 2,136 points.
"I haven't checked in a while but I do still think it's the case, when the new high school opens we'll look up in the rafters and check,” he joked.
Carstarphen also served as an assistant coach for the Camden High School basketball team from 2014 to 2019. Last year, he stepped down as the head coach after one season to pursue a seat on the council following Brian Coleman’s decision not to run for reelection.
These days, he says, his “court” is the Camden community and its residents.
“My position was point guard. That’s someone who always sets the table for the team and it's something that I’ve translated into what I do now,” he said. “You see everything and you have to observe what’s going on around you to make the biggest impact. Not just your own moves but those of others, and what impact they have on the team at-large.”
So far in taking stock, Carstarphen has observed the need to continue building youth programs, beautifying parks, and seeking impactful redevelopment projects.
Carstarphen graduated from Camden High School in 1988 and Temple University’s Fox School of Business in 1993. He started three years at Temple under Hall of Fame Coach John Chaneyl, was the starting point guard on the 1986 USA Today #1 High School basketball team in the nation, and was a three-time All South Jersey selection.
Carstarphen has also been on the Camden Educational Foundation board for over a decade.
Over five years ago he joined Cherry Hill-based accounting firm, Holmes & Company — wherein he still serves as a senior associate.
“I understand the plight of the small business. Things like having to fill out an RFP, looking for grants, trying to find capital,” added Carstarphen. “When it comes to looking for advantages for small business minorities, I get it. We have small businesses within our city that need to be pointed in the right direction in various areas including growing their infrastructure and working with the bigger corporations. I’d like to be part of creating those avenues.”
After admitting that “Bad Luck” was the song he heard on that fateful evening, Carstarphen said it could have easily been the song his father is arguably most-known for, “Wake Up Everybody.” Or his Intruder’s effort, “I Will Always Love My Mama." Or, for that matter, the bevy of work he did with Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, Jean Carn, or The Temptations.
But ever the one to be honest, Carstarphen admitted while laughing, “No, it was Bad Luck.”
And after a pause, “I’ll take that as irony.”