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Op-Ed: With Newark at Crossroads, Voters Make Clear the Path They Prefer

Baraka's populist approach resonates with electorate in proud but troubled city

junius williams
Junius Williams

The campaign for mayor in Newark just concluded, with the victory of Raz Baraka over Shavar Jeffries, his only opponent.

Jefferies painted himself as the reform lawyer with the answers for Newark’s problems of too much crime, too few jobs, poor education, and the need for business investment. He painted Baraka as a “militant," as a thug for his association with gang leader, and as dishonest because he hired his brother on his staff as South Ward Councilman.

Baraka, on the other hand, portrayed himself as the homegrown people’s advocate, a successful high school principal by turning around a failed high school; and a community healer, at one point bringing about a truce between the Bloods and the Crips. He painted Jefferies as irrelevant to the struggle of the ordinary Newark residents, most of whom are working class or poor. Even though Jefferies was raised here, he had no answers, because he never did anything for the city.

On the major issues, they both underscored the need for capital investment; job creation; and sufficient police to stop crime with just the right balance between punishment and crime prevention. Only on education reform was there a stark contrast in solutions. Education reform was the bellwether issue that polarized the city long before election season began, and brought Baraka the victory.

Baraka pulled ahead of Jeffries initially because of his adamant criticism of the state appointed superintendent of Newark’s public schools, Cami Anderson, whose “school reform” promotes charter schools, and school closings. Recently, Jeffries sought to distance himself from Anderson, but parents, students, community activists and labor unions remembered his earlier support of Anderson as Schools Advisory Board President when she initiated her first round of school closings, and the turnover of school buildings to charter schools. Despite having more money at his disposal in the campaign than did Baraka, some of it from sources that promote school privatization around the country, Jeffries could not shake that image. The people didn’t believe Jefferies’ television ads and daily campaign mailings that painted him as good, Baraka as bad.

Baraka won because he was able to put together a coalition of community groups and labor unions, and to convert the anger against the state and Cami Anderson for what was perceived as the destruction of the Newark school district. (by the end of 2015, Newark is projected to have 40 percent of its students in privately run charter schools).

In doing so, he took a chapter from the book of the election of Ken Gibson, where civil rights and community organizations in the late 1960s learned to channel their anger at being left out of the political process into an effective electoral organization, making Gibson the first black mayor of Newark in 1970. Ironically, it was Baraka’s now deceased father, the internationally acclaimed writer Amiri Baraka, who was one of the main architects of that victory.

And so Newark stands at a crossroads with a new mayor, but with a threatened state takeover because of a $93 million budget deficit. (Many people wonder how the state will resolve Newark’s fiscal woes when if can’t solve its own deficit crisis; and in fact, didn’t the state help produce the deficit by refusing to adequately fund cash-strapped cities like Newark?)

There is investment coming into the city, but not labor intensive enough to generate the jobs needed for the Newark population. (Newark’s unemployment rate is 12.4 percent, and 17.1 percent for young people ages 18-24). Without jobs, how can the new mayor resolve the problem of crime with carrot as well as stick?

And, finally, what will the election of Baraka mean to the job performance and tenure of Cami Anderson, who most state and local officials quietly concede has very few people skills, even if they agree with some aspects of her school reform plans? Will the state see the election as a referendum on Anderson’s plans, place a moratorium on “One Newark,” and quietly usher Cami Anderson out the back door? Welcome to office, Mayor Baraka.

Junius Williams is the author of the book "Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power."

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