Newark Seeks to Fill Booker Vacuum as Mayoral Bus Burns

After seven years of Cory Booker, Newark will choose its first mayor in a race in which one candidate has criticized his opponent for ties to moneyed Wall Street interests and supporters of the other were charged with setting fire to a campaign bus.

Shavar Jeffries, a professor and former assistant attorney general, counts among his supporters Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund manager, who gave the maximum of $26,000. Ras Baraka, a former high school principal who served as an aide to disgraced Mayor Sharpe James, serves as a city councilman.

With Booker now representing New Jersey in the U.S. Senate and the term of his temporary replacement, City Council President Luis Quintana, coming to an end, the May 13 election represents a crossroads for Newark. Even after its biggest period of economic growth in five decades, the city of 280,000 has yet to fully recover from five nights of shootings and looting in July 1967 that left 26 people dead and leveled whole neighborhoods. One in four city residents lives in poverty.

“There’s a big vacuum right now,” said Senator Ron Rice, who represents Newark in Trenton, the state capital, and was a deputy mayor under Booker’s predecessor, James. “This is going to be a total regrouping.”

Booker, 44, a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, built a national persona as mayor by rushing into a burning building to rescue a neighbor and living on food stamps for a week to show how hard it was to rely on the government nutrition program.

Population Gain

A speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention who was elected to the Senate in October, Booker revitalized the city by attracting donations from billionaires including Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and investments for schools, downtown hotels, houses and offices. In the 2010 U.S. Census, Newark posted its first population gain in six decades.

For all Booker’s progress during his tenure, Newark’s median household income of $34,387 from 2008-2012 was less than half the figure for New Jersey as a whole. While 66 percent of state residents own a home, in Newark the rate is 24 percent. Its 28 percent poverty rate compares with 9.9 percent statewide.

“Whoever wins will have to forge their own path, so this really is a defining moment for Newark,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and politics at Montclair State University. “Neither of them would be able to replicate his style.”

Bus Fire

Jeffries was raised by his grandmother, a school teacher, after his mother was murdered. He attended Newark public schools until he received a Boys and Girls Club scholarship to attend Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange. He graduated from Duke University and received his law degree from Columbia University.

Jeffries served on the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board and is an advocate of charter schools to provide higher-quality education in urban neighborhoods. He was the founding board president of TEAM Academy, the largest public charter school in New Jersey.

Two people who worked on Jeffries’ campaign staff were charged with arson for allegedly setting a small fire in February aboard Baraka’s campaign bus. Prosecutors said Shareef Nash, a field coordinator for the campaign, and Michael Benkowski, a canvasser, ignited the parked bus and poured sugar into the gas tank to render it inoperable. Jeffries denied any prior knowledge of the act and cut ties with the campaign workers. Nash and Benkowski couldn’t be reached for comment.

Poet’s Son

Baraka served as deputy mayor under James from 2002 until 2005, when the city council voted for him to fill a vacancy. His candidacy for mayor has been endorsed by organized labor, including Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the New Jersey Laborers Union, liberal activists and politicians including former Mayor Kenneth Gibson, Senator Richard Codey, Ron Rice and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker.

Baraka’s father, Amiri Baraka, who died in January, was a writer of black nationalist poetry and fiction. He was poet laureate of New Jersey in 2002 and 2003 until the position was abolished by the New Jersey legislature amid controversy after Baraka publicly read a poem about the September 2001 terrorist attacks that some regarded as anti-Semitic.

Among Baraka’s supporters is James, who received a hero’s welcome upon his return to the city following an 18-month prison term for a 2008 conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges for steering $46,000 in city-owned property to his mistress.

Wall Street

In television ads paid for by an outside political action committee, Baraka supporters have criticized Jeffries for his ties to Wall Street, including Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management LP, and his support for charter schools. Jeffries, in turn, has called Baraka a union-compromised retread who represents the bad old days of the city’s machine politics. Each of the mayoral candidates is running with an eight-member city council slate.

For years, Newark languished as a gritty repository of poverty smashed up against an airport, waterfront, and the New Jersey Turnpike in Manhattan’s shadow. Corruption, crime and an insular grain of politics were its noteworthy products.

Both candidates see those same areas as Newark’s greatest assets. Jeffries, who served as a special counsel to the state attorney general from 2007-09, calls Baraka a throwback to the political patronage and back-room deals of the city during James’ tenure.

“He’ll transact the city into financial ruin,” Jeffries said in an interview. “The folks who are supporting him frankly are some of the old-guard figures who got the city into the current situation.”

‘Fiscal Distress’

Jeffries, 39, said public safety needs to be addressed before the city can expect to move forward. Both men said they see the need to move Newark to becoming a 24-hour city and said they hope to draw on the presence of Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Essex County Community College as wellsprings of growth.

Newark lacks a 2014 budget and faces a $34 million gap in its current $640 million plan, prompting the state to declare that the city is facing “fiscal distress.” On March 17, Moody’s Investors Service put it on review for a possible downgrade from its A3 rating, four levels above junk, citing the possibility the city may come under formal state oversight because of the budget delay.

On Newark’s gritty Broad Street, its main business corridor, the air hung heavy on a recent day with the smell of incense burned by street vendors. Makeshift stands offered everything from hats and gloves to DVDs.

Baraka, 44, who was elected to council in 2010, said his plan for Newark’s economy features a home-grown approach that favors city residents, emphasizing neighborhoods, at the same time it advances outside investment of the kind seen under Booker.

“What the theme is about is a resurgence of Newark and move it forward and how do we bring Newark back from a situation it’s been in since essentially 1967,” he said. “What we’ve desperately needed for a long time is a resurgence of these neighborhoods. We need neighborhood development to take place.”

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