Newark Chooses Homegrown Baraka as Antidote to Booker
Newark, where Cory Booker scored Wall Street largesse and Twitter-feed fame, is poised for a fresh start under a new mayor, a son of the 1970s black-culture movement who’s not so eager for national attention.
This week’s election of Ras Baraka to run New Jersey’s largest city marked the return to City Hall of a hometowner, one who cast the suburban-raised Booker as an opportunist trading on a heroic fire rescue and a friendship with Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Booker, a 45-year-old Democrat, resigned in October to join the U.S. Senate.
Baraka, 44, will be sworn in on July 1 after defeating Shavar Jeffries, 39, whom he criticized for aligning with some of Booker’s interests, from charter-school advocates to out-of-town political donors who cut checks for the maximum individual contribution of $26,000.
“It was more about change than repudiation,” state Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth who endorsed Baraka and Booker in their respective races, said in a telephone interview. “It was for a more hands-on, more community-based person as opposed to, quite frankly, a media star, which is what Cory was and continues to be.”
Baraka will take control of a city 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Manhattan that’s facing a budget shortfall estimated at $93 million and is at risk of coming under formal state oversight.
“The first thing that’s pending is this budget deficit right now,” and the solution will require state help, Baraka said yesterday in an interview at Kings Family Restaurant, where he dined and greeted supporters the day after his electoral victory. He referred to the state’s own $807 million spending gap, which Republican Governor Chris Christie must close by June 30, and said the state isn’t in a financial position for a city takeover.
“It would be more amenable to both of us if we could work something out that would give Newark some sort of self-help strategy to move the city forward and move itself out of this debt,” Baraka said.
Christie, speaking in a radio call-in program on May 13, said he’d be “happy to partner with the new mayor to fix some of these problems.”
Moody’s Investors Service in March put Newark on review for a possible downgrade from its A3 rating, four levels above junk, citing the possibility of state financial intervention. Newark has yet to adopt a budget for the current year. It had a $30 million deficit from 2013 that it carried forward and anticipates a $63.5 million gap for 2014, according to an April 30 public offering statement for $74.9 million in tax-anticipation notes.
Booker, who was elected mayor twice in two nonpartisan races, gained renown for his efforts to deliver Newark from the crime and joblessness that took root after 1967 race riots killed 26 people, decimated the downtown and snuffed a weakened manufacturing base.
Highlights of Booker’s tenure included securing a $100 million donation for Newark schools from Zuckerberg while Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and venture capitalist Nicolas Berggruen teamed up to build Teachers Village, a $150 million school and residential development.
The graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School gained attention for rushing into a burning building to rescue his next-door neighbor and for living on food stamps for a week to show the difficulty of relying on the U.S. supplemental nutrition assistance program. He cultivated 1.46 million Twitter followers on a diet of traffic alerts, trash collection notices and offers to personally shovel for snowbound residents.
Though he scored downtown construction from Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) and Panasonic Corp. (6762), Newark’s residential neighborhoods teem with hardship. The poverty rate of 28 percent compares with 9.9 percent statewide. The city in 2013 had 111 homicides, the most since 1990.
Booker resigned as mayor in October after winning a special election to finish the U.S. Senate term of Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat who died at 89. The last eight months of his term were left to an acting mayor, City Council President Luis Quintano.
On election night, Booker congratulated Baraka, a city councilman and high school principal with whom he often argued on issues including education policy, safety and spending.
“Elections in Newark can be very tough, but both candidates gave voters a healthy and important debate on the issues,” Booker said in a statement released through a spokeswoman, Silvia Alvarez. He said he’d support Baraka “as a Newark resident and United States senator.”
The day after the election, Newark reflected on the transition in the city’s leadership. Rashid Salaam, the owner of the Nubian Flavor restaurant, said he’d served Booker and two predecessors, in addition to the mayor-elect, a regular who favors a vegetarian omelet named in his honor.
“Cory Booker came around when the cameras were around,” Salaam, 42, said in an interview. “Ras Baraka or Sharpe James or Ken Gibson came around because they liked the food, not because it was a photo opportunity.”
Baraka had endorsements from James, who served five terms as mayor before he was convicted of fraud and spent 18 months in federal prison, and from Gibson, who pleaded guilty to income-tax evasion.
Baraka is the son of Amina and Amiri Baraka, poets and intellectuals who ran their home as a community base for black empowerment and Marxist ideals.
For voters, the sentiment was, “We know this guy, he’s one of ours and we want him,” said Senator Richard J. Codey, a Democrat and former acting governor from Roseland. “He’s not the glad-hander that Booker was. He’s a street guy that Booker really wasn’t.”
Baraka spent the morning after the election at Central High School, where he is principal, then moved around town to thank supporters. In the interview, he said the media should focus less on Booker and on outsiders’ perceptions of the city.
“I don’t think Newark made any votes at all about Cory Booker” on election day, he told a reporter. “We’re not walking around talking about Cory Booker all day. I think you and folks outside of Newark have this kind of relationship with Cory Booker that allows him to be raised in every conversation we have.”
Baraka said his redevelopment strategy will be more community-based than Booker’s, whose administration successfully courted national retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM) in a city where department stores and supermarkets vanished after the riots.
“They want to go to stores up and down the corridors of their communities,” Baraka said. “That’s what they want -- to be able to shop and invest in their own street-corners.”
The mayor-elect raised about $715,000 for the election, according to campaign finance reports of Team Baraka 2014 filed with the state May 5. His donors included the Election Fund of Sharpe James, with $10,000; the Communication Workers of America Political Education Committee, $30,000, and the election funds of Democratic senators Codey and Joseph Vitale of Woodbridge, with $5,000 and $500, respectively.
Jeffries’ donors contributed $1.9 million, the reports showed. Among them was Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, the controlling shareholder of Regal Entertainment Group (RGC), the largest theater operator in the U.S.
Doris F. Fisher, co-founder of San Francisco-based Gap Inc., and a son, John Fisher, each donated $26,000. John A. Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Blue Ridge Capital LLC, and Nelson C. Rising, chairman of Los Angeles-based Rising Realty Partners, also gave the maximum.
The Rev. Perry Simmons Jr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, said that level of financial commitment by outsiders doesn’t help Newark.
“The voters’ eyes were opened,” Simmons, 66, who endorsed Baraka, said in an interview. “They saw what Booker offered, what Booker left, and they did not want that again. Everybody outside Newark -- Wall Street investors, other entities -- had a stake in Newark, whether it was through the school system or city contracts. They had an agenda.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com Pete Young, Alan Goldstein