Q&A with Newark council at-large candidate John Sharpe James

I was sitting in the huge South Ward police precinct at Bergen Street and Clinton Avenue when John Sharpe James walked in, smiling, clad head-to-toe in black, unadorned by jewelry, and carrying a large box under his right arm. James was at the precinct to chair a community meeting on public safety, where police officers would field questions from residents in a large meeting room just off the precinct's main corridor. He would open his Central Ward headquarters on Orange Street the next day.

After positioning three long tables between a podium at the front of the room and a phalanx of chairs in the back, James set the box down at the end of the table, sat down next to it, and settled in for an hourlong conversation about his run for the at-large council seat in the November 5 special election. We discussed his previous council runs, his nearly quarter-of-a-decade military experience and its bearing on his run, the basic needs he thinks should be Newark's priorities moving forward, and the ways he thinks the current administration has fallen short. We also discussed James' father, former Mayor Sharpe James, a boxful of whose brand new memoir – Political Prisoner – the council candidate had shuttled into the station.

Andaiye Taylor: Your 2010 run was key in last year's dispute over the open at-large seat. Can you talk about your initial runs for office, and why you decided to jump in?

John Sharpe James: I first ran in 2006, because at that time I didn't feel the Booker team was fielding someone who was qualified to run the South Ward. So I ran for South Ward councilman. They ran someone with the same last name [Oscar James II], and spent $6 million running against the Rice team.

And so that was a beginning run. After that, I went to Afghanistan and served in the military, which I'd already been serving since '88, and when I came back, [mayoral candidate Clifford J.] Minor asked me to join his team. At that point, he wanted Ras Baraka to run for the south, and I said I would run at-large. And that's what I did.

I had a very good showing: 12,000 votes, for someone running for the first time at-large, and with minimal funding compared to what they spent.

What is your vision for Newark? What is your thesis for running?

Right now, Newark is in survival mode. The average Newarker just wants government services. They want the garbage picked up, they want police, they want protection, they want to be able to walk the streets, they want quality schools, they want a good, quality life, which does not exist right now.

There's no responsibility. No one's owning up to any of the crime or violence or murders that we have right now. And we need more people in government to speak out, instead of using Newark as a stepping stone, moving on to the next position or title, and not concentrating on what's going on right now.

So as a military veteran, as a law school graduate, as a Morehouse College graduate, I feel that I do have input as a Newark resident and homeowner, into what goes on in the city. My major background is in the military, where I spent 23-and-a-half years. So I've been serving my country, and now I feel it's time to serve the community.

What neighborhood do you live in?

I'm in the South Ward.

You think the current administration has been insufficient on those basic services. Can you cite some specifics?

Let's put it this way: when they ran in '06, they said we need reform, we need to get everyone out, we need to get new policies, new procedures. One of the first things they did was lay off everyone in City Hall, whether they were actually doing their jobs or not. It was detrimental, because there were a lot of workers who worked at City Hall for years who really knew their jobs, knew how to get money into the city and into programs, knew where the funding sources were. And they were just thrown by the wayside.

Then you had an influx of a lot of people who didn't live in Newark, and they didn't know how to do the jobs, because they didn't work in government. They might have worked in the private sector, but the government sector is different. We had an influx of higher-paid individuals with no allegiance with the taxpayers in Newark. And so the result is, we had the two police classes which were hired initially under the Booker administration. Within a year, year and a half, they ran out of money. And not only those two, but part of the ones that were hired under the previous mayor were let go because of funding concerns.

In what specific ways do you think the current administration is responsible for that?

I think it was mismanagement and lack of knowing how to fund things. We went through seven business administrators in seven years (James includes those acknowledged by the city – Bo Kemp, Michelle Thomas, Michael Greene, and the current administrator, Julien Neals – plus interim business administrators Pablo Fonseca, Bill Letona, and a third he says was in an "acting capacity" for a brief time), so no one has truly been watching the money, watching the budget, saying, "Hey, this is where we can cut, this is where we have a surplus, this where we can move money around."

Why do you think the council is an effective place from which to push your vision for Newark, as opposed to another elected office, a non-profit, or the private sector? 

I've worked for the county for the past 14 years. I've been a jack of all trades; the county executive has had me in a lot of different positions. I was one of the people in charge of making sure the jail contracts were completed under the prior administration, and continued when the new county executive came in. He had me working the registrar's office to speed up the recording of deeds and mortgages. So I have county-level experience.

I have some experience working with my father. I have experience working with a lot of the council members already. Ron [Rice] Jr. and I grew up together from law school. He's already been a councilman for two terms. Ras Baraka – I know him, and our families have been together for a long time. So there's a lot of knowledge there. To some extent, people have not seen me enough because I was in military duty for the most part.

But as one of nine people, how do you manage to influence the other council members? What's your strategy?

I've worked with Ras Baraka, and with Anibal Ramos in passing, only because he works at the county.

We will see how it goes, because some people aren't running for reelection, and some people are running for higher seats. It's going to be interesting. This is the first time the council has had three current members running for mayor at the same time. It's a big shakeup. I'm not sure it's going to be positive for the city, because you're going to have a new person running the south, a new person running the north, and a new person running the central, instead of a slow progression. It's like a free-for-all in all three wards.

What should the council's top priorities be, and which ones have they not been attentive to in the last few sessions?

I think the council hasn't been helped by the executive or the mayor's office at all. Every time the council finds out about something, it's last minute, and the mayor is in the position where he wants them to vote on it or not vote for it, without all of the information, and without public hearings. And that is not right. So the hope in the future is you have a mayor that works more closely with the council and says, "This is my vision. Council, let's enact this, because it's for the betterment of the entire city." This will move us forward.

My father being mayor, there were definitely times when he was at odds with the council. But overall, together, they moved the city forward.

Is there any any potential mayor in this field that you could see yourself working with better than others?

No. We need someone who's going to speak for the people. People change when they get to the mayor's seat, so someone who looks good right now could be bad later; someone who looks bad right now could be good later. Just for now, I'm focused on the November race. I'm not trying to lose another election, and I think I deserve to be in office, because I've worked hard and I've served my community. Again, primarily military, but it's still community service.

Can you walk through your military career highlights, and how you think they equip you for the position?

I wrestled four years at St. Benedict's. Within four months at college, I gained weight. So I joined the military for two reasons: one, for love of country, and two, to stay in shape. [laughs]

With love of country, you never want to be thrown into a war. You want to prepare. You never want it to be like Vietnam, where people are drafted and thrown onto the front lines with very little training. I said if I'm going to protect my country, I will be trained. So after two years as a private, scrubbing toilets, doing all the little stuff you see in the movies, I stepped in as an officer and platoon leader in ROTC. I got into the infantry – I really wanted that branch – and started moving up the chain. I came back home and was commissioned a second lieutenant of a long range surveillance unit.

What does that mean?

You're trained to operate behind enemy lines. You're the spotters, and you let friendly forces know what the enemy's doing from behind enemy lines. So it's very covert. It's like special forces without the "special". And I really enjoyed that time. I was also airborne, so I jumped out of planes for the New Jersey National Guard. Then I went onto multiple positions in my progression: company commander, mortar platoon leader…

And this is all within a domestic, National Guard context?

Yes – New Jersey National Guard. So along the way we had incidents like snow storms and floods that we responded to. For September 11, we were put on duty for 30 days watching the train yards in Harrison and in Journal Square. We were in charge of securing the subway platforms and the parking decks right outside of Journal Square.

During Desert Storm, I was stationed in Augusta, Georgia for six months during the war, and at that point, I wasn't commissioned an officer yet – I was still enlisted. I was a barracks sergeant in a medical unit, responsible for all the buildings that our staff slept in, as well as for the patients.

Had Desert Storm been more violent, we would have gone to replace troops overseas. The hospital we were in had already deployed during the first wave. Since there were [low casualties] during the first Desert Storm, there was no need for follow-on medical forces. It was a good experience. I actually got decorated for that.

At any point during this time were you thinking, "I"m going to go into politics when I'm done with this experience."

Absolutely not.

When did that happen? I assume it was some time before you ran in 2006 that you started entertaining the notion.

Well, when 2006 came along, my father was leaving. My father was the mayor, so people would come to me for support and assistance.  I'd be like "Dad, so-and-so wants to meet with you, wants to see you," or, "This program's going on, they asked if you can be there," or, "Someone's having a problem with City Hall, can you help out?" So I did have interaction with City Hall and the council members, and with my father's staff. But that wasn't specifically for politics — I was just trying to help people.

And then when 2006 rolled around, and my father decided that he may not run again, at that point I just didn't want Newark to be taken over. So I ran with the people's choice team. And we slugged it out, but it was just too much.

People say with politics, sometimes we might stay too long. And people feel like, "Hey, it's time for a change." And with Booker flooding the campaign with $6 million the first run, it was hard for people not to think "Ok, we're going to get a younger of Sharpe James or Ken Gibson, and we're gonna have this man for another 20 years," or something to that effect. But we tried to tell people that I was not the same person.

Are you sympathetic to that point of view? That people don't want dynastic politics in Newark, where there's a James now and a James later?

I don't think that was it. They just thought that this new young person would be similar to the other two mayors they had. And they went head over heels for the flash which, we now see, is not substance.

Back to your military service for a moment. You described your experience, and I know you were in the military for almost a quarter century. Can you talk about how you'd actually bring that experience to bear on the office if you win? 

With the military, as you move up in rank, if you move up in rank, you're put in a lot of leadership roles. I was a platoon leader and a company commander, and I fired the anti-tank missiles. We had to be on our toes, because we couldn't make mistakes. In that type of position, you need leadership, you need to be on top of it, you can't let people be lax, you can't let people be lazy – I did that.

And then in 2007, after losing the 2006 election, I wanted more responsibility in the military. They said, "We have a  team we want to go to Afghanistan," and I was the second person to volunteer. And so they sent 16 of us over to Afghanistan to work with the local police, which were the ones who got attacked the most, because the Afghan army doesn't move that much over there. So the local police are in the towns, and as a major in charge of that team, it's a big responsibility. You're dealing with troops from other countries, Afghan personnel, military personnel, auxiliary police, border police, and  you have to interact representing the United States. There's a lot of leadership in that, and not only did I do that, but I brought the majority of my team back. One of my team members was killed, and so it's serious. It's a serious task, and I completed that, and I earned it.

And also, growing up in Newark, I know most of the people. You're not going to come in here and play games with me. You're not going to come sell something for your own purposes. I'm not going to be fooled. I think I'm that mix of advocate, military background, legal background, political knowledge background, and just a humble person who's never thrown my legacy in someone's face.

Given that you're a vet, do you have a special agenda for vets in the city?

Absolutely. They have the G.I. Go Fund in City Hall now. Unfortunately, they don't have any veterans on staff. My hope is to get at least get one veteran working for them.

Still, they've been doing outreach. They've been going to Penn Station at night, helping homeless veterans who are out there sleeping. We definitely need to make sure there's more veteran employment in the city. We just hired a class of firefighters where almost all of them (28 of 31) were veterans. Hopefully, we can get funding to do the same for the police officers.

But my biggest issue with the city right now is the budget. If we don't stay on stop of the budget, we're going to see more cutbacks on services. There are so many areas which we're cutting back on because the money isn't there, and which we'll cut back on in the future if we don't find funding.

And how do we find funding?

What I want to do is sit down with the current business administrator and get some of that institutional knowledge that was lost from before. And talk to the last business administrator, maybe from 2006 or 2005, and find out how we were funding our priorities back then, and if we're getting it from that same source now. If not, can we rejuvenate that source, whether it be state, county, federal, or a nonprofit? Can we find it from any of those sources, and try to marry that up? I think when 2006 hit, it was just another regime, and they had no regard for the institutional knowledge of the old regime.

Back in 2008 was when the recession hit hard. Have you considered that many of those sources might have just dried up?

I'm definitely afraid of that, but by the same token, we do need to provide services. We can't be a city that just has nine council members and a mayor, and no police and no fire department. The average citizen is concerned about basic city services: garbage, police, fire, taxes.

Speaking of public safety, it's a lot of people's number one priority. What are your ideas?

I know our police are hard workers. I know they're out there doing their best. Everyone's hung up on 167 cops laid off. The real number is about 400, because there have been about 40 to 50 retiring every year since then, and we haven't had a new class. So we're actually far short of where we should be if we stayed even.

Another piece of that is maintenance. If we don't take care of our maintenance and police cars, we're going to have a lot out of service. People focus on manpower, but we have to have equipment power, too. The police helicopter just came back up in the air a couple weeks ago. If we can get more police officers hired – again, I don't now where the money is going to come from – maybe we can get a federal grant like we did when Clinton was in office – to hire 50 to 100 to 200 more cops. That would help. I think if we look into the personnel – and I don't want to go too deep into micromanaging the police department – but if we have a better work environment, we'll have less of them retiring. Because the ones I run into say, "Look, I just had to get out. I just couldn't put up with the bureaucracy and the politics within the department."

And then as residents, we have to work closer with the cops, that's why we're here [having a community meeting].

And crime-wise, we just have a different generation now. I was raised in more of a family structure. The current generation now is more steeped in, "What's in it for me," and, "I'm not worried about anyone else." So we need to work together more as a people.

Home ownership in Newark is down. When you have renters, you have a different mentality. I'm not speaking for all renters, but they may not be vested in the block and in the area. That's a different mentality.

And the schools are such a mess right now. The governor clearly came out a couple weeks ago and said that they control the schools. And that's what we've been telling everyone: how can you fault us for the school situation, when the state has been running our schools for 20 years? So we need local control. I supported the Children First team for both elections. Now we have a chance because we have passed some of the QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which New Jersey's education department uses to evaluate its public school districts) to have it turned back over to local control.

But there is another component with the folks who are controlling the charter schools who don't want to turn it over, because now a piece of the budget which is for Newark Public Schools can go off to their charter school.

There was just a story on Newark Prep charter school, and how K12 [Inc.] basically dictates what goes on in the school. I think they picked the principal, and the article clearly says that's not what we want. That's not the model. And the kids apparently are online by themselves unless they need help (for the first portion of the school day, per the Star Ledger). That doesn't even sound right. Someone said: "They're doing it in the colleges." But these are not college kids, these are high school kids. If they aren't properly guided or mentored, what's to say they don't go goof off?

So the jury is still out on charter schools. There has been no clear report that charter schools increase a child's intelligence. I believe it comes from the home, the family.

I want to talk about Mayor James a little bit. He's written a book arguing that he's innocent of the charges he was convicted for. Can you explain what his claim to innocence is based on? From a legal perspective, why does he think he was wrongly convicted?

At that time, governor Christie was the [U.S. Attorney]. Booker had just lost in 2002. He himself had said that after losing in 2002, he and Governor Christie became friends. They started communicating with each other. And my premise is, with Christie already admitting that he had met with Karl Rove about running for governor, he knew that Sharpe James could be a stumbling block. (According to a Star Ledger report, Democrats accused Christie of strategizing with Rove about using Christie's ostensibly apolitical U.S. Attorney role to shore up his chances of winning the gubernatorial seat. Rove and Christie acknowledged the conversations, but said they were merely about "state issues", not political strategy. Meanwhile, a New York Times report said Christie "won convictions or guilty pleas," not only from James, but "from more than 100 elected officials".) And Booker of course wanted to make sure he won the election, so he didn't want Sharpe James around.

And within months they said, "Well, Mayor James took these trips. We want a federal investigation. The mayor charges credit cards. We want a federal investigation." And immediately, Christie got the ball rolling, and an investigation happened.

Now, the key aspect of this is that in the courtroom, the federal government said Sharpe James did not receive any money. (James was accused of helping Tamika Riley get approved to purchase redevelopment zone land, which she then sold at a significant profit.)  So now you're prosecuting someone who's not running for office anymore. He wasn't indicted until 2007, wasn't running for mayor, and didn't take any money. And we believe they wanted a conviction so he could no longer hold public office (James was still a state senator at the time of the indictment, and would remain so until January 2008, three months before the guilty verdict). And so he would be quiet while Christie moved to governor and Booker moved to be mayor.

Now, knowing it was fact that he didn't receive any money, why would Christie suggest a 20 year sentence for a 72 year old man? That would be a death sentence. They never suggested that for other politicians, even when they took money. Common sense tells you there was a reason. This was not your typical prosecution.

Given what you believe about the motivation behind the prosecution, how did you feel about it?

Of course I was upset. But I learned that politics has a personal side, and has a political side. There are people who like me – who've always liked me – but for political reasons, they can't support me. I get that. But my only issue was the personal attack on my father's character, on the family. It was just overboard. Now, I was in Afghanistan then – I was not here for the trial – so I had to get bits and pieces through some internet interaction periodically.

The military has a Stars and Stripes magazine, which is only given to frontline troops overseas. I came on the main base after being on the front for about three months, and one of my buddies from New Jersey said, "You need to sit down." He handed me Stars and Stripes, and in the New Jersey section it said, "Newark mayor Sharpe James and his wife convicted of fraud." So the lengths they went to push out the negativity about our family, our character…I can't respect that.

I've never talked to Booker, never shaken his hand — never will do that. Chris Christie is friends with my boss, the county executive. I respect him as the governor, but I cannot respect Cory Booker and that whole scheme.

As you saw on November 20, after me being the next-highest vote getter (after the top four vote getters, all incumbents, who won at-large seats in 2010) — he pushed someone who had never run for the seat in a backdoor deal. So if you look at character and you look at the games — he couldn't get away from Newark fast enough.

Mayor Booker's record in Newark has gotten more scrutiny now that he's in the midst of a campaign for national office. You've obviously had a different view of him than most people for a long time. What do you make of the change in the tone of the coverage?

In 2000, when he started running for mayor, I Googled him. And most of it was positive. But then there was this one guy, Glen Ford, who wrote for [left-leaning website] BlackCommentator.com, now BlackAgendaReport.com. He said, "This guy is a Trojan Horse. He's with the right, and they want him to push their agenda with the charter schools."  This was written back in 2000. I tried to put this out to the people, and people said, "You're just mad because your father's not going to be mayor anymore." I said, "No, you guys don't understand. I'm not making this up. I still live here, my family still lives here, and we're all affected by what's going on in Newark."

And so it's now coming out, but I think it's too little, too late. It's assumed that he's going to win, and press has wanted to talk to me about him, and I refuse to. Because we've been saying this all along.  So it's sad vindication, because the people in Newark are really paying the price. There are less police officers, there's less money, there's less services, and no explanation why. And he's out there pitching the total opposite: "I turned Newark around."

Is there even a little piece of you that thinks about your run as vindicating your dad somehow?

I think he clears himself, because when he goes around and talks to average Newarkers, they love him. Even the enemies he had before. So he's vindicated, because he didn't take a dime from Newark residents.

I want to tell people, they need to stop getting caught up in the entertainment and the flash. Look at what they're really about, and then think about how they're going to move the city forward, and how they're going to help you. That's not just in politics – that's common sense. Sometimes people fall for the stuff that looks shiny and nice and new, and that's not the case.

How do you feel about your chances with the current field?

The bottom line is, for me to run against $9 million in 2010, while my father was in jail, and receive 12,000 votes, was a sign that people respected me as I emerged from 2006 into 2010. There are not many people who can go from running in a ward and losing, to four years later getting 12,000 votes.

There are basic services we need in this city, and we need to secure the city in terms of public safety. But assuming we can manage the city's basic needs, what does a Newark that's reached it's potential look like?

Well see, I'd do it backwards: if you don't do the basics, you don't get to the end, which is better economics for the city, so that people are less impoverished, and committing less crimes because they have more. Socially, we need to get that family structure back, and you can't necessarily get that with government. So we need to continually work on the community, tie the community hand in hand with the government to say, "Hey, we're here to help, but everyone has to help themselves to an extent".

Someone was telling me about their son acting up. They called the police, and the police said, "We can't do anything. Your son didn't break any laws." And his mother was pleading like, "Look, this 15-year-old is out of control, he's disappearing from the house for 4 or 5 days at a time. When we find him, he's doped up. You guys gotta do something." And then finally [her son] did do something, and then they were able to put him in a program. So how do we help even before that? Through nonprofits or something like that, and not necessarily government or government officials. But where do we get that help to stabilize these families, so that babies aren't having babies, and people put more emphasis on going to school, getting an education, and doing something positive?

When I grew up, I was in bowling leagues. I was in Little League baseball. In high school I moved to wrestling. I ran cross-country. I did something productive. When we were on the street, we played stickball. We played electric football. There were a lot of other things we did besides crime. And so we need to get away from that current mentality that says, "I'm just gonna get mine. I'm just hustlin'". We can't have that, because your crime is victimizing somebody else. And nine times out of ten, it's your neighbor. It doesn't help the Newark community.

That is the hard part. That is 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the road, getting people to think less violently. We used to have arguments — alright we had a fist fight. That was it when I grew up. By the time I got older, they'd moved onto knives, and now everything's a gun. And there's no recourse once you pull that trigger. They're not even trained, so they're not even hitting the target. They're hitting other people. And they need to realize that innocent bystanders are being brought into their little battles or arguments or disagreements. We've had all these killings in the past few weeks — no comment from the current administration.

John Sharpe James' campaign website is online at voteforjohnjames.com. BrickCityLive previously interviewed at-large council candidate Lynda Lloyd.

Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche: Newark’s financial literacy ‘valedictorian’

tiffany the budgetnista aliche

Best-selling author Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche and I met at Elbow Room in Newark recently to discuss her financial literacy career, which she launched in Newark, and which has truly taken off over the past 18 months.

Depending on the day, you can spot her on your television, in your Twitter feed, on the Huffington Post, speaking at major conferences, teaching financial literacy in smaller groups, giving webinars, and being featured in high-recognition newspapers and magazines. Or, if you’re in Newark (Aliche lives here), you just might catch her strolling around town, always with a forearm full of her signature green Budgetnista bracelets.

Among other things, we talked about how the recession changed a generation’s attitude toward risk taking, why you should let your business speak to you, and why you might want to look out for a green “B” on your potential purchases in the not-too-distant future. And as always, I asked about the entrepreneurial climate in Newark.

Andaiye Taylor: Your reach has spread well beyond Newark. Can you talk about why Newark makes a good home base for an entrepreneur like yourself?

Tiffany Aliche: Newark is like a big city and a small town at the same time. If you succeed in Newark, it puts you on the map, because in your given field, there might be next to no competition. In my case, who else is going to teach financial literacy? I was the only game in town.

I look at Dreena [Whitfield, founder of WhitPR, a public relations firm, and Newark’s current press secretary]: no one was specifically doing public relations for small business here before she did. Or Akintola [Hanif, founder of Hycide magazine]: no one was a hardcore photographer in the way he did it.

These are truly talented people at what they do. It’s just that Newark allows us to hone our skills in a smaller environment, where people can help you out without feeling threatened, whereas in New York City, it’s more dog eat dog.

Right now, I’m like the valedictorian in a small high school: I’m right in league with the other valedictorians. Newark might be pretty small, but it’s the biggest city in the state. Because I’m at the top of the heap in Newark, it puts me in league with other people all over the country who do what I do.

And another thing I love about Newark is that all the movers and shakers are so touchable. It seems like everybody is just a touch away. There’s more than enough going on here that you can make an impact, and you can be put on the map to succeed.

Does the proximity to New York City also help?

It does. Because Newark is so close, I’m able to make the transition to New York.

I’m City National Bank’s financial literacy expert. That’s a case where I was able to work with a company that is based here, but has a presence in [New York] city. A bank in [New York] city would never have asked me to be its lead financial literacy expert at the stage in my career that CNB did. But here in Newark, there was no other real choice. The president [of CNB] saw a Star Ledger story and called me in. And that’s another thing: to even have the opportunity to have press here is a big advantage.

So it sounds like this has been a great place to kick off a career. Can you talk about living in Newark?

I love living here. It’s not a super pretty place like California. Newark is like the baby that’s not that cute, but it’s my baby. What I like is the people. The people here are really amazing, and it’s like I can’t make it from one end of the street to the other without meeting somebody new. Or seeing someone I know and having a conversation.

And there’s a certain energy here.  Everyone is kind of like “Man, we’re all trying to figure out how to do something amazing.”

What do you think is driving that attitude? Why are so many people trying to do their own thing?

“Living richer” is about pursuing your purposeful passion in life. I feel like the recession has led to people thinking, “If I do things the ‘right way’, everything can still be taken away.” That’s the gift that the recession has given to us, especially if you’re in your late 20s, or in your 30s. My [younger] sister and her peers who are coming out [of college] now aren’t seeing the worst of it like our generation has.

The recession made you rethink how life is supposed to work. It shined light on the lie that if you go to school and get a “regular job”, everything’s going to work out fine. I think more people in our generation have thought to themselves, “If you’re going to take away my sucky job anyway, I might as well take a risk on doing something I’ll love.”

How did that play out in your specific case? 

I was a teacher in Newark for 7 years. A couple years ago, around the time when school was going to start again for the fall, they called and said, “Don’t come.”

At that point, I had saved two years’ worth of income just because, so I had a cushion, and that situation made me realize I was over that kind of teaching anyway. But it was still a devastating time.

I took two years to travel and volunteer, and always ended up teaching somehow. I realized I loved teaching, just not in the box of the classroom.

I working with [Newark nonprofit] FP [YOUTHOUTCRY] teaching financial literacy, and would be in city hall all the time because of that work. And I’d meet all these amazing people there. Newark Now would have meetings where I’d meet a bunch of people doing interesting things in the city. When I wrote a financial program for FP, people eventually started asking, “How much does Tiffany cost?” Al Tariq [Best, founder of FP YOUTHOUTCRY] was like, “I think you should do financial literacy.”

How did you turn that suggestion into a business?

Three years ago, I was on my sister’s couch about to lose my house. One of my mentors said to me, “You need to get a contract.” I remember thinking, “Oh thanks, because they’re just flying in from the sky.” But then I realized I had everything I needed to go out and get paid for my work.

I thought about what organizations would want what I was giving. Then I thought about the people who could make the connections, and just started emailing. One woman I emailed connected me to The United Way, and that was my very first contract.

It’s funny because in the beginning, I used to force Budgetnista to be here and there. Now, I focus on doing the best job I can do, and I have not solicited any business in the last year and a half. My job is to do my very best work, write the very best article, give my very best interview, prepare and prepare for my speaking engagements. If I do that, people will contact me. If you’re an entrepreneur, the business will show you the direction you need to go in, if you let it.

Why do you think your audiences relate to you?

I tell them that they don’t need to be afraid of finances anymore, and I let people know they don’t have to be ashamed of their financial situation anymore. When I make a financial mistake, I don’t mind telling everyone, and using it as another lesson. Putting that on the table lets me say, “If I can show you this, then you don’t need to be ashamed to ask me about high credit card debt, or about how to handle your potential foreclosure.”

Speaking is a big part of your job. Where did your charisma come from?

I’m a middle child, so I guess that I’m always like, “Look at me!”  Plus, I’m super talkative. I’ve learned that it’s just my natural personality.

You frame your financial advice in the context of happiness and quality of life. How did you develop your financial curriculum around those higher concepts?

I’m an avid reader — I always have my Kindle with me. I don’t read solely about business; I read a lot of philosophical books. I’m on that quest for the best life. I love The Alchemist. I love Jonathan Livingston’s book Seagull, which is about a seagull that thinks flying should be about more than just getting food. I read a lot of marketing books. In fact, my degree is in marketing. I watch a lot of YouTube videos. I’m always on the quest for my best self.

When you do your seminars, what types of people come out?

In Newark, it’s a great mix. I was working with YouthBuild, which is a program for kids who got into trouble, and want to get their lives together. When I speak at The United Way, it’s usually to professional people who are in their late 20s to upper 40s. They’re thinking, “I’m making good money, but I don’t know what to do with it, how to manage it.” I do a lot of schools and colleges. So there’s no typical person, it’s really just people who are admitting to themselves, “I know I can do better with my money, but how do I do it? I want to do better, but I don’t know the language.” That’s the thread that ties them together.

When it comes to my curriculum, I’m like a mad scientist. So many things I’ve shown people how to do are based on mistakes I’ve made. Or sometimes, I’ve figured out an issue someone I care about is having.

Because I taught preschool, I’m good at taking really big concepts and making them understandable. Being a preschool teacher was the best training ground for that. That’s why step one of my book (The One Week Budget) is literally, “Get a paper and a pencil, and begin writing this.”

You’ve had an exciting year and a half. Where do you envision taking your brand from here?

My ultimate world domination goal is that one day, Budgetnista won’t just be associated with financial literacy. It will be associated with value. You’ll see my Budgetnista “B” on a washing machine, or you’ll go to Target and see it on a dress. It’ll mean this item is a great value for your money.

In the next two to five years, I want to do more shows – I would love to be the “Friday girl” on a morning news show. I want to do more travel to spread fun financial literacy around. I’m also working on another book. I did a “30 day money challenge” recently, and after I did it, a couple people were like, “Is this all in one place?” So I thought, “You know what? That’s what I’ll do next”. But “One Week Budget” is still doing well, and I think it still has some time left.

I don’t want to put out a new book just to make money, though. I’m not in the business of taking money from people, I’m in the financial literacy business, and I’m into helping people. I want my new book to be borne out of that energy.

FYI: Are you ready to ‘Start Something’?

Although lending to small businesses increased in 2012, the number of micro-loans actually decreased, depriving small business owners of one of their most viable funding options.

In response, Rising Tide Capital, the community-based entrepreneurship organization, created the Start Something Challenge, which consists of a $10,000 cash prize business pitch competition, networking opportunities, access to startup experts, elevator pitch coaching, and general visibility for their venture. The deadline for the competition is this Wednesday, September 18, at 12pm.

Not sure how to approach your pitch? Rising Tide will be hosting a video pitch tutorial at their office this coming Monday, September 16 at 6:30pm, at their offices at 334 Martin Luther King Drive in Jersey City.

Shot of the day: Let there be light


With construction crews plowing away at the ground that will constitute the foundation of the new Prudential tower on Broad Street, the historic Hahne & Company building, which will literally sit in the tower’s shadow, seems fallow and lonely by comparison. But at just the right angle, at the right time of night, you might spot something a little curious emanating from cracks in the building’s ground-floor panels: light.

As reported by The Star Ledger in July, the city approved the conversion of the former department store into a complex of residential units, and commercial/office space.

Region-wide revelers descend on Newark for Joe’s Crab Shack opening

The buzz has been building for the past few weeks. Then one day it was no longer a rumor. Joe’s Crab Shack wasn’t just coming. It was here. You could look in and see the finishing touches of the construction and interior design. Some days you could see the staff in training. Then, this past Sunday, people were actually eating! It was a Friends & Family reception for the staff that put all rumors to rest.

The buzz got a jump start when a quarter-page ad appeared in The Star-Ledger with a promotion that the first 100 diners would receive free crabs for a year, and one of the hundred would be selected to win free crabs for life!

crab shack 1

The first person in line – Greg Packer from Huntington, Long Island – arrived at 10:00 Monday morning. The first time he visited Joe’s was in Harlem, NY. The line here in Newark wrapped around the corner, where a port-a-potty was made available for guests. Everyone in line was given a wristband to mark their place in the queue.

Greg Packer (a.k.a. Mr. Pole Position) from Huntington, Long Island

Greg Packer (a.k.a. Mr. Pole Position) from Huntington, Long Island

A few spots down the line was a crew from Jersey City who arrived at 6:30 this morning. The mood in the line was pretty jovial. One guest said it was like a cool thing to say you’ve done – like climbing the stairs of the Statue of Liberty for the view.

Cheryl Marion, Dawn Ezell, George James III, Sandra Williams, Connie Dandridge

Cheryl Marion, Dawn Ezell, George James III, Sandra Williams, Connie Dandridge

Around 9:00am, staff from Joe’s came out with complimentary coffee for the guests in line. It was really amazing to see so many people from other cities waiting in line – right on Broad Street, no less. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new Newark.

Photo slide show: Hot Rods and Classics car show in Forest Hill

The Mount Prospect Partnership hosted the first annual “Hot Rods and Classics” car show in Forest Hill yesterday. The weather was warm and sunny, the music was a mixture of classic soul and reggaeton, and families and car junkies alike were out en force. The day in pictures:

Shot of the day: Jazz at Essex Sports Cafe’s opening

A jazz trio plays live music while a crowd of about 40 milled about at the grand opening of the Essex Sports Cafe, directly across the street from city hall on Green Street. The cafe, which boasts eight high-definition televisions and an outdoor seating area, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – from 4am to 6pm, Monday through Friday. They don’t serve alcohol, and bill themselves as a “family-friendly” venue as a result.

Dilettante Bass: A vision of innovation for Newark’s South Ward

Full disclosure: the last time I spoke to Jarmaro “Dilettante” Bass before I saw his campaign announcement on Facebook earlier this year, we were at Elbow Room on Halsey Street, brainstorming how we might merge some of his ideas for promoting Newark with the news and events concept for BrickCityLive, which I’d been working on for some time by that point.

I reunited with Bass a few weeks ago – this time at Vonda’s Kitchen – to discuss why he decided to run for South Ward city council, and his vision for the ward. In a nutshell, Bass hopes to corral an advanced guard of like-minded people to “show and prove” the ward’s potential, using his pragmatic, operations-oriented style to get it done. Read on to learn more about how he plans to go about it.

So when did you decide to run?

It happened around February or March. I remember I decided right as the weather started to break. The notion was in me for a while, but I think now was the perfect time.

Was there a moment or an issue that really galvanized you?

When you look at a lot of the candidates, they don’t ever represent what we stand for. If you look at what they talk about, it’s always, “Social, social, jobs…social, social, jobs.” But there’s a demographic of Newarkers that already have a job. There’s a demographic of Newarkers that don’t need social programs. They just want to see art, culture, and businesses. There’s a demographic of Newarkers that are entrepreneurs — they want to see contracts. We need to be talking to all Newarkers.

So we were like you know, these guys don’t represent what we represent. In order for us to get things for ourselves and like-minded people, we need to go out there [and run].

When I got the idea, I just went on Facebook and announced it to see what the response would be. Like Kevin Hart says, once it goes viral, you can’t take it back. I got a good response and I said to myself, “I’m going to ride with it.”

Then I got a phone call from [veteran Newark political consultant] Carl Sharif and he said, “If you’re serious, I’ll help you.” And his son Eric Dawson called and said, “If you’re serious, I’ll do all your tech and web stuff.” It’s taken on a life of its own from there.

How long have you known Carl Sharif?

This goes back to probably 2004 or 2005. I was doing my clothing line PB Soldiers – it was a conscious clothing line. Carl Sharif met with us and helped sponsor it, just because he wanted to see us do well. He gave us a loan to buy screen printing equipment and everything. Ever since then, we’ve been like a family. Then I helped him politically, and that’s how I got involved in politics.

And how’d you help him?

I had a team called Heru Army. There were about 15 of us. We started throwing events everywhere. Then Cory [Booker] came in the picture and [Sharif] said “I want you all to work with Cory.” Nobody else was working with Cory at the time – this is after he lost the first election. I was throwing events all throughout the city, and we’d partner up with [Booker] on events called “Message in the Hood”. We had a street team and we’d set up a projector, a grill, have a DJ, give out food,  go to every project throughout the city, show movies at night, have moon bounce for the kids – everything. Cory [Booker] and Newark Now partnered up with us to do that.

How did Heru Army start?

It started because a group of us were all entrepreneurs, college educated, and shared the same mentality. So we said, “Forget all the talk, let’s just do stuff.” At our meetings, we wouldn’t talk much. We’d say, “Ok, we’re going to throw a Thanksgiving food event. How are we going to do it?” We’d use the meeting to flesh it out, then next thing you know, we’re starting the event. Everything we did was like that — we didn’t keep having meeting after meeting. That’s the big issue in politics: they just meet to meet.

From there, one of our members, Oscar James, Jr., linked up with Cory and started supporting him, and he eventually became South Ward councilman. So when Cory won, I worked for the economic development department in the director’s office, and I was always alongside Oscar James, Jr. That gave me a lot of insight. I would read the legislation, go to the meetings — everything.

And when you do that, you start to get the real insight of how city hall works, and how politics works. A lot of elected officials say “Yeah, I’ll do this. I’ll do that.” But when you get in there, you learn it’s not that simple.

After some time I left the city, but I kept doing a lot of community events, working with organizations like SOS [Saving Ourselves], dealing with gangs, going to schools. And doing solar panel work also. I went and got certified to do that work.

Where did the solar panel work fit in?

I was always into science and technology growing up – I went to NJIT – and I always like to be at the cutting edge. And you can’t talk about developing the city if you don’t talk about technology. That’s what separates us from New York and other cities. Stuff like this.

In New York City, just before you cross over to the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s a little park. There’s free wi-fi in that park — technology at its simplest. We don’t have that here. Like I said, I want to be on the cutting edge, so I went back to school – to Bloomfield College – and got certified in solar. I learned about green energy, studied thermal energy, studied biodiesel fuel. How can you say you compete if you don’t understand that? That’s why my slogan is “The renaissance man for a renaissance city,” so people understand that this guy is well-rounded. You talk about science, I got you there. You wanna talk about business, I go there with you.

Let’s talk about city council. You said earlier that when you worked in city hall, you saw that getting things done is not as easy as simply wanting to do them.  How is it that you’re going to be able to get anything done once you’re on that side?

It’s about your focus. If you gear your focus towards something, you can get it done. One, you have to read. A lot of them don’t read the legislation or the ordinances – they just go and vote. So first you have to read and really understand what’s going on.

Two, you have to galvanize all your resources to meet your objectives. That means you have to create relationships with outsiders.

And then, if you notice, their focus is always just jobs. Jobs are needed, but how do you achieve that objective? Your focus can’t just be jobs – it has to be the communities that create the jobs. If you’re always just saying “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” your stomach is always in someone else’s kitchen.

I met with the mayor of Union City, and told me this: he said you have to pick a two-block perimeter, and build those two blocks. We don’t do that. Everybody else is focused on economics, we’re over here talking about politics. When you realize politics and economics go hand in hand, you start to get somewhere. Sometimes we walk around as politicians just to have our chest out, with pride and ego. I want to change a whole mindset.

We have to create real, sustainable programs. Every other politician says “We need more programs.” But if you notice, they never say what the programs are. I know we need more STEM programs, and I actually know the science and technology concepts that produce those opportunities. So other people making power moves, they look at me and say, “He’s in the know. He understands.”

We need the type of programs for the youth where they go in and build robotics, mini cars, go-carts, aviation – things that keep their interests going and prepare them for what’s next. That’s the way I grew up, so I want them to do the same thing. They can learn screen printing, graphic arts, movie and video game production. You’re capturing their interest and preparing them for what’s out there.

If you had to pinpoint the single biggest thing you’d change in city hall, what would it be?

The biggest issue city hall has is they don’t continue to educate themselves. One time I went to a council meeting, and they said, “We need the mayor to hire somebody to help us read the budget.” If you’re serious about this, you hire your own outside consultant, or you go to school to learn how to read budgets.

I always think in terms of business. If you’re the mayor, you’re the like the company president, and the council is the board. The board is looking out for the interest of the shareholders – the citizens. But here, it’s the reverse, and that’s where we’re losing the battle.

We have to ask ourselves why can’t we have things other cities have. I want to implement things like dog parks and free wi-fi in parks. I want to transform the way we have the storefronts — put in an ordinance that says you have to glass the whole storefront out, so citizens and police can see inside from the street. So that there’s a nice visual presentation. We have to be more innovative.

What do you make of the critique that the lion’s share of development happens in the Central Ward, and that the other neighborhoods are ignored?

I think the problem is people assume that people all over Newark don’t want certain things. You walk into the Whole Foods in Union, and who do you see? Everybody from Newark. [Companies] come out with a new technology, where do you see it? In the hood. You see everybody with a Mac. People make assumptions about what we want and don’t want. But take the South Ward: we have the home ownership. The demographics for development is there.

If you look at Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that’s not downtown downtown, but they have innovation there. It’s true what they say: “If you build it, they will come.” When you’re downtown, a lot of the people who support the businesses there live in the neighborhood. Meanwhile the people in the [residential] buildings [downtown] hop on the train and go to the city.

If you talk to the owners of the stores, four times out of five, the only money they get is from the local neighborhoods. See, people always assume. It’s like the assumption is that there are no educated people in Newark. No people who want better things or different things in Newark. That’s just not the case.

In Newark, there’s three levels of people: you have the ignorant, you have the people who are trapped in the state of wanting everything to remain the same, and then you have a new age of people. You have the artists, the cultural people, the entertainment people, the tech gurus. Those are the people who go to places. Those are the people who want Newark to go places.

How do you convince that constituency that you’re aligned with them?

You gotta work outside of politics. If somebody wants to open up a store on this or that block, he should be able to open up a store. As a politician, I’m going to make sure the process runs smoothly and bring resources together. I’m going to come in and make sure permits are streamlined and that everything is taken care of in a timely fashion.

Everybody in politics knows me, so it’s not like I’m new to all this. I know who’s who, what’s what, and who’s affiliated with who and what. And they know I know who they’re affiliated with.

How do you feel about your chances among the current field?

Before anything else, I know people will say, “I see this guy everywhere“. They know the other candidates in specific contexts. I do stuff for the community, and it’s not even my job. I’m known throughout the city and within the South Ward. People know my family. People know I’m of the South Ward. I grew up right on Van Ness.

The two blocks idea you talked about earlier – do you have a vision for where in the South Ward it would happen?

I would say Clinton Avenue, from Fabyan place to 10th street. I envision nice upscale restaurants, ice cream parlors, different types of food – that whole vibe. Outdoor seating. Take shipping containers and turn them into fancy stores. Make a Trader Joe–like restaurant. We have to take value in our own neighborhood. We have to bring back that hope.

This is what I say: the talented tenth. The issue is – and this is the biggest issue that we’re having in Newark compared to other places – we have this notion where we feel we have to save everybody. You can’t save everybody and do everything, because it pulls away from all the resources. You can’t save everybody because everybody doesn’t want to be saved. You have to start from a small root. Take the talented tenth, and save them.

Some people believe when they see. They need someone to do it first, then they can say “Okay, it’s working.”

Not all people have the same risk tolerance. So what happens is the high risk takers have to go out there – then the medium come, then the low. First you had the talented tenth, now you’ll have the talented 50th. But to get there, you have to move. You show and prove.

And you can’t be mad at them [people disillusioned with the political process], because they meet people who talk so much and get nothing done. They say to themselves, “Oh, here they come with their high ideology.” That’s why I’ll come with two blocks just so show and prove. We can grow out from there, go the next main corridor. By the time you get to the next corridor, the wave has started. Now you don’t have to do as much to get people to believe, because they know when you’re coming, change is coming.

People who think Newarkers don’t want anything hold illusionary philosophies. Not all Newarkers want to come everywhere and hear a poverty conversation. Sometimes you just want hear about art, about that museum piece, about that independent film. If you live in Newark and you’re educated or have a little more money to spend – what do you do? People who don’t know that these people exist here project the statement that the neighborhoods don’t want something different. Only people downtown who don’t know the city say that. The rest of us are like, “What are you talking about?” We’ve been asking for things for years, but there’s still this notion that we don’t want better.

People  say Newarkers don’t want that or this, but when we get something nice, we’re there. You see we’re at the PAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center).

There are some times when we’re excluded on purpose. There is a business symposium going on, but the people that know about it are the people in the inner circle.

And this is another difference between me and the other people that are running: you don’t see them anywhere. You don’t see them at business symposiums, conferences — none of that. You go to the SBA [Small Business Administration] meeting, I’ll be in there. BCDC [Brick City Development Corporation] – I’ll be at the board meeting. I’ll be at different places; they’ll be at the same places. Art gallery, I’m there. There are some people that want that lifestyle. We’re not getting it because there aren’t people that represent us who stand up for that.

Me and a few people bike ride with this group called United Cycle. Everybody’s from Newark: young, progressive, all races. But the other candidates, you won’t see them at races or track meets. We can’t elect leaders that are not on the cutting age. When newcomers come in and see me and my people, they can say, “You’re the councilman who rides every Sunday and Wednesday.” Who are they going to cling to? The guy with the same values. I’m in the neighborhood, too. I’m in Weequahic park talking, socializing, running. People see me living life in this city. When you see the other candidates, it’s usually for political reasons. It’s not real.

Imagine the thing you’re interested in, and the person who’s running for council is into the same stuff you’re into, and he was doing it way before he thought about running for office. Who are you more likely to support?

I go everywhere because it keeps me in the know, because I’ll know who’s doing exactly what. When it’s time to make a move, I know who to go to. I know ten people doing it, and doing it well. I have a real pulse on the city.

What are your thoughts about attracting more jobs to Newark. You say its empty rhetoric for some politicians, but do you think it’s important at all?

I want higher-level corporate jobs for Newarkers. Those are the people who pay more taxes, and they’re more likely to take the city where it has to go.

The average income in Newark is $35,000; there’s a lot of people in Newark who make well above that. And a lot of them say, “I’m tired of people always thinking everybody’s poor. Who’s going to represent me? I just want a nice café to sit down and eat in.” Some people just want their neighbors not let their dog [go to the bathroom] in front of their property, to cut their grass. How can you stop that if there’s no dog parks? Sometimes the solution is the easy thing.

Like Lincoln Park – they have the festival there every year. They get sponsors, have nice events, no problems. Everybody loves it and looks forward to it.

As a city, we should take the hint. We really have to develop Lincoln Park and grass it out. Put a playground for kids, install a dog park. And where the stage is for the festival, we need to build a permanent stage just like SummerStage [in Central Park], or just like Marcus Garvey Park or Prospect Park.

The festival just had its 8th year, and right now we’re paying all that money for the weekend. Meanwhile, we could’ve gotten some brothas in the neighborhood to build out a permanent stage. We could have all types of stuff go on in that stage year-round – this is the way we have to think. Because over the years, the investment will pay off, because now you’re thinking about the community. And now if you’re moving to the district, you have something to look forward to.

Besides building up a couple blocks, how do you get business moving in the South Ward?

We need to create a mom-and-pop loan program: $2,000 – $10,000 per business. If your business is small, that’s all you need. Your rent, inventory, and décor aren’t going to come up to much. We have to take a concentrated amount of money, build up a couple blocks, and start there.

When I talk to people, they say, “That’s a plan. I can see that.”

Dilettante Bass is running for the South Ward city council seat that will be vacated by Ras Baraka, who is running for mayor of Newark. He recently unveiled his campaign presence on his website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Darrin Sharif makes his pitch to be mayor of Newark

Darrin Sharif officially declared his candidacy for Newark mayor during an evening rally at the Robert Treat Hotel yesterday. Sharif worked for Cory Booker as his chief of staff during Booker’s Central Ward council days, before ascending to the role himself in 2010, and becoming one of Booker’s key legislative adversaries on the council. He is also the son of long-time Newark political consultant Carl Sharif.

Sharif took to the podium to make his pitch in front of a group of about sixty people. Here’s what he covered:

  • Business development: The Central Ward is home to the the key political, business, and educational institutions in Newark, as well as the transportation infrastructure that makes parts of the ward so accessible by other parts of the city and the region.  Sharif took partial credit for projects throughout the Central Ward, including business development along First Avenue, Halsey Street, and Springfield Avenue.
  • Community learning: Sharif touted his role in the development of “Learning Centers” in residential communities throughout the ward. The purpose of the centers, he said, is to help kids without computers complete school assignments, and to enable adults to complete job applications and prepare for the GED.
  • Accessibility and rehabilitation: He discussed his bringing NJIT’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, Newark Public Schools, and “hopefully” Panasonic together to create a video game that helps Newark kids with disabilities improve their dexterity.
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career training: Sharif said he’ll be visiting MIT in two weeks to discuss the possibility of creating partnerships with Newark Public Schools to teach interested kids computer programming skills.
  • Innovation incubator: Sharif described a project in the works called the “Center for Human Development and Civic Engagement”. It’s an idea that has been percolating for some time for him: when I interviewed Sharif two summers ago, he described it to me in very similar terms to the program he laid out last night. The center, which he said will be located in the basement of the Renaissance Towers on Market and Mulberry Streets, would be an incubator for “projects that will move the city forward”, and a co-working space for residents, small businesses, non-profits, professors, students, and other Newark stakeholders to work on those projects. He also said the center would house a tech company that would manage Newark’s IT needs, and that a majority of its employees would be Newark residents.
  • Port jobs: Sharif said one of his key priorities as mayor will be to create a “comprehensive, strategic plan for engaging the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey”. He noted that he has long understood the job-creating power of the port, and that former council president Donald Payne, Jr. did take his suggestion to create a “port opportunities committee” and name him chair. But he also said it was a challenge to get the administration to put together a comprehensive port strategy. The mayorship, he said, would give him the power and authority to engage the state governments in New York and New Jersey, as well as our federal and state legislative delegations, to push a comprehensive plan that will benefit Newarkers.

Sharif’s campaign Facebook page is now online.