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."
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.