Q&A with Newark mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries


I sat down with Newark mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries at his Seton Hall Law School office downtown earlier this week to discuss his views on how to significantly reduce violent crime, the merits of school choice, Newark's human capital and structural gifts, why the "insider versus outsider" motif has some resonance in Newark politics, and how he'd work with councilman Ras Baraka if elected mayor, among other topics. Below is the full Q&A from our session.

Extended views on this interview? Email comments@brickcitylive.com with your views. We'll publish the most thoughtful ones to the site.

Before I get into my prepared questions: you just held a press conference about the most recent shootings in the city. What was your response?

That we need immediate action to address the scourge of violence in our community.

We saw 111 Newarkers murdered last year. Our streets are really a warzone right now, and we need to do a bunch of things immediately. One is we gotta hire a hundred cops. If we reduce fat in the mayor's office, on the clerk and council side, we can save about $9 million. That’s if we just reduced our clerk and council budget to the levels of comparable municipalities.

We could also free up some resources to invest in more afterschool programs for our children, and connect more nonviolent drug users to treatment.

And I also called out that, once again, we've seen people murdered in the South Ward. Under my opponent councilman Baraka's watch, murders have gone up 70 percent in the South Ward, and that's simply a record of abject failure. And in contrast, when I was the assistant attorney general, I helped oversee a crime plan that actually reduced violent crime in the state three years in a row.

It's a dramatic difference. It's a dramatic choice that the people [of Newark] have before them. On my side, we actually have experience in this area. We have a proven track record of results, versus more empty rhetoric and empty promises and, frankly, a person who not only has a failed record, but frankly spends his time apologizing for gang leaders who've murdered Newarkers, and in so doing, enables a culture of violence in our communities that's destroying the lives of our young people, and constraining the growth of the city.

About the "apologizing for gang leaders" charge: I did some research on violent crime reduction for a story I wrote a while back, and I interviewed David Kennedy, who's one of the founders of [Operation] Ceasefire. He says you can't remove gang members from the violence reduction equation – that you have to engage them. Do you think he's right? And if so, where do you think councilman Baraka's plan gets away from that approach and into a territory you're uncomfortable with?

I appreciate that question, because I want to make sure I'm very clear, because our safety plan is based on prevention, enforcement, and reentry working together holistically. I'm very fortunate to have experience in all of these areas.

So on the prevention side: I founded a charter school. I was the president of the school board here in Newark, president of the Boys and Girls Club here in Newark. The prevention is all about afterschool programs for kids, drug treatment for those that have an addiction, job training for young adults, teenage pregnancy programs, mentoring for kids – all that stuff is critical.

Enforcement is zero tolerance around gangs and guns.

But then reentry, to answer your question, is about when folks are transitioning back into communities – providing them the services and support they need to have a more seamless transition. And absolutely, those who are ex-offenders themselves, those who kind of lived that life, they can be very helpful in terms of being mentors.

But there is a fundamental difference between that and what councilman Baraka is talking about. He wrote letters seeking leniency for gang leaders who've murdered Newarkers. What he did was write letters during the sentencing process. What I'm saying is when you murder Newarkers, when you sell large amounts of weight in our communities, when you engage in activities that are destroying our communities, you're going to pay a price. After you've paid that price, and now you want to reenter back into society, of course we want to help you with skills and training and other support so that when you come back out you have more of an ability to make better choices than some of the choices you may have made previously.

(In the Star Ledger story that broke news of the letters, councilman Baraka is quoted as saying, "If they do a crime, they’re gonna be arrested and they should be. But I don’t think that should impede us from trying to continue to do the work that we’ve been doing in the community…If somebody has helped us try to bring people together and they ask me to write a letter, then I will.")

And this is also an area where I have a lot of experience. I oversaw reentry programs for the state. I've done a lot of litigation in this area, including a major win we just got in December which enabled ex-offenders to have an easier path to get jobs. But that's a fundamental distinction.

I want to be clear that not only do we have a vision in this area that is very transformative, we've actually implemented these ideas. So at the state level, we did an unprecedented expansion of a program called YouthBuild. And YouthBuild is one of the top models in the country of gang prevention, for engaging kids who are gang involved. And in fact, when I was involved in the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) for the state, in which each child who commits a crime goes to the JJC, and about 90% are gang involved, we actually doubled the graduation rate by investing in education and opportunities for those kids.

So absolutely, if you're in a gang, we want to help you get out. Absolutely. All I'm saying is if you're in a gang, which unfortunately is an organized criminal enterprise, in which some of them engage in very serious crimes of violence, including murder, I'm saying if you commit murder you're going to be locked up. I'm saying we're going to create a culture where we're going to help people not get into gangs [in the first place], and if you're in a gang, help get you out. Help you get in school.

But we're not going to excuse, we're not going to write letters of leniency, we're not going to tolerate, we're not going to negotiate with those who are killing our young people, are killing our women, attacking and robbing our seniors. We're not going to tolerate one more bit whatsoever. Zero tolerance. And that's a fundamentally different approach from my counterpart, who wants to apologize for that activity.

I've been to a number of mayoral debates and forums, and you talk about your record as assistant attorney general a lot. Some people might have trouble connecting with the idea of a lawyer as someone who's working on behalf of regular people. Can you talk in specific terms about how the things you've done in your legal career have affected the lives of everyday Newarkers?


So I was a civil rights attorney. Before the AG's (attorney general's) office, before I got to AG, I was a civil rights attorney representing Newarkers, and suing all sorts of entities that were preying upon Newarkers, representing Newark parents and children who were denied special education services.

I did a class action education lawsuit where I represented six parents and their children on behalf of a class of thousands. And these are Newark children who were going to school everyday, who have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), who were not receiving special education services. Year after year they're being denied their services. They're languishing in schools. No one is fighting for them. No one is advocating for them. The schools aren't making sure they're getting the services they need.

So what I did, and some other civil rights lawyers did, is for free, I represented them for seven years. The whole case lasted 10 years, but I went to the state, so I couldn't continue working on it. But for free, I represented them for seven years, fighting the state, fighting the district, to get them the services they were entitled to.

I've done cases representing the parents and children of Newark, suing the state of New Jersey to force the state to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into our school system.

I've represented Newark tenants like Sam Rivers, and the Newark HUD Tenants Coalition, which was lead by Frank Hutchins. Representing tenants in places like Zion Towers, who were subjected to illegal rent increases. Representing Newark women who were subjected to domestic violence, and representing the Coalition for Battered Women in New Jersey, to fight for an expanded definition of harassment to protect women from domestic violence.

I've represented the Newark Parents Association, and Alberta Green and all of her membership, in suing Newark Public Schools for not providing afterschool tutoring to Newark children. We've represented homeowners in Newark and in the surrounding areas who were subjected to predatory lending and foreclosures.

We represented Newark voters, as well voters of color, around the state of New Jersey in fighting for a voting map that made it easier for African Americans and Latinos to elect candidates of their choice, which lead to the greatest number of African Americans and Latinos elected in state history after the census in 2000.

So as a civil rights attorney, what I did was represent regular people no one else was fighting for, who no one else was advocating for, and made sure that their kids received educational services, made sure that they're freer from violence in their communities, helped them preserve their homes from the scammers who sought to prey upon Newarkers, represented seniors who were preyed upon and who were facing bankruptcy.

I represented immigrants, as well. There's a Newark immigrant woman who was being evicted from her home. They gave her lease documents there not in [Spanish], so she didn't understand the terms, they raised the rent, and they tried to evict her. And we represented her and were able to fix that as well. And that's just the stuff I can give you off the top of my head.

In your campaign video with your family, [your wife] Tenagne talks about looking back over your career and seeing the ways in which you’ve prepared for this [mayoral run]. But can you talk about why you want to serve Newark in elected office, as opposed to some other way?

It would really be probably during my time working for governor Corzine when I became committed to serving through elected office and public office, because we did so many great things to help people.

Before that, I was working with nonprofits. I was representing parents and kids and Newarkers and others on civil rights issues. And when I was working with governor Corzine, from the work we did on the crime plan to the work we did with the Juvenile Justice Commission to the civil rights work we did, the drug court work we did, I saw that managing governmental resources and organizations was something that could empower people to change their lives, and was really impactful. And I felt I could get more done to change communities and improve the quality of life for Newark that way than simply through civil rights litigation.

So that's really what motivated me. That's when I decided to run for the school board, and during that process, I said I felt that serving in an executive role in the mayor's office, we could use city resources to do great things to move the city forward.

Obviously, education has been a major subject during the election. But what is within the mayor's purview to really do about it? What do you actually have the power to do to push your education agenda forward?

I think the mayor has to be a leader, because in almost every domain, the mayor's ability to move the city forward isn't primarily rooted in his or her ability to make unilateral decisions, but based upon his or her ability to partner with folks and get things done.

When we talk about economic development in the city, we have certain incentives. We have abatements, we have certain variances we can provide. We have certain kinds of incentives in the planning process. But fundamentally, it's a partnership. We gotta persuade people to come and invest and hire Newarkers, and to contract for goods and services from Newark-based businesses, and hire our kids during the summer.

So it's that same sort of approach that we're going to need from the mayor in terms of partnering with the state and partnering with the superintendent. And to me, she can't be effective without the mayor, and the mayor can't be effective in terms of making sure the kids receive what they need without the superintendent. There needs to be a marriage, and that's what I'm going to seek to create as mayor. I'm going to seek to have a close partnership with the superintendent and the state to make sure our kids receive what they deserve.

To me, if you're a leader, you don't simply say, "Well if I don't have raw power [in a certain area], I’m just going to wash my hands.” I’m gonna use the leverage of the position. Once we’re elected, we’ll [have been] elected by many, many, many thousands of Newarkers who said what we represent is what they want. I’m going to use the mandate they give me to partner with [superintendent Cami Anderson] to do great things for our kids, or whoever the superintendent happens to be.

Speaking of the superintendent, Cami Anderson has been a bit of a lightning rod. How do you rank her performance, and what do you think about the One Newark plan?

Well, I think she has to do a dramatically better job around engaging the community and building partnerships. I give her an “F” in terms of community engagement and partnership building. I think she's been utterly ineffective when it comes to partnership building and collaboration. And that's just from a result standpoint.

The fact of the matter is – and I'm sure her intentions are very genuine, I don't question her intentions or motivations, and I'd never question that – but the fact of the matter is she's by herself on all of these major proposals, and you can't sustain big changes in organizations without partners. And so I think she's been very ineffective there.

Now on some of the ideas, I think many of the ideas are good ones that are gonna be very beneficial to our kids. I think extended learning time is very important. I think more evaluation-based professional development for educators is essential. I believe more choice for families is fundamental. I'm a strong proponent of parental choice.

She's created new schools within the district like Bard Early College and Eagle Academy and Girls' Academy, and I think that's essential. She's partnered with the public charter schools in very smart ways around space and best practices in my judgment. I support that.

You know, I think many of the ideas are good ones. But again, when you're in a democracy, you have to persuade other people that your ideas are good. You have to be able to build those coalitions, build those partnerships, so that we can change the system in a way that's going to serve kids.

On a related note, charter schools are a charged subject in certain quarters, and some people in the community are suspicious about the intent behind them, and uneasy about their effect on the larger public school system. How do you refute the specific claim that charters are sucking resources from traditional public schools, and that they somehow undermine communities? In your view, why shouldn't communities be threatened by charters?

I would fundamentally reject that, because parents have to choose to put their child in charter schools. No one has to go to a charter school. No one is forced to go there. These are Newark parents who are making a decision for their child. These are parents that feel this option is best for their baby.

And so I don't know how to get more community than that, you know? I'm a strong proponent of local control; I've fought for that for many years. The ultimate local control is parental control, where parents make decisions for their kids.

So I don't understand the logic that it undermines the community to empower parents to make choices for their own kids. And in fact, I think it's very pro-community and pro-parent. That's number one.

Number two, there's no question that there is tension from a financial standpoint, because the money does follow the child. So if the child remains in the district, that money stays in the district. If the parent decides to put their child in a public charter school, that money follows the child.

I've worked very hard for the district to improve itself with extended learning time and more resources, and I've advocated for hundreds of millions of dollars that all went to the district. [I’ve advocated for] new school models within the district, so the district and the parents have more choices within the district. So I believe strongly in a very strong and highly resourced traditional public school district. I want to see the traditional public school district operate at the highest level.

But at the end of the day, I believe that parents should make the decision about what school best serves their child, and we have to make sure the district is operating effectively so that more parents choose the district. But if it is not, parents should do what they think is best for their child, and I support their decisions.

Let's switch gears for a moment to your positive vision for the city. Why should us Newarkers want to stay here, and why should anyone want to move to Newark? What does the city have going for it?

The city has great people. The people of Newark are amazing people, are resilient, are strong, are beautiful, smart, talented, loving, compassionate, and tough. I think that's our greatest strength, and should be a magnet for people from other places. 

Then we have amazing strategic assets, you know? We have some of the most strategically significant transportation resources in the country. So if you're a business owner and you want to sell your products throughout the region, throughout the country, throughout the planet, what better place than a city that has the largest seaport on the eastern seaboard, has one of the largest airports in the world, has rail and transportation resources like a tremendous highway system that connects to Newark? So I think from a business standpoint, there's great opportunities.

We have 60,000 college and university students and faculty. So from a business standpoint, you can find a lot of human capital here. From a residential standpoint, this is a city where there can be continuously learning, for an individual to improve him or herself. You can make sure you're always prepared for the modern economy.

We have great entertainment resources. We have the premier performing arts center in the state of New Jersey. We have one of the most active arenas in the United States here in the city of Newark. We have Newark Symphony Hall, where you can enjoy some great entertainment. We have the Ironbound arts and entertainment district and restaurant corridor, as well.

We have great diversity. Our city obviously does not have the full diversity you have in the world, but has a nice range of diversity from our strong and beautiful Portuguese and Brazilian community, to a growing and very diverse Latino community, to very diverse black community – from African immigrants from all parts of Africa, to folks from the Caribbean, to indigenous folks. So we have great diversity.

So there's a strong city, great resources, great assets strategically positioned. We're a handful of miles from the financial capital of the world. We're an amazing city, and if we stabilize safety and have a mayor who's going to be forward focused, and focus on unifying the city in a policy-based and evidence-based way, we can find that we'll be able to walk into our full potential.

The "candidate of the people" versus the "outsider" formulation has cropped up in this campaign, and you've been pegged as the outsider. Why do you think that formulation is so resonant for a portion of the electorate? Does it tap into a legitimate concern? And were you surprised that it's become a trope in this campaign, given your deep personal roots in the city?

I think for politicians who are focused more on their own interests rather than the people's interests, scapegoating and fear have always been shown to be a viable device politically. So when you can scare people and when you can polarize people, that has been shown to have some value politically.

I'm the kind of person who believes that bringing people together is the way that we go forward. And so when you can scapegoat and polarize, what happens is that gets people emotional.

And then there's the fact there are some external forces that are causing difficulty in your life. And obviously as folk of color and as poor people, there have been a whole range of forces that have contributed to some of the challenges we have in our community. We have to be clear about that.

And so you have a foundational truth that can underlie some of these sentiments. And then you get certain politicians, like my opponent, who will exploit that for political ends, right? And so I'm not surprised.

Obviously, that was a major motif when mayor Booker ran. Now he, in fact, was an outsider, since he didn't grow up in Newark. But I don't even think that sort of labeling is really productive, because we want new people to come here, right? We want new people to move here. We want immigrants to come here. That's a beautiful thing. That's a strength. So that labeling, to me, is actually counterproductive, because it suggests that you don't want new people to come here, and that you don't want to grow.

Now again, obviously, when you grow, you want to do it in a way that empowers your longtime residents. So I'm very much about both/and. I think sometimes things become zero-sum.

Now did I expect it? Yes expected it, because I don't think my opponent has much of a record to run on. I think he has no record. I think murders have gone up 70 percent in his ward. There is no economic development that's discernable in the South Ward. Foreclosures are up there.

Unemployment is up. The ward is falling apart. So when you don't have a record, then you have to resort to the politics of division and the politics of character attacks. And so I'm not surprised to have seen that.

And you genuinely believe councilman Baraka has no record?

Well, what is it? I don't know. If he has it, I'd love to hear it. I'm saying I live in the South Ward, grew up in the South Ward, am raising my family there now, and the streets are more dangerous than ever. I see no discernible economic development. I see no major development projects in the south. The one that the councilman talked about that I had heard about was Key Foods, and that didn't even make it one year.

I see gangs taking over neighborhoods. The ward looks like a mess. It looks like a third world country. You drive along Bergen Street, it's unkempt. So I don't know what record he has over the last four years in his time as a councilman. If he has it, I guess he'll articulate it, but I haven't seen it.

Newark is a city within a county within a state within a country. We exist in a larger context, and there are forces working on us and affecting us that are well beyond us. What, as the mayor, can you do to get this city thriving when we exist in that broader context?

Economically, I think about three different things. First, the public safety environment, because that's fundamental in terms of how you attract business. Safety is foundational, because when you have unsafe neighborhoods and communities, then you don't have a high quality business environment, and business owners aren't going to be attracted to coming to that environment. You’re not going to grow business in that environment and you're actually going to likely see the outflows of business. So we have to first stabilize safety.

Secondarily, then we look at it in terms of streamlining and depoliticizing the process of engaging with government. You need a building permit, you shouldn’t have to pay the piper to get your building permit through because everybody has their hand out wanting something for somebody they’re connected to. It shouldn’t take – beyond the basic necessities of the process – it shouldn't take forever to get a building permit. If it takes too long, that means the costs of doing business here in Newark go up, and people go to other places. We want to streamline the permitting process, the licensing process, the variance process, the abatement process.

We have to rebrand our city. That's part of our business environment, where people know we have great assets.

Then we have to have massive workforce development. We have to really retrain Newarkers for the jobs of tomorrow. We have a much more information-based economy, and it’s a global economy, and jobs will shift to other places in the blink of an eye. So we have to prepare Newarkers for that economy, which means that the educational levels and the skill levels for Newarkers are paramount. I hear everyday, "Hey, I need a job. I want a job." And we want to create more jobs for Newarkers, and we can leverage our abatement policy to do that.

But we have to retrain Newarkers so that they have the skills, because it's going to be the skills that enable them to not only keep a job, but build a career.

On the subject of abatements, I've heard some concern about that, as well. There's this idea that we're attracting companies, but if doing so doesn't increase our tax base, it's not really accruing to the city long-term. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that you have to be real mathematical and economically sound when you make these abatement arrangements. To me, it’s about the financing that’s in the best interest of the people in the city, so that if we have an area where development can be financed without an abatement, then of course that's what we're going to do. We should never issue any abatement unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But unfortunately, when you have 111 murders, and you have the levels of unemployment and foreclosure and blight that you have in our communities, there's going to need to be times for gap financing, to get development that we might not otherwise be able to get. And unfortunately, this city is not Manhattan yet, or Brooklyn, so we're gonna have to subsidize some of our growth.

And when we do that, we're gonna want to do it in an economically sound, almost scientific way. We have to ask what we’re losing and what is the amount of the abatement, and then we calculate how much do we gain, what will be the return on that investment in terms of jobs, in terms of business growth opportunities, in terms of economic output. And then only when we’re gonna get more in terms of return on the investment than what we're putting in – that’s the only time we'll do an abatement.

I'm interested in what your administration would look like. If you win in May, councilman Baraka will still be a significant actor in Newark, and so will the thousands of people who will vote for him. You'd have city council at work. You’d be stepping into a very complex environment. How would you see yourself working in that environment, and particularly with councilman Baraka?

After we win, one of the first calls I'm going to make is to councilman Baraka to say, “Let's work together for the benefit of the people of this city.” If he or key people on his team were interested in working with us in an honest and transparent way to do great things for the people of Newark, I would welcome that. I'd want to partner with him. I'd want to partner with those who supported him, because I'm running to do great things for the city of Newark. I'm not running to be opposed to him. I'm not running to be opposed to anybody who supports him.

I respect councilman Baraka. He's been advocating for 20 years for people that often times others won't advocate for. He's been a voice for the voiceless for a long period of time, and I respect his service, and I respect his advocacy. We obviously have very fundamental differences of opinion about who’s the most qualified to be the mayor given what that means in 2014, and given where the city is in terms of the partnerships we've gotta build, and stabilizing safety, and growing the economy, and getting our kids to school.

But I respect him fully, and I'd love to partner with him. I'd be excited to do that. I think it'd be great for the city. Obviously, if that's not something that they wanted to do, then we'd have to move on. But I’d love to be able to partner with him and others that are on his team to move this city forward. 

For more information about each of the candidates' proposals for the city, visit Shavar Jeffries' and Ras Baraka's respective websites.

We have invited councilman Baraka to speak with us through his team, and will post his views if and when we have an opportunity to sit down with him.

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Image: Shavar Jeffries' Facebook page

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