Yesterday, Newark elected Ras Baraka, longtime Newark educator, activist, and son of New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, as its new mayor.
Our readers and other election watchers took over our homepage on decision day. The main headline for the day: although the election was highly contentious, election day occured mostly without incident, and many first-time voters participated in the electoral process. Check out our election feed below for an on-the-ground view of the day.
Updated: 1:05 P.M.
Below is a live feed of social media updates from the Newark Students Union walkout.
Originally posted: 8:34 A.M.
Students from the Newark Students Union are organizing a walkout today. The protest is timed to underscore the state budget hearings on education in Trenton.
According to a press release, the group, whose student leadership hails from Science Park High School, Arts High School, Central High School, and East Side High School, will convene on the steps of City Hall before leading what they're calling a "March of Shame" past institutions they insist are underminig traditional public schools. The students are set to meet at City Hall at 1pm this afternoon.
In a video promoting the protest, the students enumerate their reasons for walking out, and call on their peers to do the same.
The student group has previously collaborated on events with the American Federation of Teachers and NJ Communities United, a politicaly progressive grassroots organization (both organizations endorsed councilman Ras Baraka for mayor). The group convened a mayoral forum at the Newark Public Library back in November, when councilmembers Anibal Ramos and Darrin Sharif were still candidates in the race.
Shavar Jeffries' 500 Women for Shavar subcommittee hosted a Women's History Month fundraiser and tribute at their Central Ward headquarters Saturday morning. The "Hat and Tea brunch", as it was billed, was attended by a crowd of about 200 women and a spattering of men, including the mayoral candidate himself. Tickets for the hat-themed fundraiser ranged from $40 to $250.
Jeffries' wife Tenagne hosted the event, while subcommittee chair Sharifa R. Salaam (not to be mistaken with her eponymous mother, who is a judge) assumed the role of emcee. Honorees included Esther Tanez, founder of ESTIR Insurance, Celia M. King, executive director of Leadership Newark (where Shavar Jeffries was a fellow about a decade ago), and Vonda McPherson, owner of Vonda's Kitchen.
The fundraiser's headliner, Newark native Mikki Taylor, has been a stalwart in many black women's homes as the beauty editor, and now Editor-at-Large, of Essence Magazine. Taylor took to the podium to speak of her family's storied history in Newark, where her mother was a celebrity hairstylist who was contemporaries and friends with jazz legend Sarah Vaughn. She delivered a general empowerment message, telling the crowd of her days aspiring to be a journalist when she saw no examples of black women journalists around her, yet understanding that, "There's nothing I couldn't attain if I showed up ready." Like the other speakers, she also issued a specific call to action to attendees to support the Jeffries campaign with time, money, and election day get-out-the-vote support.
Jeffries himself made remarks, noting that "almost two-thirds of the Newark electorate are women, and my administration is gonna look like that." He acknowledged some of the structural impediments to women running successfully in the city, including a the lack of financial backers and mentors for women, and vowed to put an infrastructure in place to help women run. Lynda Lloyd, who is running again for a Central Ward at-large council seat (she lost the special election for the seat against John Sharpe James) and is the only woman on Jeffries' slate, made similar remarks at the beginning of the event.
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If the city council presided over a period where mismanagement might lead to a takeover of its budget, should tenure on the council count against candidates in May's municipal elections?
On the heels of the State of New Jersey hinting that they are going to take over Newark’s budget, much like they commandeered the city’s school system, this year’s municipal election is sharply juxtaposed against the backdrop of Trenton’s looming threat.
Since 2002, Ras Baraka has been employed in City Hall as either the Deputy Mayor or Municipal Councilman. It would be impossible to deny him culpability in Newark’s fiscal woes. Baraka, along with two members of his ticket – Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins and Mildred Crump – has presided over unprecedented fiscal mismanagement.
Chaneyfield-Jenkins was an at-large Councilmember from 1995 to 2006. She ran as a fiscal conservative during her inaugural council campaign, yet one of her first acts in office was to commission a $10,000 portrait of herself. The audacity of that expenditure was complemented by the councilwoman’s purchase of a $500 waste paper basket.
During her tenure, Mildred Crump traveled to Africa on the struggling city’s dime so wantonly that residents might have thought Ghana was a stop on the light rail. Whatever benefit Newark received from Ms. Crump’s sojourns to the motherland has yet to be evidenced, considering Brick City’s continually soaring unemployment rate and perpetual budget crises.
Another indisputable fact of their tenures in office is that Baraka and the council members on his slate use[d] their offices as their personal family employment agencies. They have hired their brothers, sons, husbands, nieces, nephews, cousins and family friends to work in their offices at taxpayer expense. So, in addition to their $85,000 salaries for their part-time jobs (councilmember jobs aren’t designated as full-time positions) taxpayers are contributing tens of thousands more dollars to the councilmembers’ households.
A cursory glance shows Ras’ brother, Amiri “Middy” Baraka, and Mildred’s son, Lawrence, serving as their respective chiefs of staff. Gayle’s husband Kevin acted in that same capacity when she was on the council. A quick stop in to their offices in City Hall reveals myriad other friends and family in various positions – public jobs that were never posted or made available to other qualified Newark residents.
Baraka’s mayoral opponent, Shavar Jeffries, has three current municipal council members on his ticket. North Ward councilman Anibal Ramos, who abdicated his own run for the mayor’s seat to join Jeffries; East Ward representative Augusto Amador; and councilman at-large Carlos Gonzalez. Political watchers say that a Jeffries disassociation from those council members would instantly scuttle his mayoral aspirations by undermining his relationship with Latino voters, Newark’s fastest-growing demographic. It remains to be seen if it is pabulum that residents are willing to swallow.
Be it a necessary political strategy or maintaining the status quo, voters can't be blamed if they give Jeffries the “side eye” and sigh a collective, “Whatever, man.” The councilmembers on his ticket have some stain on them for the city’s fiscal mess as well. The bright spot, if there is such a thing, is that it appears none of them have used their offices as their personal one-stop career centers.
Contrary to what many constituents believe, the municipal council is responsible for only two things: approving department director appointments, and overseeing the city budget. On the cusp of a state takeover, history would indicate that experience in City Hall is the least necessary attribute in the search for a solution to Newark’s problems.
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Shavar Jeffries and Ras Baraka are vying to be the next mayor of Newark. Both men have earned bachelor's and post-graduate degrees, are accomplished in their respective fields, and have persevered through family tragedy.
Wednesday, July 1, 1970. That was the last day Newark had a mayor who was not African-American. The following Thursday, Ken Gibson took over the mayorship from Hugh Addonizio, and became the first black mayor of a major Northeastern city. The racial implications of Gibson’s ascension to Newark’s highest seat colored every corner of the race (sorry, some puns write themselves). Every mayoral electoral campaign since then has pretty much been waged among black folks.
That dynamic is likely to change as the influx of Latinos and Spanish-speaking immigrants swell Newark’s voting rolls. But for the next election cycle or two, they will essentially be the Hispanic elephant in the room.
The election that will be decided here on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 will result in Brick City’s fourth black mayor assuming office. However, there is so much race-based vitriol coming from both camps that onlookers could be excused if they thought they were mystically transported to Addonizio’s 1970.
Bourgeoie vs. B-Boy
The dime store Cliff’s Notes version of the archetype that's been assigned to Jeffries is that he is a candy-ass, spoon-fed softie, not really made of the stern stuff of which Brick City (read: black) men are composed.
Sure, he was born in Newark and raised in the South Ward, but he’s not really "down". He didn’t go to Weequahic High School, or University, or even Arts – Hey, that’s a good school! He got a scholarship to attend Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. Then after Seton Hall, he ran as far away from his brothers and his roots as possible by attending Duke University. You can’t get a whiter education than that…except maybe the Ivy League’s Columbia University, where he graduated from law school. Sure, he came back to Newark to live…but where are his boys? How does he grow up in Newark and have no peoples? He’s not really down. White boy.
The tale of the tape on Baraka is that he’s a “thug.” As the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks’ All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman noted after he was so labeled: “’thug’ is the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” After Baraka graduated from Howard University, a black school – excuse me, a historically black university – he came back to Newark. He was back on the block, chilling with the same cats he knew from way back. Some of them grew up to be drug dealers, stick-up men, gang members and murderers. But Baraka was still down with them because he was just a down mother— Shut your mouth! I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Baraka, baby. Nig— excuse me, thug.
It would be both easy and cliché to say that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But the truth is that there is no middle. There is just a nebulous everywhere – a dense fog that we walk through, hoping to bump into something tangible. People are so much easier to deal with when they fit squarely into the boxes we fashion for them, the boxes that we decide are their realities. Alas, those boxes say more about us than they ever could about them.
Both men could have lived wherever they wanted after college. An Ivy League law degree is a ticket to anywhere. Shavar Jeffries’ anywhere turned out to be Newark, New Jersey. Baraka, the son of New Jersey Poet Laureate and civil rights troubadour, the late Amiri Baraka, was an accomplished poet in his own right, having been prominently featured on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's namesake's Grammy Award-winning 1998 album, amongst other acclaimed hip-hop fare. He, too, could have set up camp wherever he chose. Both men opted to come home.
His stepfather murdered Jeffries' mother, a man I’ve only heard Jeffries refer to publicly as “the locksmith.” Baraka’s sister, Shani, was murdered by their other sister’s estranged husband. Two men, both the collateral damage of murderous domestic violence, fighting to lead New Jersey’s most statistically violent city. There is no evidence to suggest that they share some sort of necromantic bond. Violence doesn’t make them kindred spirits any more than it unites other residents of the city who have been victimized by crime, pain, and death. But when it comes to crime, pain and murder, they both can relate in very non-rhetorical ways. Can you feel their pain?
Many people, mostly Baraka supporters, say that they’ve never heard of Jeffries before he decided to run for mayor. That is likely. Jeffries worked for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office as an assistant Attorney General, did some other lawyer-type stuff, and then became a professor at Seton Hall Law School.
Baraka, on the other hand, came from a family of performers (his mother Amina is a noted poet in her own right) and was on one of the hottest selling albums in the history of pop music. After Lauren Hill’s Miseducation, Baraka became a schoolteacher, vice principal and principal. Virtually every resident in the city knew his name. His perpetual runs for political office didn’t hurt his brand, either.
The scuttlebutt is that Jeffries is in the pocket of rightwing political operatives who want to take over the city, because, you know, what fat cat corporate magnate chilling on their estate in Bedminster doesn’t dream of being the King of Prince Street? It’s not that Newark is of less value than the state’s other urban enclaves. It’s that the previous mayors and municipal council members already gave away the store.
Newark politicos gave one-third of the city’s land to the Port Authority for pennies on the dollar. Billion-dollar corporations on Broad Street are allowed to pay less in taxes than a single parent with three kids on Hunterdon Terrace. Newark politicians traditionally played the Natives to everybody else’s Peter Minuit. Heck, the Native Americans who mythically sold Manhattan for $24 worth of beads to the Dutchman probably got a better deal than Newark gets.
Those same municipal council members and ineffectual politicians are on the tickets of both candidates. Moneyed political operatives from around the state have weighed in, tossing their dollars and hedging their bets. Politics doesn’t just make for strange bedfellows. It facilitates downright f-ed up associations.
Baraka, the public high school principal and charter school adversary, is in bed with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is a wholly owned and bought subsidiary of hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, the founder of the education “reform” group Better Education for New Jersey’s Kids, Inc. (B4K). Bruno Tedeschi, Fulop’s former spokesperson, is now a member of the Jeffries campaign. Retread politicians have seats in both camps, and one gets the sense that their fealty is composed of unabashed opportunism.
There are discernable differences between the two men, but they cannot be summed up by the “the professor vs. the hoodlum” (or if you prefer, “cornball sellout” against “anarchist revolutionary”) meme that has taken hold of the public dialog about the candidates.
In terms of the supporters of either side, this race even defies caste designations. Middle class blacks and Latinos pitted against poor blacks and Latinos doesn’t fit the molds that we’re used to seeing. Baraka and Jeffries both have supporters (and detractors) from every level of the economic spectrum. I’ve heard middle class and poor people expound upon why they backed either candidate, and it sounded more like an in-depth analysis of their own psyches. I found myself thinking more than a few times, “Wait, are you talking about him, or you?”
Maybe the fog will have lifted by the time Election Day comes around.
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.
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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.
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.
In the wake of the announcement of a major overhaul of the Newark Public School system, including both out-and-out closures and the conversion of traditional public schools to charter schools, a group of Newark parents, community members, and activists is urging Newarkers to contact the governor's office and state legislature and register their frustration at being "left out of the equation" on decisions about community schools, as one flier circulating around the community puts it.
The flier, which cautions that "Silence gives concent (sic)" and says it's "time to make some noise", advises how to reach key officials' offices via telephone and online.
Last Tuesday, emotions ran high at a Hawthorne Avenue School community meeting as community members asked NPS director of school support operations Keith Barton why the school was being closed, particularly when it had shown year over year achievement gains above the district trend. It was the first time community members had been invited to speak with a district official about the school closure. One of the Newarkers who addressed Barton was fifth grade student Angelo Nichols, who tearfully asked the director, "Why do you want to close my school?"
And this past Friday morning, Newark mayoral candidate and Central High School principal Ras Baraka, who was in attendance at the Hawthorne Avenue meeting, held a rally to protest the district's proposed overhaul at Weequahic High School, which is slated for a structural overhaul.
The campaign's organizers ask those interested in the initiative to email email@example.com or call (973) 342-2697 for more information.
On the second floor of the Newark Public Library last night, three of the four mayoral candidates – Ras Baraka, Shavar Jeffries, and Darrin Sharif – shared their visions for public education in Newark during a candidate forum hosted by the Newark Student Union and NJ Communities United.
The questions and the candidates’ responses were in line with those of the previous mayoral education forum, held at Science Park High School last month. But the students, commanding and irreverent in the face of the candidates and the crowd, proved adept at quashing the types of crowd outbursts that characterized the previous forum, and at keeping the candidates themselves in line.
After opening the forum with a call-and-response chant and a series of sketches about aspects of their experiences as Newark Public School students, they exercised strong governance of the debate early and often.
Shavar Jeffries’ supporters, who showed up en force wearing orange “Team Jeffries” t-shirts over their jackets and sweatshirts, applauded resoundingly when Jeffries wrapped up his response to the first question, where he touted his work suing the state to bring millions of dollars back into the Newark school district. The student moderator immediately reminded the crowd to hold their applause.
Later in the forum, a few crowd members near the back of the room loudly protested as Jeffries aggressively interrogated Baraka’s record as Central High School principal. The student moderator dinged Jeffries for veering off-topic, then directly chastised the crowd for getting out of hand. In contrast to the previous mayoral education forum, they quieted almost immediately.
At one point not long afterwards, the decorum in the crowd threatened to break down again as some of the same voices loudly groaned in response to Jeffries’ comments about violence in the South Ward. A representative from NJ Communities United stopped the debate and firmly chastised the crowd. “The energy that the students brought to this space will not be disrupted,” she said. “The next person to make an outburst will be asked to leave.”
When the forum resumed afterwards, the only sounds that could be heard in the room were Baraka’s voice and a potato chip bag rustling somewhere in the crowd.
For his part, Sharif occasionally played a moderator-like role himself. He twice lightly censured Jeffries for overstuffing his responses with campaign talking points, and took pains to restate the moderator’s questions and attempt to answer them with precision.
On the substance, the candidates again distinguished themselves mostly on the margins.
When asked to respond to school superintendent Cami Anderson “describing Newark Public School students as criminals”, as the questioner put it, in a letter to the parents of Newark Public School students, Jeffries criticized the comment, but also said he hoped Anderson had been taken out of context. Baraka, by contrast, was unequivocal that Anderson meant the comment as it had been received, and questioned why she felt at liberty to make it in the first place.
(In a letter explaining why she decided not to close schools so teachers could attend an education conference this year, Anderson said, “Families lost valuable classroom time and with too many young people idle, crime went up.”)
On a question about local control for Newark Public Schools, Sharif once again argued that creating a cogent agenda for the school system is as important as winning control back. In response, Baraka pushed back on the assumption that Newarkers wouldn’t effectively self-govern the school system.
There was also a reprisal of the debate over Shavar Jeffries’ “genocide” comment, which has been frequently miscast during the election to date. As Jeffries again clarified, he used “genocide” as a metaphor for the effect of low graduation rates for minority students.
But most of these points of differentiation were rehashed from the previous forum. Last night, the helmsmanship of the student moderators made it a little easier to hear those distinctions with a more statesmanlike tone and in a more civil atmosphere.
Saturday night, 2014 Newark mayoral candidate Darrin Sharif came early to the monthly open mic night at Artistan Collective. He spoke informally, one on one, to community members about new construction and new businesses coming to Newark. His emphasis was on inclusion of local workers in construction and full-time employment in these businesses.
Specifically, Sharif talked about the new Whole Foods coming to Halsey Street, the Shop Rite to be constructed a dozen blocks west of there on Springfield Avenue, and new ownership of the New Jersey Devils. In each case, he described efforts to ensure inclusion of local workers and even local artists into the mix.