Mayoral candidate Ras Baraka before a prayer service on the steps of Newark City Hall, April 26, 2014.Julio Cortez / AP
In their debates, which have been testy affairs, Jeffries has accused Baraka — a community organizer who first ran for mayor at age 24 and was a thorn in Booker’s side — of “marching against Wall Street, against outsiders, even against white people.” Jeffries has belittled his opponent’s record in the South Ward, which Baraka has represented since 2010 and where both candidates live.
Unlike Jeffries, Baraka has released an economic plan, which promises a “serious, sustained and coordinated effort to end this cycle of poverty and despair.” It envisions neighborhood corridors, partnerships with the city’s colleges — including a large Rutgers campus and the New Jersey Institute of Technology — and small-business promotion. He also promises to appoint a deputy mayor for full employment, likely a national first.
Interviewed at his South Ward headquarters, Baraka, 44, a son of the late writer Amiri Baraka, said that Newark could make savings “here and there” but that his fiscal emphasis would be revenue. He reeled off ideas — water drainage fees for properties with nonpermeable surfaces, a storage tax for the discarded shipping containers that blight areas near the port and more wine and beer licenses, among others.
He also suggested a municipal sales tax option: a surcharge on targeted goods and services to collect revenue from commuters. An estimated 100,000 people commute to Newark each day, many to universities and county offices excluded from the city’s property tax base. Such measures would require state approval, however.
“We can balance our budget,” Baraka said. “If the state actually gave us enabling legislation to collect our own revenue in this town, then we wouldn’t be here at all.”
How much a Newark mayor can do is in question, given the city’s position as just one — albeit the largest — of the many municipalities in New Jersey, which is in turn part of the tristate economic area. Newark’s two most visible assets, the port and airport, fall under the notoriously opaque Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“The biggest thing the mayor can do is be a cheerleader for the city,” said Jonathan Wharton, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology who wrote a book on Newark in the Booker years. “The city needs to find ways of getting past its negative imagery.”
By general agreement, this was Booker’s skill — and it brought major investment, albeit lubricated by generous incentives. Prudential and Panasonic built new headquarters. Newarker and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal recently broke ground on a 23-story apartment building. A $410 million project to revive the once thriving downtown intersection of Market and Broad streets secured $52.5 million in tax breaks.
“The plus is that the train has left the station: Downtown development is happening,” Baraka said. But he argued that the mayor should do much more. If elected, he said, he would work with neighboring towns, as well as Jersey City, which is nearly as large as Newark, on joint procurement and regional development strategies. “Mutual growth is what we should be talking about, not just city growth.”
Whether Baraka’s expansive approach or Jeffries’ safety-first agenda gets put to the test will depend on an election that has heated up as it nears. Observers consider Baraka the front-runner, but Jeffries has the fund-raising edge. There have been no independent polls: A survey published in early April by a pro-Baraka group showed him with a commanding lead, but a poll published this week by a pro-Jeffries PAC has him narrowing the gap. The vandalizing of Baraka’s campaign bus was traced to Jeffries supporters; a break-in at Jeffries’ campaign manager’s office remains unexplained.
The complexities of New Jersey politics are in play. Noted power brokers Joe DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, and George Norcross, from South Jersey, have aligned with Jeffries via intermediaries; Steven Fulop, the ambitious mayor of Jersey City, has endorsed Baraka, who has more union endorsements.
Newark’s ethnic politics — the city is 52 percent black, down from more than 58 percent in 1990 — matters too. Jeffries is considered strong in the largely Hispanic North Ward and in the East Ward, which is Hispanic, Portuguese and Brazilian, but Baraka has picked off key supporters in each.
Baraka, whose campaign mantra is “When I become mayor, we become mayor,” said he agrees with the growing view that a new progressive movement is taking shape in cities. Against the cautionary tale of Detroit, he offered the counterexample of Pittsburgh, whose revival around education and biotech, he said, provides lessons for Newark.
He downplayed the takeover threat. “It’s bluster,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this stuff is by design.”
Whoever wins the mayor’s office will do so in a low-turnout election. Only 26 percent of registered Newark voters took part in the 2010 election, illustrating the disengagement that prevails in many cities — a built-in limit to any new movement unless it can restore participation.
“We don’t have a lot of people voting. We have to change that at the grass-roots level,” said Richard Cammarieri, a longtime Newark community development activist. “People are angry about things but turning that anger into apathy rather than action. That’s the kind of thing we need to work on and then hold the people that we elect accountable.”