Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg / Getty Images
Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In the battle for Newark, fears of becoming the next Detroit

Two visions of a city’s turnaround clash in a heated election

NEWARK, N.J. — The latest challenge to the municipal authorities in New Jersey’s largest city came in March, in the form of an ominous letter from a state official.

“Newark is experiencing an extraordinary level of fiscal distress,” Local Government Services Director Tom Neff wrote to Newark Mayor Luis Quintana, who was appointed last year to complete the term of former Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator.

Later that month Neff made the threat clear. “We may ask our Attorney General’s Office to ask a judge to place Newark under supervision,” he told the state Local Finance Board.

State takeover of a troubled city is a relatively rare step. But events unfolding in Detroit, where an emergency manager appointed by Michigan controls operations and is taking the city through bankruptcy, have raised the profile — and perhaps the political appeal — of such a measure. While fear of becoming another Detroit has become commonplace in urban political rhetoric, Newark loosely shares enough traits with the Michigan metropolis — the spiral of disinvestment, middle-class flight, violence, poverty, a majority African-American population under strain — for the possibility to carry weight. Views differ, however, on just what it means to become another Detroit, let alone how to prevent it.

In Newark the specter of a state takeover has added tension to an already tough mayoral race, which pits Shavar Jeffries, a law professor and former prosecutor, against Ras Baraka, an activist, a city councilman and a former high school principal. The contest is in its final days, with the election on May 13. Both men are Democrats, but they offer sharply contrasting approaches to city finances and economic development.

The new mayor will inherit a $40 million deficit and a perennially slow budget process, along with personnel appointments by Quintana that aroused state ire. He will also have to clean up a major scandal involving the Newark Watershed, the agency in charge of the water and sewer systems, whose director, a Booker ally, diverted millions of dollars in contracts to friends and payouts to herself, according to an inquiry. The agency has since been dissolved.

These concerns come on top of Newark’s chronic problems, which a series of big-ticket downtown developments and state-subsidized corporate relocations have not managed to blunt. Nearly one-third of its population and more than 43 percent of its children live below the poverty line. Its high school graduation rate is 68 percent. There were 111 murders there in 2013 — the most since 1990 and a shocking number in a city of 280,000 people.

As things stand, Newark has less than full control of its affairs. The state has run the schools since 1995; current Superintendent Cami Anderson, an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, has alienated even supporters of her reform plans.

In addition, Newark gave the state power to approve hires in exchange for budget aid in 2011 and 2012; that agreement expired on Dec. 31. And talks are underway with the Department of Justice to submit Newark’s police to federal monitoring.

Although its scope could vary, a state takeover of the city’s budget would mean a more thorough loss of local control. There is precedent: New Jersey took over operations in Camden, another major impoverished city, from 2002 to 2009. But the cautionary tale of Detroit carries greater impact, and Jeffries, for one, raises it often in his stump speech.

Once you have safety, then you can put together deals that are multi-use, that have the residential and commercial component. But the investment community has to have confidence in you.

Shavar Jeffries

Newark mayoral candidate

Mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries at his campaign headquarters in Newark, April 26, 2014.
Julio Cortez / AP

On a recent Saturday morning, the tall, swift-talking Jeffries, 39, delivered his pitch before some three dozen volunteers in a storefront campaign office, revving them up as they prepared to knock on doors in Newark’s West Ward.

“This is an incredibly important election for the city of Newark,” he said. “We can go in a direction that will bring about safer streets and neighborhoods, more opportunities to get our kids to and through college.” He listed positive outcomes, then switched tack.

“Or we can fall back, and we’re going to be on the path to Detroit. We’ll have a situation where we’re divided based on race, based on class, based on geography. We could have a situation which will scare away the partnerships with the investment and development community which we need to grow our city.”

As his team fanned out into the neighborhood, Jeffries sketched out a vision centered on eliminating waste and cleaning up the city’s business dealings.

“We’ve got to have responsible leadership,” he said. “We can’t have leadership based on the old politics of cronyism and hooking up political friends. That’s exactly how we’ll transact the city into financial ruin.”

Graft, he said, caused the school takeover and reappeared with the Watershed scandal. “And if that’s true in the municipal government, then we can be sure the state will take that over as well.”

Jeffries has not, however, publicly released an economic plan. The issues section of his website discusses only crime and education, and his campaign message skews toward public safety. Playing up his record as a former state assistant attorney general, he advocates treatment instead of incarceration for addicts but promises “relentless” prosecution of violence, gangs, trafficking and illegal guns.

“Safety is the foundation of everything,” he said. “Once you have safety, then you can put together deals that are multi-use, that have the residential and commercial component. But the investment community has to have confidence in you.”

We can balance our budget. If the state actually gave us enabling legislation to collect our own revenue in this town, then we wouldn’t be here at all.

Ras Baraka

Newark mayoral candidate

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.”

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