NEWARK – Luis Quintana radiated an acting mayor vibe in this roomful of Newark insiders crowded into the basement at the Spanish Tavern.
Yesterday, the veteran councilman assumed the oath of office as the new city council president, the replacement for U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10).
Right now, he appears to have the votes to become acting mayor if Cory Booker goes to the U.S. Senate with an Oct. 16 win over Republican Steve Lonegan.
“He’s the right man at the right time,” said former Mayor Sharpe James, who attended the swearing-in and sat in the front row with Booker.
“There was love in the air,” said the former mayor, and there was tonight too, as Quintana presided over a fundraiser for James’s son, John Sharpe James, who’s running for Payne’s vacated at-large council seat.
He’s a sure winner on Nov. 5 in a field otherwise crowded with nobodies.
He and Quintana could not appear any closer without getting stuck to each other.
“I‘m supporting this young man, this young man who served his country,” Quintana said of the Afghan War Army veteran, “because I know Sharpe would do the same for my son.”
The implication there is that young James will back Quintana for acting mayor.
There’s another name floating around, Julien Neals, the city’s business administrator and favored choice of Booker Chief of Staff Mo Butler, who was in attendance tonight at Quintana’s event.
The power shifting in the city means certain rings must be kissed, even if the history has been more hostile than chummy.
There were a lot of bear hugs among old friends, starting with Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) and the former mayor, who once taught school together.
A lot of people with the adjective “former” attached to their titles looked game, even joked, about the prospect of returning to government.
Former Councilwoman Gayle Cheneyfield was in the room, and so was former Councilman Hector Corchado.
“I’m running for council in the central ward,” Cheneyfield told PolitickerNJ.com.
As for Corchado, “I’m at the edge of announcing my run for mayor,” he said.
Former Booker Chief of Staff Pablo Fonseca was in the room, fastened to Quintana.
The two North Warders go way back.
Rahaman Muhammad, president of SEIU 617, was in the room.
The younger James and Quintana both addressed the crowd as a build-up to the former mayor, who did time in the big house on corruption charges after deciding against running for re-election against Booker in 2006 and leaving office.
“I’ve been in city hall and I’ve been in prison – I’ve seen it all,” said James, who devilishly hawked the book he wrote while incarcerated.
“You read it and it will tell you how to stay out of trouble,” he promised.
He vowed to try to not be political but couldn’t help himself where he stood at the front of the room among Sangria-imbibing allies.
“I was going to do this yesterday but I didn’t want to be political – I was going to endorse Cory Booker for the U.S. Senate,” the former mayor said.
Booker was the young Turk who once defined his political purpose as James’s tormentor.
There were claps in the room and James gave a big, exaggerated nod in response.
“He’d be a great U.S. senator for New Jersey,” he said amid a cascade of applause, then added, “What other senator do you know who sits on Oprah’s couch, and then goes on Jimmy Fallon, and then Conan?”
Giggles turned to outright guffaws, but after his remarks, PolitickerNJ.com asked the former mayor to clarify and he confirmed that he supports Booker for U.S. Senate.
James also praised the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) as a “legend,” and a good senator for Newark, who cared about the city, and repeatedly praised Quintana as the best choice for acting mayor.
“A man without a political agenda,” he declared to claps.
Notoriously politically mercurial, Quintana appears to be the North Ward candidate for mayor’s least helpful presence right now.
The city is gearing up for a war between Anibal Ramos, councilman from the North Ward, and Ras Baraka, councilman from the South Ward.
Baraka backed Quintana for the council presidency in an apparent statement of support for the city’s other famous locally elected Latino.
If Ramos embodies an organization politician, who operates within a sphere of carefully cultivated alliances, Quintana is his polar opposite from the same neighborhood: a brand name who may be sitting in Steve Adubato’s headquarters on Monday, and at a golf outing with Dick Codey on Tuesday; or with James for one mayoral epoch and Booker the next.
He mentioned yesterday after his swearing-in that he and Codey have had their differences, and those stem entirely, at least by the reckoning of Quintana’s allies, from the councilman’s unwillingness to appear cemented into any one political camp.
So while people right now in Newark are eager to label him the kingmaker of Ras Baraka in the latter’s quest to be mayor, others are more cautious.
“I know Luis, and I wouldn’t rush to judgment yet on what he’s going to do,” said a source in the room. “This thing is fluid right now.”
The same source acknowledged that Ramos presently suffers from several perceived weakened dynamics in the North Ward, including a less than engaged Adubato – long regarded as the most keenly hands-on political mind in the city – and the compromised political position of powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Adubato’s protege who endorsed Republican Gov. Chris Chris Christie.
Quintana was irritated when DiVincenzo did not show up to his swearing-in on Monday, but Ramos allies worry about the executive’s endorsement of Christie splashing on Ramos in next year’s election in this heavily Democratic city.
Here the only splashing going on flowed out of fluted pitchers.
“Come on in!” James beckoned to Baraka’s younger brother, Amiri.
Baraka the candidate was on his way to the Spanish Tavern.
But John Sharpe James also works for DiVincenzo. There’s a bond there. Loyalty.
So while he and Baraka have run together before – 2010 comes to mind – he’s not an easy read in city politics, either.
Tonight, Quintana appeared comfortably ensconced in the camp of Sharpe James, whose South Ward-based City Elders back Baraka for Mayor.
But that was just tonight.