NEWARK – When you ask South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka why he wants to be the next mayor of Newark, his answer begins in the past.
“I was born for this, man,” said Baraka, 44, momentarily resting from the campaign trail days away from the May 13 municipal election, when he will face off against rival Shavar Jeffries. “This day, this space, this time and this condition are exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Leadership is not born out of ambition. It’s born out of time and condition.”
Baraka grew up in a house at 808 South 10th Street that was a neighborhood focal point for basketball and football games he and his siblings would play with local kids. It was also where his father, famed poet and activist Amiri Baraka, raised him together with his mother, Amina, exposing him to riches Baraka says were more literary than literal.
“People always wanted to come talk to my dad, people knew him everywhere, and he would have these parties for his friends,” Baraka remembered about his father, who died in January. “But it’s ridiculous to say that I grew up in a privileged household. Maya Angelou’s money wasn’t our money.”
There are rumors around Newark that, when Baraka was growing up, he ran with a rough crowd, including gang members.
“I never was a gangster. When you’re 16 years old, you’re not thinking that some person is going to ruin your reputation when you’re 50. Some of these people I knew from growing up in Newark, and some of them I met when I was an adult, trying to help them out of situations they were in,” Baraka said, referencing his work to facilitate a gang cease-fire in 2004. “I went to University High School and Howard University. Some of my friends are doctors and lawyers. I’ve also got friends that are doing 20 years in prison. That’s the dichotomy of living in Newark.”
Growing up in an activist household might have planted the seeds for Baraka’s political career, but it wasn’t until he got to Howard that his civic consciousness bloomed.
“When I got to college, I became more politically aware. I started going to meetings and to protests, and all of the stuff that I learned growing up began to click,” Baraka said. “I said to myself this is where I’m supposed to be, doing this kind of stuff. I got hooked on it. I realized you can transform people’s lives. But I also realized that to do that you can’t be a passive participant. You have to be an active participant. I couldn’t just show up to meetings that other people were having.”
The estimated $93 million municipal budget deficit and the potential state takeover of the city’s finances could make outside observers question why anyone would want to be Newark’s mayor.
But Baraka said he was mentally prepared to handle the potential blow.
“We have to put together strategies for a quick exit for the state. We need short-term plans to help us get the budget under control, but I think our issues long-term are worse,” Baraka said. “This is why we talk so heavily about economic development and growing the city, because ultimately that’s the only way that we turn Newark around. And we have to ask the state to be a part of our strategy to get out of the condition that we’re in.”
Many outside observers look at Newark and still see the civil disturbances of 1967 etched on the city’s face, blighting its reputation. A riot to some, a rebellion to others, the events of that fateful year still shape the city’s identity.
Baraka’s father was one of the prime actors in the city’s historical memory of 1967. Now poised perhaps to be the lead actor on Newark’s political stage, Baraka tried to put Newark’s past in perspective relative to its present and future.
“[Former Newark mayor and U.S. Senator] Cory Booker didn’t get us past 1967 yet, because we’re still suffering from the conditions that existed in the rebellion,” Baraka said. “We haven’t reached the level of neighborhood development that we need yet. I think [former Newark mayors] Ken Gibson and Sharpe James had the right idea in terms of re-branding the city. It just never developed. Cory Booker became Newark’s identity. We are now post-Cory Booker. This is now an opportunity for Newark to regain its identity.”
Baraka elaborated on where he believes the Newark mayoral race fits in the panorama of state and national politics.
“This is a national struggle for the resurgence and the revitalization of the cities in America. I believe wholeheartedly that the country can’t more forward until the urban centers move forward,” Baraka said. “We represent workers, community folks,who are trying to develop their neighborhoods and find jobs. The other side represents those who want to seize the public sector and public resources. You’ve got Wall Street hedge fund guys and power brokers from South Jersey investing in this campaign. They don’t represent the people of this city. They don’t even represent working people. To me, that speaks volumes.”
“We need to make Newark an example of what can be done. How to attack poverty without throwing poor people out. How to develop neighborhoods but keep small businesses that have been in Newark for 40, 50 years alive,” Baraka added. “No matter who the next mayor is, the city is going to be developed. It’s coming. We’re the next stop on the train.”
When he is not making stops on the campaign trail, Baraka tries to spend time with his three daughters – Amandla, 21, Assata, 11, and Raisa, 12.
“The time when we would go the museum or go to get a manicure or go to the movies – all that has been interrupted,” Baraka said. “I hope that I can manage more time with them soon.”
Known for his connections to the hip hop community, Baraka also likes jazz and other types of music. Lately, he has been listening to Nina Simone’s song “Sunday in Savannah” as he rides around Newark campaigning hard in the short time left before Election Day.
In the final days of the Newark mayoral race, Baraka noted that, while he was focused on the campaign, some of his favorite films were playing in his head.
“I have two favorite movies – The Godfather and On the Waterfront,” Baraka said. “The Godfather is about family, loyalty and the struggle for power. I could quote the whole dialogue. In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s character, I just think of his courage – to go against what the powers that be were doing. He inspired other people to have the strength to do stuff that they wanted to do anyway. He got beat up, and he still survived. He was nobody who became somebody because of his convictions. I could watch that movie over and over and over again.”