Having chosen his team, Booker faces big first term test tomorrow

by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

It’s the Paynes in the South Ward, the Adubatos in the North, two old families beating each other up with politics, while a young mayor in the middle hopes to assert his own will upon this city but in the meantime must pick a side.

No one gets out of Newark without picking a side.

Right now, the Paynes control that lifeline to the federal government in the person of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, and hold sway in the Statehouse with older brother Assemblyman William Payne and his allies.

Founder of the North Ward Cultural and Educational Center, Adubato controls the city’s vital link to the county with Joseph DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo grew up in the North Ward, and was a star quarterback turned recreation supervisor for Adubato before becoming Essex County Executive. In addition to his own North Ward, Adubato controls the largely Portugese and Hispanic East Ward.

Mayor Cory Booker has organization of his own in the mostly African-American Central Ward, where he was a community activist before running for city council. And he also has a toehold in the South. But as usual Booker’s up against old Newark, and much of that African-American territory to southward is organized by the Paynes, and Ras Baraka, former councilman and son of the poet Amiri Baraka.

Lacking the reach of the Adubatos and the Paynes, and reeling on the back-end of first-year-in-office blues, Booker decided to jump in a foxhole with Adubato. Devising battle plans for tomorrow’s Legislative races, the old boss and boy mayor in the 29th district together drew up a roster of 30-something native Newarkers. The deal gives Adubato the advantage of having a person directly from the heart of his organization, M. Teresa Ruiz, as the State Senate candidate. Ruiz works as DiVincenzo’s chief-of-staff.

The disgruntled Paynes are fighting back, in part seizing on the district 29 candidacy of Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, who after years of working within Adubato’s machine now faces the challenge of Ruiz’s running mates, Albert Coutinho (an ally of the Adubato family) and L. Grace Spencer.

A former assistant corporation counsel and special prosecutor for the city, Spencer is Booker’s contribution to the ticket, and one of his most loyal grassroots allies from the South Ward, a block president and community activist who cross-examined Booker before backing him in his earliest political wars here.

Both Donald and William Payne endorsed Caraballo in his bid for re-election. Dumfounded by Booker’s unwillingness to recognize his seniority in the Legislature, Assemblyman Payne is also running as an independent in the general election against Ruiz.

“Adubato is orchestrating this whole thing with Cory Booker, who is really a political neophyte,” says Payne. “Booker is getting in bed with a well-known political boss in New Jersey, and what motivates the mayor is beyond me. He seems to be desirous of going further in politics.”



Respect

Adubato admits he was weak in the long Mayor Sharpe James years, weaker than he should have been, and on an ordinary man’s best day that might be sufficiently strong. But at 74 now and with James gone, Adubato enjoys close ties to Gov. Jon Corzine, for whom he has the highest respect.

The knock on Caraballo is he seldom campaigned. A law professor and policy nerd who enjoys golf, he never went belly down in the neighborhoods and fostered his own organization to give him the leverage he’d need if he ever wanted to buck Adubato and DiVincenzo and stand on his own.

Lack of political acumenmight nothave been a problem -at least in this election cycle -if Caraballo had refrained from upsetting the governor last year when he refused to support Corzine’s call for an increase in the sales tax. When the subsequent showdown between boss and Assemblyman came, Caraballo found himself suddenly alone on the outskirts of the fortress.

He has other money sources beyond Newark, but he now mostly hungers for people power. For Adubato that translates into political organization built over years. Payne calls it something else.

“People are intimidated,” says the Assemblyman. “People are afraid to speak up. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s very important in a democracy that you not punish people who have contributed in a positive way.”

Payne and Caraballo aren’t the only ones looking to stop Adubato.

One man from the North Ward who did manage to abandon El Padrino’s ranks long enough to marshal his own support, first in the north and then throughout the city, At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, a Puerto Rican like Caraballo, says he doesn’t like seeing his countryman getting kicked around.

Last week he announced his intention to challenge Ruiz for the State Senate seat in the general election, and redoubled his efforts in support of Caraballo’s candidacy.

“This is Councilman Luis Quintana,” says his voice on a tape recorded message broadcast by megaphone atop a car throughout district 29. “Re-elect Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo!”

The opposition says Payne bought him off. Quintana denies it.

“I’m putting it right on the line for him,” Quintana says of Caraballo. “I’m doing this out of my heart, because I don’t like injustice. We’re tired of Adubato.”

Adubato had a chance to back Quintana as a Senate candidate, and wouldn’t do it. Quintana objects strongly to the boss’s choice of Ruiz, whom he says has no elected experience, and likens to a Frankenstein creation straight from Adubato’s laboratory.

Sitting in a North Ward diner as the battle played out all over the city, the old Italian-American boss delights in a discussion about Ruiz, Coutinho and Spencer, and the unique ability they have as a team to break through the walls of racism that have long divided Newark.

A self-described political radical who has little patience for liberals and finds conservatives unbearable, Adubato detests the idea that an American citizen of any race would look at the primary documents of the country and not recognize their power.

But every day blacks and whites reject those documents and the invitation of politics, each stigmatizing the other with race.

The philosophical roots of the country are Anglo Saxon, like it or not, says Adubato, the Magna Carta of 1215, wasn’t signed in the South of Italy. The sooner the country’s angry ethnic strands recognize that contribution the sooner they’ll become truly radicalized. For the third generation Newarker, his city is the central front in the war on complacency.

But if he extols the virtues of democracy on the one hand, the political boss and onetime Jesuit-in-training runs his organization like an Old World Catholic mission, replete with the kind of top-down structure and respect just shy of ring-kissing that sent Protestants scrambling away from Europe in search of America in the first place. Whatever the apparent contradictions of his politics, anyone connected to Essex, political enemies and allies like – Caraballo and Quintana included – simply bow their heads in awe of what he has done with his North Ward Educational and Cultural Center, which channels money from corporations, private donors and public grants into five neighborhood learning institutions where poor women, children and seniors receive free services.

“The idea is to take them off the tax rolls and turn them into taxpayers,” says the boss, who is especially proud of the high test performance of his schools’ children. The key to performance, he says, is leadership.

In exchange for the free services, the adults here have to be good citizens – and that means getting out the vote for Adubato’s candidates.



District 29

The last big weekend primary event for the Booker-Adubato alliance takes place at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville. Adubato sits on-stage with his candidates: the Latina from the North Ward, Portugese from the East and African-American from the South, while supporters help themselves to a sumptuous spread.

“You’re looking at a team that’s going to make history,” DiVincenzo says of Ruiz-Coutinho-Spencer. “Fred doesn’t have the organization that we have.”

“What do you think of all this?” Adubato asks a bystander after the ceremony, sweeping his hand across the enormous room packed with pumped up campaign workers and supporters.

When they leave this place, the boss’s people will be out there in Newark again, 500 people spread across the streets of the North Ward alone, under billboards towering over Bloomfield Avenue, adorned with Ruiz’s face.

On Broadway, meanwhile, Caraballo prepares for a ride around the city in a Puerto Rican caravan. Outside of the candidate’s campaign headquarters, it’s a ragtag platoon of Puerto Ricans and Black Moslems in striped suits and Borsalinos, disaffected Adubatoistas and neighborhood friendlies drinking pineapple juice and gearing up for Reggaeton bands and a pig roast later and looking for a last stand out there together, a way to go down fighting, or maybe even win.

In the center stands a pensive-looking Caraballo, the outcast from the other organization, trying to build his own base days before the election.

Raised in the Bronx by a mother who was a seamstress, Caraballo, who like his one-time benefactoronce hoped to be a priest,is asked if Adubato is a dreamer or a cynic.

“He’s a dreamer,” Caraballo says, “who believes in all means necessary to accomplish his goals. And there are those of us who believe when you use all means necessary, you actually tarnish the dream.”

He’s waiting for the rig that they will hook up to Quintana’s float, and it’s getting late.

“He deserves it,” Octavio Padilla, Caraballo’s chief of staff, says of his boss’s re-election bid. “He’s a very deserving individual. There are no bad things that can be said about him. If we are going down, we are going down with a fight.”

There’s the campaign manager, Charles Williams, in the middle of the action, directing, ordering. He’s respected in the business, and has brought in the forces of Payne and Baraka firmly in support of Caraballo, and signed Moslem representatives of Mosque #25 aboard.

“These are relationships you can’t develop,” says Williams. “These are my Moslem brothers and sisters.”

Decked with campaign posters of Caraballo, under the Puerto Rican flag, the caravan pulls out, accompanied by motorcycles with “Caraballo” signs on the glass shields.

“Let’s go,” cries Williams. “Let’s go.”

Standing next to Quintana, waving to people on the sidewalks, the Assemblyman travels through Newark. He looks overjoyed. He appears at this moment to be the happiest man in the city as he travels down Ferry Street in the Ironbound amid the blaring horns and hoopla and the crowds wave back. He travels up into the North Ward later, turns from Mount Prospect onto Bloomfield Avenue, cruises under the movie-screen-sized pictures of Ruiz’s face, and blasts up Clifton Street, past the home of Steve Adubato.

The candidates on the other ticket by now are at their respective fronts, moving in their disciplined spheres of political influence: Ruiz is in the North, Coutinho in the East; and in the South Ward, later that evening, Spencer speaks to a crowd at Malcolm X-Shabazz High School.

The Booker nay-sayers who have slogged in the trenches of Newark their whole lives only to look up to see a suburban Rhodes Scholar at the head of them, can’t argue with Spencer. She’s been in Newark politics at least since she was 4, when an African-American newspaper ran a photograph of her picking up trash in Westside Park with the caption: “Little Gracie Spencer doing her part to keep America beautiful.” Through the years, she supported the Paynes, and Mayor Sharpe James.

She was going to be a cop. That plan changed when she got into law school. She received her degree and kept up her activism, be it in political campaigns, council meeting public comment periods or neighborhood events.

“I have great support in the South Ward,” she says. “I have the support of former council people, ministers, district leaders, people I grew up with. All of the people in the South Ward know who I am, and what I’m about. I don’t cut corners.”

The charge from the Caraballo-Payne camp that the Adubato-DiVincenzo-Booker team would find itself subservient to the boss, Spencer says, “People who think that don’t know me. The people who know me know that I’m one of them, and that I’m watching out for them. If they’re not happy with what I do, then they can exercise their right to vote.”



The radicalization of Grace Spencer occurred in the summer of 1987, when she was playing with friends and they went around a corner and saw a boy from the neighborhood, a friend of theirs, who had been shot and was lying dead in the street.

“I’ve watched this city go from bad to worse and now from worse to bad,” says Spencer. “What doesn’t change are hope and faith: hope that things are going to get better, and faith that people will demand more from politics. I believe in the people. I believe in the good ones, and I believe there’s good in the bad ones.”

District 28

If the 29th district presents what appears to be a final act of defiance from Caraballo, in the 28th district, Booker must smother a challenge from his old nemesis, Sen. Ronald Rice, who also has the hearty endorsement of the Payne family.

“There a lot of reasons to endorse Ronald Rice,” says Assemblyman Payne. “He has seniority. He has demonstrated a strong voice for his district. It’s unnatural for someone to be removed who’s making contributions to this city the way he is.”

Payne argues the older team was instrumental in securing Abbott District school funds for Irvington. Booker’s people press for radical educational reform and changes in the delivery of state funds to local districts.

The conventional wisdom is Booker’s candidate, Essex County Freeholder (and Irvington city Councilman) Bilal Beasley won’t defeat Rice, a relentless campaigner. Some insiders say Beasely will do well in Irvington – where the district has long gone without hometown representation in the upper house – but that as a black Moslem he will fail to clinch white voters in Belleville and Bloomfield. Adubato’s people laugh off that critique, and say their formidable machine is prepared to deliver the northern portions of district 28 to Beasley to supplement what he wins in Irvington, no problem.

“Beasley will win,” insists DiVincenzo, who concedes that race will be closer than the district 29 Assembly race.

Insiders say Rice will also require the stepped up pace of his running mates, Assemblyman Craig Stanley and Assemblywoman Oadline Truitt — who historically have not exactly been barnburners on the campaign trail.

In any case, Beasley won’t be able to stare down Rice in the West Ward, which contains the bulk of the voting districts, and in the south, where Rice will enjoy the backing of Payne’s people. Then there’s the presence of Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., a Booker ally who is backing his father this time after supporting Booker for mayor last year instead of the elder Rice.

Rice, Jr., says he remains loyal to both men.

Having won that battle once with Rice, Booker hopes tomorrow to finish it, but out there in the zone the battles for respect don’t end, though the placement of forces in strategic positions creates opportunities for future victories, and clears the field briefly for more battles.

Having chosen his team, Booker faces big first term test tomorrow