Quintana the street fighter says he’s ready to graduate

There’s a school in the schoolhouse and a school in the street, and though the lessons of one may contradict those of the other, these institutions possess a common cause and effect: in order to graduate, a student must prove to his teacher that he has mastered the material.

The eighth grade class of the Robert Treat Academy confirmed their book knowledge when last Friday evening they received their diplomas, a large number of which contained the words “with honors.”


But on the streets, in the general election academy of door pounding and vote grabbing, graduation day arrives later, in a colder season, and some never get there – though Nov. 6th comes and goes.

These lessons go back many years in Newark, and for years there have been many students and one master.

The Adubato brothers

When Senator John Caufield died in office in 1986, North Ward power broker Steve Adubato talked to Mayor Sharpe James. Adubato wanted his brother to be the senator in the 28th district. But James wanted a young, black councilman and Sharpe loyalist named Ron Rice. The two men went back and forth, neither one yielding.

Then James said to Adubato, “What’s more important, a disenfranchised people or the legacy of the Adubato family?”

Adubato had to admit James had a point.

On the day Assemblyman Mike Adubato drove to Irvington to learn whether or not the Democratic Party would back him to be senator in a special election, he was accompanied by a 26-year old Puerto Rican native named Luis Quintana.

“Do you think I’m going to be the next senator, Luis?”

“I don’t know, Mike,” Quintana told him.

They went to a Polish eatery and when the committee people from the North Ward voted to back Ron Rice for senate, Mike Adubato and his supporters saw the shadow of the ax coming down. Adubato needed North Ward support at the very least to contend in the rest of the district. Without it, he could just as well go home. The vote by acclimation was for Rice.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Steve Adubato of his decision to support Rice as the demographics shifted from Italian to African-American voters. “Sharpe James was right.”

Mike Adubato served in the Assembly until 1991. He died of a heart attack in 1993.

The Payne brothers

A few months ago, it became evident that the embattled James would not pursue re-election for his own senate seat, which he assumed in 1999. What Steve Adubato also began to realize – with some agitation – was that Assemblyman William Payne wouldn’t budge from his position that he should be Payne’s successor. Nothing personal, but Adubato didn’t want the aging African-American to be the next senator. He looked at the numbers and saw the Latino vote and specifically the female vote on the rise in the 29th district, and came to the conclusion that another vital shift had occurred.

When Payne wouldn’t back down and support budding politico M. Teresa Ruiz instead of himself, Adubato spoke with U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the assemblyman’s younger brother.

“Donald, please tell your brother what I had to tell my brother,” the boss recalled of his attempts to convince Payne. “He looked at me confused. He couldn’t do it.”

Rather than prevail on his own blood to withdraw, the Congressman not only trumpeted William Payne as the natural choice for senator, but threw his support in the primary behind outcast Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, formerly of the Adubato camp. Then U.S. Rep. Payne put the exclamation point on his loyalty with a fund-raiser last month where his older brother planted a kiss on his cheek.

Rejoicing in the honor showed him by his younger brother as he soldiers toward November 4th, William Payne said he doesn’t sympathize with Adubato.

“Because he did that to his brother doesn’t make it right,” the Assemblyman said of the deal the boss made with James over 20 years ago. “He betrayed his brother. My brother wouldn’t do that to me. Steve threw his brother under the bus. His brother was a fine assemblyman who had strong yearnings to be the senator. Wicked is wicked, and Steve Adubato’s political machinations are pure Machiavelli.”

Graduation

Whatever they say about Adubato — he’s egomaniacal, he’s calculating, he’s wicked — to a man even his toughest, reddest-faced critics bow before the work he’s done as founder and executive director of the North Ward Cultural and Education Center. Billed as five institutions with one mission, the center blends private and public funding, oversees the prep-school level education of primary school students, and bolsters Adubato’s gravitas in the midst of a crowd of angry voices with that single, unavoidable argument-ender: results. According to the center, “total scholarship awards earned by the Class of 2007 (at Robert Treat) were in excess of $4 million.

On Friday, the proud, inner city graduates from Adubato’s charter school turned their tassels to the right and marched out of the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts under a hail of cheers, but not before presenting Adubato with a bench where the boss is expected to sit in the leafy realm of the inner city academia he founded, and impart his particular brand of wisdom: equal parts Socrates, Caesar and Newark.

“What, are they retiring me?” a delighted Adubato asked his wife, Fran, as he fielded another round of applause.

In an overjoyed audience, the boss’s voice could be heard above most when the roars reached a crescendo of appreciation for the 43 graduates, and then he was off to Luigi’s on Bloomfield Avenue for more revelry.

But even as North Ward graduation parties were breaking out over the weekend, there was a festive undercurrent of a decidedly different kind at North 6th Avenue and Orange Street on Sunday, where that one-time young supporter of Assemblyman Mike Adubato’s, now a 47-year old veteran councilman, a street fighter with a strong independent streak, was making battle preparations at a backyard barbecue.

Stacked on a table were freshly printed bumper stickers and cards featuring a name and face familiar to North Ward voters.

“We’re building a momentum machine,” said Quintana, who was elected to the City Council in 2002 and 2006 and mounted an unsuccessful challenger to Sharpe James for the Senate in 2003, who filed as an independent last month and led a desperate bullhorn charge through the streets of Newark for Caraballo in the waning days of the Assemblyman’s doomed campaign against Adubato.

“I don’t have jobs to give,” said Quintana of his 2007 Senate bid. “The only thing I have to give is better government.”

“He’s a stalking horse,” said Adubato, who believes Quintana’s in the race solely to drain North Ward votes away from Ruiz, thereby giving a plurality to Payne, whose home base is the South Ward.

Quintana denied it.

“I told William (Payne) I was running, and he told me, ‘Good luck,’” said Quintana, who backs up his contention of a serious race to win with the presence in his camp of hard-boiled South Ward operators.

“I have nothing against William Payne,” explained South Ward organizer Eddie Brown. “The problem is he’s up there in age, and Newark is in a crisis right now. Even though he’s been out there a long time, I can’t see him making a change. I want to stand behind a leader.”

Two former Newark City Councilmembers, Gayle Cheneyfield-Jenkins and Ras Baraka, are also throwing their support behind Quintana.

“Yes, I am. I sure is, my brother,” said Baraka. “It’s time. Blacks and Latinos need to come together. Teresa Ruiz has no experience, no record. I don’t have anything against Teresa, but you might as well put Steve or Joe D. (County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo) in the Senate.”

That’s how Quintana sizes up the problem. He sees the 33-year old Ruiz, who’s never held elected office, as – his words – an Adubato puppet.

“When the community wants a judge, who’s going to make that decision, Steve or her?” said Quintana.

Complaints about Adubato from some of the old time Newark crowd include the memory of a story from the long defunct Newark Evening News, which in 1970 stated on the occasion of the election of Mayor Ken Gibson that there were two mayors in the city: Gibson and Adubato. The older Newarkers say Big Steve never forgot that. The younger Newarkers are eager to distance themselves from what they see as last gasp bossism.

“Kissing the ring is democracy?” said Alicia Munoz. “That’s what you call teamwork?”

Adubato is adamant.

“I don’t control people,” he said. “I influence people. There’s a difference. I never told Wilfredo Caraballo how to vote. It was on one occasion, where his vote against the sales tax actually would have hurt us. That’s when I had to say something.”

But Quintana, who kicked off his own candidacy by jumping in a foxhole with his countryman in a show of solidarity just before the Adubato machine crushed Caraballo’s primary uprising, said he doesn’t appreciate Adubato’s show of disrespect.

“I think Steve’s a bully who hides behind the shield of the Democratic Party,” said the 13-year councilman, which he says justifies his own filing as an independent, a rationale shared by Payne.

What Quintana’s pursuing in the end is more than respect.

‘The Prince’

Twenty-one years after Adubato struck the deal with James that helped put him in office, Sen. Ronald Rice stood up at the Payne fund-raiser last week, the old irrepressible cowboy councilman rejuvenated by his primary night victory last month, and threw down the gauntlet.

“I don’t want to cut funds for Adubato’s institutions,” the West Warder said deviously, “but if he’s going to use those institutions to play politics, I may have to do that.”

A onetime employee at the North Ward Center, onetime district leader in the North Ward, and lifelong pupil of the Adubato art of politics, Quintana said he would never do that if elected to the state Senate.

“I would not threaten those institutions, because they are serving my people,” said Quintana. “I want to be very clear. I would never threaten Steve’s institutions.”

Quintana was a beneficiary of the old master’s, a participant in Adubato’s army, a soldier for years doing the king’s bidding until he stepped out on own with enough foundation underneath him to stay there. His mother was a seamstress, same as Wilfredo Caraballo’s mother, and the same as Sen. Robert Menendez’s mother. He doesn’t have a law degree like Caraballo and Menendez. He has the contacts he made in Newark and the grassroots support he built as a local elected official, the glory of a sense of place – and the pain.

“I arrived here in 1967 on the day of the Newark riots,” said the state Senate candidate. “We came in on Flight 52 from San Juan. My mother had been a battered woman. The only thing she understood was when someone talked to her with his fist, do you understand? In 1965 she arrived here and worked as a seamstress for two years until I came – and I’ve been here ever since. This is the soil where I want to be buried. This is my town.”

He feels he’s earned it Newark-style – the right to challenge the boss, and the right to represent the whole district – Black, Latino and everything else – and to do it with honor.

“In the martial arts movies, the student always has to go out and face the old master,” said Quintana. “That’s what this is. I’ve read ‘The Prince,’which you will find in Steve’s office; and I understand Steve’s methods of divide and conquer, and I have also read ‘The Art of War,’ and I will not back down.”

Last Friday night, Caraballo, lame duck in the Assembly, walked in the midst of a happy crowd out of the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts. The lowkey, self-professed policy guy who never thrilled to the door-to-door drudgery of politics and who ended up on the outs with Adubato after the Assemblyman bucked the governor, Caraballo beamed beside his son, Marcus, newly graduated from the Robert Treat Academy, who clutched a diploma earned “with honors.”

Where one school ends another begins. The master straddles both worlds and builds.

For his part, Quintana’s school has always been the street, Bloomfield Avenue in particular, and though it comes late, he believes he’ll be ready on his own version of graduation day.

Quintana the street fighter says he’s ready to graduate