Newark and the political arena were a lot different when 27-year-old Ralph Caputo was first elected to the State Assembly in 1967.
The city had just seen its infamous race riots the summer before the election, and Caputo, a Republican from the then Italian-American North Ward, was elected to serve in district 11-C — made up predominantly of working class whites.
Now, at age 66, Caputo will again be an Assemblyman – this time as a Democrat – returning to Trenton after a 36 year hiatus.
After four reapportionments and huge demographic shifts, his district — now the 28th — bears little resemblance to the one he represented for two terms during the late 1960s and early 70s. Today, it includes a small portion of Newark’s north ward, most of its west ward and the rim towns of Irvington, Belleville and Bloomfield. White flight has given way to a district where blacks and Hispanics make up the overwhelming majority, and the power base has shifted accordingly.
The Statehouse has changed too.
“There were no fax machines, no computers, no cell phones, no beepers – it was a different world. It still has the same feel, but it really has changed,” said Caputo, who went on to a two decade administrative career in education after leaving Trenton.
Caputo’s journey back to Trenton started with winning a seat on the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 2002 – his first foray back into politics after being defeated in the 1971 Republican primary (by Nutley’s Carl Orechio) after reapportionment. In 2005, he ran for Assembly after the death of incumbent Donald Tucker, losing a special election to former Newark Board of Education President Evelyn Williams. Just one week after taking office, Williams was arrested for shoplifting and forced to resign her seat, leading to the appointment of Oadline Truitt.
That set the stage for another showdown this year, with Newark Mayor Cory Booker teaming up with political power broker Steve Adubato to field Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker against rival state Sen. Ronald Rice’s chosen candidates: incumbents Truitt and Craig Stanley. Caputo and Tucker won by slim margins, with Tucker only making it official after a recount.
Now Caputo sees three issues he wants to focus on during his term: crime, education, and providing more services to his part of the district. In case the school aid formula isn’t resolved by the time he enters the legislature legislature, his career in education makes him confident that he can bring something to the table.
“I hope they’re thinking about the rim districts – Bloomfield, Maplewood, South Orange – they may have some needs that have to be addressed,” he said. “It seems that the Governor is going in the right direction, but we can’t take money away form the traditional Abbot districts.”
Caputo also said that he hopes to set up a legislative office right on the border of Belleville and Bloomfield – towns that haven’t seen enough representation, he said.
“My phone doesn’t stop now that (constituents) know I’m in. People want that. They need it,” he said.
Although he didn’t face a serious challenge in this heavily Democratic district, Caputo didn’t get to coast through the period leading up to the general election. The scars of Newark’s racial past still haunt those who have been there since the troubled era.
At a NAACP candidate’s forum after the primary, Irvington Councilman David Lyons – a Stanley ally– raised a sensitive and controversial issue. Caputo, he said, he rallied against school integration in Irvington along with controversial North Ward vigilante Anthony Imperiale in the early 1970s. Lyons told PolitickerNJ.com that his charge was based on the memories of several women who were in high school at the time, but none would come forward to share their stories.
That’s an allegation Caputo steadfastly denied.
“I’ve been around a long time. Nobody has ever accused me of being a racist,” said Caputo – who noted that nothing came up during any of his previous races or during his time in educational leadership positions.
Closer to the election, one of Caputo’s Republican Assembly opponents, Andrew Bloschak provided PolitickerNJ.com with a 1968 Newark News article quoting the then- Assemblyman praising Imperiale, who would later serve as a City Councilman, Assemblyman and State Senator. According to the article, Caputo said that “He was willing to fight ‘wherever Tony tells me… in Trenton or here.’”
Caputo can’t remember making the statement, and said it sounded out of character.
“I don’t know if I was even quoted properly… You’re talking about something forty years ago. I can’t even remember it. Why would I follow him?” said Caputo, who later added “I didn’t agree with any things and never supported him. I never did any campaigning with him. But everybody knew him and associated with him regardless of your philosophy –it’s not something I’m trying to hide.”
Back then, the political environment was all about unrest, said Caputo. He took tough stands against rioting and student unrest. He urged state officials to provide aid in the event of future riots, and in criticized the administration of Rutgers Newark for caving into demands brought about by students who had taken over a building as “weak and vacillating.”
But eventually, Caputo found that his feelings didn’t square with the Republican. During his first term in the senate though, he said that his urban, working-class upbringing didn’t sit well with some members.
“Once I got into the legislature I saw that many serving in the Republican Party were elitist. They didn’t feel like people like myself should have been there,” he said.
Although he came under attack for alleged statements from 40 years ago, Caputo said that the community has largely moved away from the divisive issues that characterized the community in that era. Now, with concerns about crime, people are banded together.
“The problem supersedes a lot of differences. It brings people together,” said Caputo. “But in the old days it was a lot of civil unrest and people being upset about opportunity, being reflected in government – it was a different world altogether.”