Rice and Tayari go head-to-head on prez politics

However maverick the man, there is a respectful progression in politics for those who have been in the system long enough to call themselves survivors.

So when young self-declared reformers appear on the political stage out of nowhere promising to deliver a better governance, the older generation often can’t help but view them skeptically. What’s the personal worth in the end of going through all of the battles if one cannot finally possess and celebrate some wisdom that comes from experience?

"I’m an activist, I’ll always be an activist," said Newark Sen. Ronald Rice, who’s fought for more than 20 years as a senator against the establishment forces of his own Democratic Party.

"They cannot force a mode of thinking on me," said Rice. "But in order to do anything in elected office, you have to also be prepared to take a loss legislatively; cast a ‘yes’ vote that isn’t 100% in line with you want."

Rice supports establishment pick Sen. Hillary Clinton for president.

He admits he wasn’t happy with her vote for the War in Iraq, and acknowledges her special propensity for political triangulation. But finally he adjudges that she has more experience in elected office at the national level than Sen. Barack Obama – even if it’s just six years – and that experience is critical, in his view.

"You put in the time and amass the experience in what it is you do, and that counts for a lot, especially when you’re dealing with government," said Rice. "In Hillary’s case, she worked for universal health care and when that didn’t work out the first time, she helped secure children’s health insurance with the State Children’s Health Insurance program. That took a knowledge of the way government works and government savvy.

"When her husband was president, he came to Newark more often than any other president I can recall," Rice added. "And he forged meaningful connections here."

But an old friend on the other side of the river, Kabili Tayari, deputy mayor of Jersey City, says the support Rice and fellow Essex County state Sen. Nia Gill’s show for Clinton reflects a departure from their own respective narratives as politicians who bucked the party when it counted.

"Ron Rice, you just won re-election and everything the organization had was used against you," said Tayari. "Why? Because the people believed in you."

The structure of machine politics and powerful special interests can sever politicians irrevocably from the people, said Tayari. His central argument for taking a lead organizer’s role in support of Obama is that in his opinion the Illinois senator in fact has more real world street experience working with people beyond the years-long fortifications of the Washington, D.C. political establishment.

"A lot of times we deal with pragmatism and compromise," said Tayari. "People say, ‘Kabili, you’re the deputy mayor of Jersey City, so that means you’ve got to toe the line on this, you’ve got to toe the line on that.’ I have to remember that I’m a representative of the people."

Both men and the neighborhood weight they bring to bear can be considered in the context of local politics, where Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, a key Tayari ally, supports Obama; and where Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a longtime political foe of Rice's, also backs the Illinois senator over Clinton.

Local politics is vital here in towns where some locals say who's mayor supercedes the importance of who's president.

"I'm telling people I'm going to vote for Clinton," said a Newarker who doesn't support Booker. "But I'll admit to you I'm going to go in that voting booth alone and vote for Obama."

Tayari said his public declaration of support for Obama goes far beyond local political alliances.

For Tayari, in light of the thousands who have been killed in Iraq, including nearly 4,000 American soldiers, Clinton’s failure to apologize for her 2002 role in giving President George W. Bush the authority to go to war shows a disconnect between her Washington gamesmanship, in his opinion, and the public good.

"When you look at an Barack Obama you see an opportunity to move clearly away from what Eisenhower warned us about: our government becoming intractably consumed by the military industrial complex," said Tayari. "Just the fact that he didn’t support the war is a statement to the world about our democratic principles."

Environmental activist Jeff Tittel said initially his support for Obama came not so much from any one thing the first term senator said, but from watching the old, rusty team line up behind the party's frontrunner.

"I realized I would be supporting Obama when I saw most of the Democratic Party in the state standing with Clinton and the governor on the steps of City Hall in Elizabeth last year," said Tittel. "Please don’t misunderstand. I like a lot of these people, and many of them do good work, but we do need someone who can inspire change."

In the succeeding months, "Obama's speeches have inspired even a crusty old cynic like myself," Tittel added.

In Tittel’s and Tayari’s opinion, Obama represents a direct link to Robert Kennedy, who connected to the people in the same way, at a time of war when the government was damaged and people craved a connection deeper than the machine.

Tayari laughed when confronted with a gut-check about a Democratic Party establishment in New Jersey that mostly backs Clinton, where she’s up by double digits. "That can be defeated," he said. "Just look at Ron Rice."

Rice answered, "But we don’t know Obama. I won, because people know me."

Tayari said the change message his presidential candidate embodies is bigger than Obama, arguing that people might not know Obama well, but they know they want significant change, and that message will prevail on Feb. 5th.

"I think Hillary’s supporters are and have been a lot more solid and predictable," Peter Woolley, director of the PublicMind poll for Fairleigh Dickinson University, told PolitickerNJ.com. "Obama has been a phenomenon who has attracted youth voters and voters who feel at the margins of elections, but if you look at the percent of people who are leaning, Obama’s support is a little softer and quixotic."

Rice and Tayari go head-to-head on prez politics