NEWARK – A lot of Democrats who worked with Sharpe James over the years had one word to describe what they felt today as they watched a federal jury deliver a guilty verdict in the former mayor’s corruption trial.
They felt sad.
“Sometimes we cooperated, sometimes we didn’t, but I really believe he cared about Newark,” said North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato. “It’s a terrible tragedy.”
The jury found that James, mayor of Newark from 1986 to 2006, rigged the sale of city-owned land to his former girlfriend, Tamika Riley, who resold the land at a profit.
Some didn’t return calls for comment. Some were terse. Others felt personally upset.
“I don’t have comments on the decision by the jury,” said Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). “Newark will always remember the leadership. You can’t take away the brick and mortar unless you knock it down.”
Rice met James in the early 1970s when the Newark Police Department rejected the Vietnam veteran’s application to be a patrolman because he wore glasses. Rice was living in the South Ward at the time and James was his councilman.
“He worked with me to get me on the police department,” Rice recalled. “We appealed and won.”
Rice would later serve as West Ward councilman and deputy mayor under James. In the mid-1980s, James convinced Adubato to back Rice as the 28th district senator, where he has served since.
“It’s a sad day for his family and for Newark,” said Rice.
Newark At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana served also served as deputy mayor for James.
“My prayers go to him in this time of pain,” Quintana said today after learning of the guilty verdict. “It’s a sad time, and something you don’t wish on anyone. I don’t have too many words. I wish him all the best. He did a lot of good things for Newark. It’s a sad day in town.”
Adubato, Rice, Quintana, and others said without James and a handful of power players, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Bears Stadium and the Prudential Arena would not have been built.
“You’ve got to credit him with the redevelopment of Newark, including, ironically, great housing developments,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who sat next to James in the senate chamber for almost ten years.
Lesniak acknowledged that while James could be charming he was also often a volatile figure.
“My chief of staff was field director for Cory Booker,” said Lesniak, referring to Booker’s unsuccessful 2002 challenge of the Newark mayor. “I hired him right after that, and every time Sharpe saw him he’d say, ‘You’re the Booker guy, I remember you.’”
Former Sen. Ellen Karcher (D-Monmouth) told a story about James out of no where shouting at her when she tried to talk to him about a dualoffice holding ban they were working ontogether.
Asked what James accomplished in the state senate, where he served the 29th district from 1999-2008, Lesniak said, “Not much. He was a mayor. That’s where his accomplishments were.”
“He never lost sight of the social service perspective,” Rice said of his fellow Newark-based senator.
But mostconsidered James’s main contributionsto bein the area of development and redevelopment, particularly downtown.
Adubato said over 20 years ago when James was a young mayor, Adubato told people Newark was going to be worse – not better – in two decades.
“I was wrong,” said the party boss.
Larry Hamm, head of the People’s Organization for Progress, spoke to what James symbolized, as he recalled the former mayor’s roots as a Ken Gibson ally and veteran of the 1970 Black and Puerto Rican Convention.
“That convention represented an effort to get political power for those who were disenfranchised,” said Hamm. “Back then the Puerto Rican and black communities had no representation. Gibson came out of that convention and became the city’s first black mayor. Sharpe became the first black councilman of the South Ward.”
Hamm said James’s legacy could have been mostly positive.
“Most people start out for good,” said Hamm. “They don’t start with nefarious reasons. There’s something about New Jersey politics. I think at the very least we need publicly financed elections.”
Adubato didn’t question the verdict.
“I respect the decisions of those 12 people,” he said, “but personally I do feel sad. I think of all the things he did for Newark that people will enjoy long after he’s gone. It’s sad to me. It’s a lesson. Power has to be used correctly.”
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, State Democratic Party chairman and a native of the Vailsburg section of Newark’s West Ward, said of the jury’s decision, “It’s just sad. It’s sad for the party and sad for the city.”