The names in the game: four political families figure prominently in Newark race

NEWARK – Blood dictates in Newark politics, or has, anyway, for years.

While machines play hard, families for three decades have been as fundamental to the game, among them the Paynes, Adubatos, Rices’, James’s, Tuckers, Barakas and Cheneyfields.

Mayor Cory Booker and his challenger, Clifford Minor -who’s never held elected office – in and of themselves defy the classic branding of political family patriarchs, but each has teamed in this cycle with members of old school Newark political kin, in this case the families Rice, Payne, Baraka and James.

As an outsider coming in, Booker was always alert to that connective tissue.

When the new-look politico began peddling his Generation X brand ten years ago, his growing team of allies went to several scions, among them Ronald C. Rice and John Sharpe James, sons of two longtime allies: state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark) and Mayor Sharpe James.

The pitch centered around the argument that the old guys had been in power too long and needed to be challenged.

The younger Rice and Booker forged an early bond and allied politically heading into Booker’s first run for mayor in 2002.

But James says he felt Booker was too eager to badmouth his dad. 

A career soldier, the younger James took pride in the name his father built in the city and believed in the legacy. The idea of joining a group of young hotshots led by an upstart from out of town – a suburbanite – didn’t tally.

He stayed away.

So did Ras Baraka, a fellow South Warder and son of the poet/political activist Amiri Baraka – who, in fact, ran in the opposite direction.

So, too, at least initially, did Essex County Freeholder Donald Payne, Jr., also of the South Ward and the son of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark).

While Booker built his insurgency, these three young men – James, Baraka and Payne – forged Newark or die rallying points from power projection platforms rooted deep in the South Ward.

The Baraka message was built on a simple premise: born and bred or bust.

Defeated in 2002, Booker retooled and resurfaced in 2006, again with mega money and not only Rice and Central Ward family activist heir Dana Rone at his side, but this time with the critical battleground support of North Ward power broker Steve Adubato – an old world/new world double team that appeared to put the wobbling 69-year old James on ice.

Booker blending with the next generation political names that had been standing on signs for 30 years started shaking the terrain. 

Initially bracketed with those old school Newarkers still coalesced behind the incumbent mayor, Payne, Jr., a candidate for at-large council, decided to run as an independent.

Although he appeared to be sliding toward political cataclysm in late winter, James still wasn’t talking about re-election plans.

Some of his team members felt either vaguely abandoned or tried to pick up on the old mayor’s body language as a determination of their next political move. Waiting, waiting, but knowing he couldn’t wait forever, Payne felt finally he had to break out on his own. He went to court, won the right to de-bracket, and secured the A-1 position.

After a 20-year run in the mayor’s office, James at last decided not to seek reelection, making Booker look like a lock.

But the elder Rice, a Marine Corps veteran who returned from the Vietnam War to the Newark riots, figured he had been in his share of stare-downs and had won against the odds. When James cried uncle under the pressure of the change team’s seemingly inevitable advance on City Hall, the long-serving state senator kick-started his own long-shot 11th hour mayoral campaign – and promptly fell in the Booker blitzkrieg come May.

Booker won that race with Rice, sr., by a 3-1 margin.

The young James was among those flattened in the Booker/Adubato/Payne/Rice, Jr. 2006 tidal wave.

Even as his father bore the brunt of losing to a new political movement, the younger Rice celebrated a runoff win as the Booker Team’s West Ward councilman.

Payne, Jr., made the runoff – and secured the backing of the new regime, which helped him beat Baraka.

That was four years ago.

Now all four families are formally back in the business of political competition: James and Baraka allied as members of the Newark’s Choice team led by Minor, and running for at-large and the south ward seats respectively; and Payne and Rice, running for at-large and west ward again, and again, with Booker.   

The names in the game: four political families figure prominently in Newark race