Unholy alliance? No, says Bell, who likens himself to Clinton and Booker to Obama

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NEWARK – It’s tough to argue with the dulcet tones of a daughter belted out with what sounded like deep affection. 

The considerable voice of Cindy Bell Pinkney rose for the finale in her rendition of “Yet Still I Rise,” on Saturday as her father, Central Ward Councilman Charles Bell, seated at the front of a packed campaign headquarters on Market Street beside Mayor Cory Booker, appeared intent on not being overwhelmed by emotion.

“Yet still I rise, never to give up, never to give in against all odds; yet still I rise, high above the clouds, at times I feel low…
Yet still I rise…”

The victim of a stroke last summer and confined for seven days to an intensive care unit the day after the death of Dwight Brown, one of his closest friends and political confidantes, Bell didn’t know if he was going to run again.

He didn’t want to run again.

Certainly, there was no indication back then that he would run as a member of the Booker Team.

But Booker’s old Central Ward foe on the inside of City Hall over the course of the past year saw the man behind the mayor and – as the story goes – couldn’t hep but embrace the winsome Booker. To hear Booker’s people tell it, the act promptly blunted any building organizational tide against the mayor, strengthened Bell among relieved Booker forces and, yes, now makes Bell the equivalent of Benedict Arnold in certain only very minimal quarters who banked on a well-heeled Central Ward uprising against Booker.

Bell in 2008 challenged Booker’s Central Ward candidate in a special election with an anti-Booker coalition behind him that included Steve Adubato in the North Ward, state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark) in the west, and mayoral hopeful Clifford Minor in the south.

Bell’s Adubato-infused victory was to be Minor’s 2010 toehold in the Central Ward, but as soon as Adubato secured what he wanted out of the Bell victory – a greater political piece of the Central – he hastily bailed on Rice and Minor.

“I’m so proud,” Adubato reaffirmed last Friday night as he gripped Booker at an event in the North Ward Center.

Then Bell bailed, the follow-up to a one-two delivery that rattled Minor’s candidacy to its core, and more than any other observable political act, according to some Newark sources, instantly turned Minor from citywide contender into South Ward bore snore.

On Saturday at the formal launch of his candidacy in a downtown store-front varnished over with the faces of incumbent council people who could hate each other in reality but in airbrush land look like mutually adoring teen idol throwbacks, in a ward slated for the $120 million teacher village project, Bell reminded the troops of bused-in seniors and Housing Authority habitues that he wanted them to not only cast a vote for himself, but to back the mayor.

“I’m asking for your support for a young man who I personally feel very strong about,” said Bell, disgarding two misfiring microphones and relying finally on his own stentorian voice. ” This is a young man who came to Newark to be a blessing. He didn’t come to Newark to get a blessing. I’m talking about none other than the Honorable Mayor of the City of Newark, Cory A. Booker.”

Booker clapped gratefully with the crowd, as Bell described a natural political progression.

“I supported the candidacy of Mayor Kenneth A. Gibson. I supported the candidacy of Mayor Sharpe James. Today, I am supporting none other than the Honorable Mayor of the City of Newark, Cory Booker.

“People ask me,” Bell added, “‘Councilman, how can you flip flop? And my response to that has been, do you recall the Clinton and Barack Obama situation, where it was so bitter to the end, and then Obama went to Clinton and asked Clinton to be his secretary of state, irrespective of the bitterness on both sides, and she said, ‘yes.’ If Clinton and Barack Obama can come together, then I surely can step up to the plate to support the mayor, Cory A. Booker.”

Among the clapping audience sat Bell Chief of Staff Nakea White, a School Board member and longtime Booker ally/protege, who is the walking embodiment of the Bell-Booker experiment, and a potential future councilmember.

Her political fate at this point may be tied to Bell, who faces a roster of challengers that includes Minor ally Charon Motayne, activist Gregory Good, Juanita Wilson, former City Hall staple Richard Whitten – chief of staff to former Central Ward Councilwoman Dana Rone – and Darrin Sharif, son of one of Booker’s closest advisors, Carl Sharif.

Booker operatives happily suspect that many bodies in the race against an incumbent with solid name recognition will cross-canibalize the rest of the field and result in an easy Bell victory.

But the Booker-Bell branding isn’t a lock; and in a worst case scenario for the two of them, could implode.

Motayne and others believe the partnership only muddies Bell’s brand and gives an alternative candidate that much more of a shot against a now compromised councilman occupying the political bed of a callow and disappointing incumbent mayor. 

Bell, says Motayne, who once promised resolve in the face of Booker’s initiatives, caved in most alarmingly in the case of the Douglas Harrison site, which the mayor had once said would be park land but which is now slated for residential development. Bell partisans push back, saying Booker only mentioned that part of the area would be a park, and arguing that, while nothing has yet been solidified, any development there would be affordable housing in a ward precisely in need of low income domiciles.

Motayne is unconvinced.

“The problem with Mayor Booker is he does not spend enough time performing the function he was elected to do,” the challenger recently told PolitickerNJ.com. “I have no problem with him getting ideas in other places, but not when you spend more time outside of the ward than you do in the ward solving problems. The administration is inept and incompetent. You call and you never get answers or problems solved. The Booker administration has the dollars and glitzy things, but there’s an undercurrent in the community. It’s going to be like a Jon Corzine situation.”

She’s not the only one who sees the Bell-Booker hybrid as fundamentally untenable.

Notwithstanding their more identifable connections to Booker – the former through his stint turned sour at City Hall, and the latter through his father – and their potential to cancel each other out, Whitten and Sharif deserve more than a passing glance in this drama – and maybe much more over the course of the next five and a half weeks before election day on May 11th.

If a sufficient section of Bell’s base shrugs him off now that he’s with the mayor, and Booker’s allies publicly support Bell but quietly back someone else – and Motayne gains little momentum in part owing to her connection to the somnolent Minor – one of these young, ambitious men could make something happen, according to Central Ward sources.

Of the two, Whitten has upset potential written all over him. 

He worked in City Hall as a frontline guy for a long time. He has little money, but people know him. And contrary to scuttlebut that he supports Booker, he doesn’t – he’s on his own, and campaigning hard.

Still, whatever criticisms he or Motayne or anyone else has in the Central Ward, Booker’s $6 million plus bankroll in an election year marked by the quietude of the mayor’s top-of-the-ticket challenger and a shortened runway now for the real campaign season, makes organization look like the main factor. 

Hence, advantage Bell-Booker.

On Saturday, Bell thanked his pastor for helping him make the decision to run again, before taking aim at any lingering cycnism by triumphantly quoting from The Man of La Macha’s “Impossible Dream” as a statement of what he still hopes to achieve in the Central Ward.

Booker and Bell bear-hugged – again – then the mayor bolted for the exit, clearing the crowd like a high hurdle and landing on the pavement outside just long enough to get a leg up into his SUV vehicle, apparently intent on the idea that to talk in detail about the state budget impact or the contest ahead of his own official launch on Wednesday, does little more than advertise his own challenger, who lacks traction in the Central Ward, thanks to Bell – but where pockets of bitterness abide, and are best left undisturbed.

Unholy alliance? No, says Bell, who likens himself to Clinton and Booker to Obama