The State of the City, and the State of the Race

During his State of the City address last week, Mayor Cory Booker presented a portfolio of accomplishments, touting improvements in police precincts, business and housing development and the end of dependency on State Aid.  

But the jockeying was palpable in the room as the 2014 mayor’s race to succeed Booker intensifies.

Already there are candidates who are no longer speaking to each other, even if they aren’t yet officially candidates.

For his part, Booker’s tone in NJ-PAC was conciliatory as he referenced the City Council, calling them partners in making extraordinarily tough decisions, including those related to the 2011 budget and the firing of over 100-law enforcement personnel.

The body language among council members was noticeable.

Councilwoman Mildred Crump thwarted Mayor Booker’s attempt at a handshake, while Councilman Anibal Ramos sat uncomfortably in his seat, next to Councilman Ras Baraka, who looked more uncomfortable than Ramos.

Booker stressed his achievements in housing and business development, noting that Brick City Development Corporation had supported over 500 businesses. In an interview after the mayor’s address, Baraka, while acknowledging BCDC success, noted, “It’s had its time.”

“At this point BCDC should no longer be a line item in the city’s budget, at this point they (BCDC) should be self sustainable and tap those 500 businesses they’ve supported as a source of revenue, otherwise their function will be rendered obsolete,” the councilman said.  

He’s a candidate for mayor, of course – the only one formally in the race at this time.

Booker spoke glowingly of Keith Kinard of the Newark Housing Authority, recognizing his success in turning around a troubled organization.

Kinard later told, “At the beginning it was tough, the problem boiled down to a ‘people problem’. Skill level and positions were unequally matched.”  There was a 22 million deficient, mainly as a result of antiquated systems and payments of sick time and pension. NHA has since overcome those road bumps, installing over 900 fiber optic cameras, shared by Newark Police Dept, development of mixed use housing, including 300 units at Baxter Terrace which will house a full grocery store, charter school and fitness center and South and North ward recreational facilities, which will hosts pools and rock climbing walls.

Kinard added, “We wanted to change the business model, alter the way business was done in the past.” To Kinard’s credit, he did just that. Contrary to public housing advocates who believe that housing authorities should abide by the 1:1 rule, Kinard instead elected to develop mixed use/ mixed income properties, eliminating the clustered model of low-income housing. When asked where Kinard’s future lies, he said he’s enjoying his work in Newark with Booker too much to think about his next move.

Then there was potential mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries, who applauded Booker’s success, acknowledging his strides in economic development and his uncanny ability to raise money for education.  He insisted, however, there is still more that must be done and he believes he is the guy for the job. Jeffries has not officially announced, but he is campaigning and has a sizable election fund, which continues to grow.

There was a news report last month that indicated he’s not overly well-known, which has somewhat haunted Jeffries since the story appeared.

In a poll commissioned by South Ward community leaders and conducted by New York firm, Global Strategies, Jeffries, a former assistant Attorney General and current school board member, polled at 16% favorability, the lowest among the likely contenders, including Baraka and Ramos. Jefferies chalked the poll up to having very little significance in future outcomes and having no relevance in his ability to win the mayoral seat or run the city.

The poll conducted by Global Strategies sampled 404 residents, with a margin of error plus or minus 4.9%.

Typically, during a potential candidates’ exploration process, a ‘Bench Mark Poll’ is commissioned, used as a tool to determine their electability. The poll can be likened to a popularity contest. Margin of errors and confidence intervals can increase or decrease depending on the sample size. The theory: the larger the audience, the truer the opinion; the smaller the audience the less true the opinion.

When asked about the poll’s validity and Booker’s 70% favorability – a surprising stat to many who learned of the poll – Councilman Baraka acknowledged Booker’s popularity, stating “Why not? He’s on every news station, radio station and newspaper. Newarkers should know who he is.” As for his favorability of 61%, Baraka said, “Of course, everyone in Newark knows of the Barakas, it is a name that has a history.”

Councilman Rice polled at 63% favorability. When asked, given the poll results and his statewide exposure, why he is not running for mayor, Rice said, “Someone had to be the adult in the room. I wasn’t gonna be the guy that split the city, so I opted out.”  The room Rice referred to was a meeting of Newark’s African American leadership, who had taken on the task of deciding who would receive support.  Rice says he will support the candidate with the best platform.  According to Baraka, that support will belong to him.

Jeffries and Baraka will be in a tussle for votes, perhaps splitting numbers in the margins among undecided voters. Baraka said that he considered joining forces with Jeffries.  However, he claims talks broke down when word leaked of his visit to the Jeffries house, and presently, communication is non-existent between the two. Baraka says he has lost complete trust for the Jefferies camp. He doesn’t believe Jeffries is a bad guy, but feels members of his camp are deceptive.  He vows to continue with his race and raise more money.

When asked if he would seek the mayor’s endorsement, Jeffries said he is open and will ask everyone for support, even the mayor’s.  However, whether he secures that support is questionable, as there are early signs that Booker may support Councilman Ramos.  While serving as chair of the Newark School Board, Jeffries pointed to Booker’s inability to include the educational decision making body on his work in education.

Both Baraka and Jeffries have said their relationship with the popular mayor is amenable and that Booker has made efforts to extend the olive branch.  Baraka and Rice however, have different views on their council colleagues.  Councilman Rice described his relationship with default Council President Annibal Ramos as “icy”.  During a pre-Thanksgiving 2012 meeting, Ramos in his show of support for Booker and his allies, led three Hispanic council members in nominating former School Board member Shanique Speight to fill U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.’s (D-10) vacated city council seat. A judge later overturned the decision. 

Baraka said the Speight debacle forever altered he and Ramos’s relationship.

“I thought he was better than that!”  Baraka said, “Although our personal relationship has been altered and personally I don’t trust him, it has not affected the way we conduct the cities business.

“The collusion that took place with the administration and political power bosses was unnecessary and divisive,” the South Ward Councilman added.

Baraka stressed it was not racial as had been reported. “It was an attempted power grab.” Baraka connecting the dots, noted, “The only connection the three council members, who voted for Speight had to her, was Ramos and that relationship began with North Ward power broker, Steve Adubato.”  

He further stated, “Out of hundreds of bright, talented women in this city, Shanique Speight was picked.” He believes she is a “nice women”, but was used and was only selected because of her relationship with the North Ward machine.

It appears, in light of the judge’s ruling, Booker’s camp has continued to pursue the seat for Speight.  Shortly after the judge’s decision, attorneys for Booker filed an appeal and requested an expedited hearing, which was denied.

Ramos declined to comment, instead referred to his public relations firm to respond. It appears Ramos’ 276k is being put to use.

The State of the City, and the State of the Race