NEWARK — Newark mayoral candidate Anibal Ramos, Jr. ventured outside of his native North Ward to distribute more than 4,000 turkeys throughout the city this weekend in a display of both holiday spirit and organizational strength.
Ramos’ venture into classic urban New Jersey poultry politics might have paled in comparison to the effort of Hudson County’s machine mastermind, state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack (D – 33), who handed out more than 17,000 turkeys this weekend, according to PolitickerNJ.com.
But Ramos’ effort comes at a time when some of his allies anonymously noted their doubts about what they called a troubled campaign during last week’s New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City. A perceived lack of aggression in the face of strong challenges from South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka and former state Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries disturbed these friends. Ramos’ associates also wondered if a reported shift to Team Jeffries by Bill Payne, deputy chief of staff to County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and nephew of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10), as well as perhaps former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, would leave their candidate looking like an exposed, plucked bird in the run-up to the May 2014 election.
Ramos, however, told PolitickerNJ.com that he wasn’t going to let his rivals carve him up.
“We have the most organizational strength. We have an effective organization in the entire city and every ward,” said the North Ward councilman, who has participated in holiday turkey distribution since his 2006 election, a victory won with the help of Steve Adubato Sr.’s still-formidable North Ward Democratic machine. “The distribution effort this year was coordinated with the various ward organizations. The powers that be speculate where they think things are. But my focus has been on building organizational strength, getting to know voters, and having voters get to know who I am.”
The long lines of residents outside of Ramos’ campaign headquarters in the Central and South Wards seeking free turkeys were a testament to Newark’s endemic poverty, underscored by the city’s 14 percent unemployment rate.
“Anibal Ramos is feeding thousands of people today. You’ll have some people who eat the turkey and vote for somebody else, but I was always taught, you stick with the one who’s feeding you,” said city resident Kevin Brown, 50, an African-American employee of the Newark Housing Authority, standing outside Ramos’ Central Ward headquarters on South Orange Avenue on Saturday as residents emerged with turkeys stamped with a Ramos campaign label. “The African-American community is running against each other. Every time I came to Ramos, he opened the door for me.”
Oscar James, a former top advisor to former Mayors James and Cory Booker, noted how Ramos’ candidacy opens up new possibilities in Newark’s shifting political dynamics.
“You see the overflowing room,” said James, who is directing Ramos’ campaign in the Central, South and West Wards, amidst a scene of organized chaos in Ramos’ South Ward headquarters. “Most Newarkers who are regular voters understand that we’ve had forty years of black leadership. Black leadership just for black leadership is not the answer. Newark is really at a crossroads – Cory Booker has gone off to the U.S. Senate, and the city is fragmented. We need somebody who really wants to be mayor. If people can get beyond color, Anibal is clearly the best candidate.”
The two other leading candidates in the Newark mayoral race issued statements regarding the political battle of the turkeys.
“It’s not a competition about how many turkeys we gave out – it’s about helping the community in a time of need,” said Tai Cooper, Baraka’s campaign spokeswoman. “The councilman has consistently done food drives throughout the year making sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable members of the community.”
“Our campaign will donate 600 turkeys citywide to Newark families in need, specifically targeting our most under-served seniors,” said Lupe Todd, Jeffries’ campaign spokeswoman. “While Newark’s economy is growing downtown, it is at a standstill in neighborhoods, and unemployment in the city is almost double the national average. It’s no surprise that many Newark families are struggling to put food on the table and get back on their feet.”
At the end of a long day of turkey distribution on Saturday, Ramos stood in the fading light of a South Ward living room and made his own statements about his two main rivals to a small gathering.
“I can’t just sit back and let things happen. I can’t just sit back and organize protests on the corner of Broad and Market. That’s not going to help us build a safer community,” said Ramos, referring to Baraka, an activist as well as an educator.
“One guy is an unproven commodity,” added Ramos, referring to Jeffries. “This guy has outsiders who are trying to build him up as your next mayor. I ask you to follow where he’s raising his money – about 90 percent of his money does not even come from the state of New Jersey. We’ve had enough of these unproven attorneys who became mayors of this city. We know that they’re not good CEO types.”
When Ramos finished his remarks, Oscar James emerged from the background and issued a Brick City bullet point on local politics.
“We’re all Newarkers, we know how cliquish we are. But remember – 40 people in this room can mean 400 votes,” James said. “We’re being told there’s no choice – you’ve got to choose a black person, that’s your only choice. Well, where I come from, it’s about who’s the best person.”