NEWARK – Wilfredo “Fred” Caraballo walked into a diner and sat down.
Grizzled. Street-tested. Maybe more hungry than ever for a reversal of the political forces that drop-kicked him back to the classroom.
He’s older than he was in 2007 when the machine ran over him, dividing him from being able to play the role of citizen centaur he so relished: teaching law to future attorneys at Seton Hall while making laws in Trenton.
Now, after years of throwing himself into his work as a professor still antsy to personally sculpt the law, Caraballo is back as the veteran member of Team Jeffries, a local candidate for an at-large council seat, and completely committed, he says, to electing his fellow Seton Hall University Professor mayor of Newark.
“I do miss it,” Caraballo said of serving in the New Jersey Legislature. “I miss it terribly. I would be less than candid with you if I said otherwise. I would be totally dishonest if I said that I didn’t. I still have something to contribute. I cannot do it in the State Legislature, so I wish to do it as Shavar’s ally, where I can help him as a legislator, for my role, I believe, is first and foremost as a legislator.”
As an ally of the North Ward Democratic Party and Steve Adubato, Sr., Caraballo secured a leadership position in the Assembly and had a reputation for years as one of the most knowledgeable and outspoken people in that governing body.
He was an early prime mover of ridding New Jersey of the death penalty.
“I’ll tell you something,” a Republican said, speaking on condition of anonymity, “Republicans would think twice about getting up on the floor to speak when Wilfredo Caraballo was around. If you didn’t have an argument down he’d challenge you – and usually win.”
He taught many current legislators the law, including Assemblyman David Russo, state Sen. Bob Smith, Sen. Kevin O’Toole, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, Assemblyman Sean Kean, and state Sen. Kip Bateman.
Gov. Chris Christie was also a student of Caraballo’s.
“I actually do remember him as a student,” said the former assemblyman. “He was well-liked and had a lot of friends. He was friendly.”
Redistricted into Newark out of South Orange, Caraballo ran afoul of Adubato and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo when he supported the sales tax not favored by then-Gov. Jon Corzine.
Running off the line in the Democratic Primary, he got crushed by the Ruiz Team, allied with the county’s towering political figure otherwise known as Joe D. Now the North Ward resident and close friend and colleague of mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries wants an at-large council seat.
He says he believes Jeffries is by far the best candidate for mayor.
“He is the only one who collectivizes the best attributes in a way that this city needs,” Caraballo said of his colleague. “Crime is outrageous. Joblessness is outrageous. The city’s infrastructure needs an unbelievable amount of tender loving care for lack of a better phrase. Shavar’s life derives from a genuine love of the City of Newark, born out of a story as compelling as anyone’s, defined by a commitment to giving back.”
But Jeffries has won early critics who say he doesn’t have a machine to get elected.
“It’s true he doesn’t have the typical political grooming,” Caraballo said of his ally. “It’s true he’s not big on hype. He’s been much more focused on an extraordinary body of work that brings people together, his students – tackling tough issues like foreclosure and predatory lending – than he has with letting people know about it.”
Caraballo met Jeffries seven or eight years ago and has encouraged him ever since.
To date, the team has outraised the other three candidates. PolitickerNJ.com reporter Mark Bonamo last week reported that Jeffries has hauled in $600,000 to second-place-finisher Anibal Ramos’ $500,000.
But his organization on the ground remains a question mark. “We are opening headquarters in each ward and we have people in each ward running those headquarters,” said Caraballo, parrying the perception of Jeffries’ organizational weakness.
Asked if his old foe, the man who helped eject him from the Legislature, had irrevocably damaged Jeffries rival Ramos by backing Republican Christie’s re-election in the governor’s contest, Caraballo was coy.
“We don’t know yet,” said the law professor and former assemblyman. “We don’t know what effect that will have nor will we know until some time in the coming year. Certainly, if you read the blogs and look at Facebook, there’s been an attempt to link Anibal to Joe D, but we don’t yet know the effect.”
In the meantime, Caraballo said, he intends to keep driving to elect Jeffries, with or without the machine.