NEWARK – The last few days of the shifting Newark mayoral race could leave a casual observer to wonder if they are standing on Newark’s Broad Street or Trenton’s State Street.
While events have conspired to whittle the race down to two candidates, several notable New Jersey politicians and power brokers who have either been governor, run for governor, want to be governor or who help to install governors have swarmed to the Newark race. The atmosphere could resemble a Cold War geopolitical chess game to some, with the fate of the state’s largest city at stake.
On Wednesday, both North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr. and Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif dropped out of the race, with South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka and former state Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries left to battle for Newark’s top political spot.
But shortly before these developments, the Newark landscape was being shaped by those who like to dig in the Garden State’s political dirt.
On Feb. 6, former Governor and current State Senator Richard Codey (D-27) endorsed Baraka at a rally in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. On Feb. 11, Baraka’s campaign announced the hiring of Jason Solowsky to serve as director of field operations. Solowsky worked closely with Tom Bertoli, longtime strategist for Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, when Fulop ran successfully for mayor last year. The move gave credence to recent rumors that Fulop operatives were lining up behind Baraka at the same time Fulop takes a hard look at seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
The last Democratic nominee for governor, Barbara Buono, dropped into the Newark mayoral race on the same day Ramos and Sharif dropped out, endorsing Baraka on Wednesday.
While a Fulop-Codey-Buono axis has formed behind Baraka, other forces are moving to back Jeffries.
PolitickerNJ.com reported in December that several Democratic sources indicated that Jeffries met with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and conversed with allies of South Jersey power broker George Norcross III regarding his political future. These sit-downs suggest an alliance between North and South Jersey to ensure Jeffries’ victory in the May 2014 Newark mayoral election.
Norcross is also a close ally of State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), the potential South Jersey blocker of the gubernatorial ambitions of North Jersey’s Fulop.
Longtime rivals Codey and DiVincenzo were somewhat coy when asked if the Newark mayoral race was a way to turn their own Cold War hot.
“I don’t know if [DiVincenzo] endorsed anybody. He said, and I quote, “I just want to win.” It didn’t matter [who was] the candidate. It is what it is,” Codey said at the Feb. 6 Baraka endorsement event.
DiVincenzo endorsed Ramos in May, and was present on Wednesday when the North Ward councilman bowed out of the race.
PolitickerNJ.com asked DiVincenzo about whether South Jersey politicos, Codey or anybody else would really run the race to run Newark.
“Newark voters are going to make that decision,” said DiVincenzo, who declined to endorse either of the Newark mayoral candidates. “It was [Ramos’] decision alone [to leave the race] that he made, and I’m here to support him.”
Yards away at the Robert Treat Hotel event, Amiri “Middy” Baraka, Jr., Ras Baraka’s campaign manager, was there to show support for his brother, merely by showing his face and wearing his well-known Baraka campaign wool hat with a prominent pom-pom on top.
Although he was smiling, Baraka shared a moment with DiVincenzo Chief of Staff Phil Alagia that underscored the tension in hotel ballrooms and political back rooms across New Jersey regarding the Newark mayoral race.
“You should have called me,” Baraka said to Alagia. “You could have called me.”