NEWARK – Ras Baraka’s speeches in the 2014 Newark mayoral race can sound incendiary at times, giving off a kind of heat that is strangely familiar.
“We love Newark, and we believe in Newark, and we’re not going to let anybody from the outside take your city,” Baraka said earlier this month to a crowd of more than 300 people screaming their support. “We’re not going to let them take our city! We’re not going to let them have it! No! They can’t have it!”
Baraka’s revolutionary rhetoric is similar to that used by his father, the famed, late poet Amiri Baraka, in 1967. In that year, Newark was forever changed by a riot, or a rebellion, depending on your point of view.
Change will come to Newark in May, not by the bullet, but by the ballot box. A slew of labor endorsements have tumbled Baraka’s way in recent weeks. Prominent politicians such as Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, have backed Baraka.
Sources told PolitickerNJ.com that a poll reportedly conducted by Fulop’s camp shows Baraka, the South Ward councilman, with a double-digit lead over mayoral race rival Shavar Jeffries, the former state Assistant Attorney General.
While these circumstances are subject to last-minute shifts, PolitickerNJ.com asked several politicos with knowledge of the Newark scene what it would mean on city, county and statewide levels if the Baraka revolution achieves its aim and takes the city.
Former Governor and current State Sen. Richard Codey (D-27), a Baraka supporter and a veteran of Essex County’s political wars, predicted an immediate impact on Essex if Baraka wins.
“The dynamic changes instantly and dramatically here in the county. Joe D is less of a political figure, by leaps and bounds, no question about it,” Codey said, referring to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Codey’s longtime political rival. “Ras is not a power broker type of guy, but he’s going to have input and influence on the county level, as well he should. But he doesn’t need Joe D for anything. What would he need Joe D for? How many people in the [state legislative delegation from Essex] really want to talk to him anymore? Ras has to work with Joe D. But Joe D has to work with him first.”
But a statewide Democratic operative wondered if a Baraka victory really means the Essex seismic shift predicted by Codey.
“There is no way that Ras can play the outsider role,” the statewide operative said. “Part of being mayor, especially one that is dependent on the largess of the state, is that you have to be pragmatic. His outsider versus insider rhetoric may stay the same, but in practicality, he’s going to be very dependent on, and welcoming of, outsider support to stabilize the city and its finances, as well as continue the development boom downtown that occurred over the last five or six years.
“Remember – it’s about county committee people. If Ras gets elected, he still doesn’t control the South, East, Central, North or the West ward committees,” the Democratic operative continued. “I would argue that the Central, East and North are still driven by Joe D, whether Ras wins or not.”
State officials are strongly suggesting that they will move to take over the City of Newark’s finances in the wake of its numerous state budget law transgressions, as well as revelations of alleged mismanagement and illegal activity at the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation. The potential state takeover of Newark’s finances, combined with a projected $35 to $40 million structural deficit in Newark’s budget, makes the situation particularly precarious for whoever becomes Newark’s next mayor.
“With the budget being in as fragile a state as it is, you’re going to be talking about sizable tax increases, because you’re not going to get any help,” the statewide operative said. “You’re going to be talking about laying off [city] workers, because you’re going to be squeezed. You’re going to be talking about businesses not investing in the city and maybe exiting the city. When you start affecting folks’ pocketbooks, and their safety and quality of life, I don’t care if you’re Cory Booker or Ras Baraka. The revolt will be against you.”
The alliance formed between Baraka and Fulop when the Jersey City mayor endorsed Baraka last month was seen by some political observers as a revolt against certain power brokers in the state.
The formation of a Fulop-Baraka alliance, aligning the state’s two largest cities if Baraka wins, supports Fulop’s statewide ambitions and grants Baraka needed organizational and financial resources for his campaign. The collaboration of Fulop and Baraka also sends a message to DiVincenzo and South Jersey power broker George Norcoss III, who reportedly have gravitated towards Jeffries.
Norcross is also a close ally of State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), the South Jersey politician who shares the gubernatorial ambitions of North Jersey’s Fulop.
“Despite what people think, the only ramifications for me in this race are that I hope to have an independent, progressive partner in our neighboring city,” Fulop told PolitickerNJ.com. “Ras and I are going to have a big platform together to push policies that are important for working families in urban areas.”
But despite Fulop’s claims, an Essex Democratic operative who requested anonymity predicted more tangible political consequences.
“If I know Ras and his group well enough, he’s going to want to play in races that have to do with Newark. You’ll probably see some shifts in some of the Assembly seats next year, when he tries to put some of his allies in,” the Essex operative said. “Newark is going to become a new Baraka fiefdom in the county.”
Regarding the politically prominent Payne family, including U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-10) and Essex County deputy chief of staff and former state Assemblyman William D. Payne, the Essex operative suggested that the Paynes should mind their traditional South Ward base in the weeks ahead.
“If the Congressman backs Shavar, and Shavar loses, he gets a target on his back,” the Essex operative said. “If he doesn’t and he stays on the sidelines, it becomes a situation where there’s no reason to take him out, and let’s all work together because we have a common goal of making sure that Newark is taken care of.
“If the state tries to take control, you’ll see the Essex [state legislature] delegation get together and tell the Governor that you can’t take over the whole governmental operation of a city, including the schools and the financial side,” the operative added. “Then that will set off Hudson, Bergen and Passaic – a North Jersey base, saying [forget] this, we’re not doing this. And the point people against South Jersey, Sweeney and Christie might be Fulop and Baraka.”