Newark’s new mayor: Street Fight 2.0
ASKED last month to name his role model, Ras Baraka mentioned Marion Barry, a former mayor of Washington, DC best known for smoking crack and running a City Hall of staggering incompetence and corruption. Washingtonians remember Mr Barry as a terrible manager, but he sure gave a rousing speech. That is perhaps why Mr Baraka admires him. It is also why, on May 13th, Newark elected Mr Baraka as its new mayor with 54% of the vote.
A charismatic speaker, he can quiet and excite a crowd like no one else in the city. “When I become mayor,” he often told voters, “we all become mayor.” How that would work in practice is unclear, but after his victory speech hundreds of his supporters marched down Broad Street to take City Hall. One exclaimed: “It’s ours again!”
Mr Baraka (pictured), a school principal, is as close to African-American royalty as one can get in Newark. His late father was a poet who gave voice to the Black Power movement. In 2004, he helped broker peace between the Crips and the Bloods, two rival gangs. Spike Lee, a film-maker, and Lauryn Hill, a singer, supported him. So did Sharpe James, an ex-mayor of Newark who was jailed for fraud in 2008.
The new mayor’s racial politics irk the city’s Latino and white minorities. He told the Star-Ledger, a local newspaper, that there was a “master-slave” relationship between business and blacks. He speaks of reform, but is seen by many as part of the old Newark political machine.
He won because he was the candidate least like Cory Booker, who was mayor from 2006 to 2013 and is now a US Senator. Mr Booker was a reformer who promoted charter schools and wooed businesses to invest in Brick City. He won national fame by living on food stamps for a while, chasing down a robber and persuading Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, to donate $100m to Newark’s schools. But many Newarkers saw Mr Booker as a carpetbagger, as not black enough, or as too close to Wall Street. That he ran into budget troubles and cut the police by 12% in 2010, after which crime shot up, did not help.
Mr Baraka painted his opponent, Shavar Jeffries, a reformist law professor, as an outsider like Mr Booker. This was a stretch. Mr Jeffries’s family is also black and has been in Newark for a century. His mother was murdered when he was ten and his father abandoned him. He went to prestigious universities but returned to Newark to live, work and raise his family. But that is not what people heard. The night before the election, as he canvassed the South Ward where he and Mr Baraka both live, Mr Jeffries had to remind voters that: “I grew up in the hood.”
The campaign was rough even by New Jersey’s standards. “Sign wars”, where political signs are ripped up and replaced with an opponent’s, were rampant. A campaign office was vandalised. Two Jeffries supporters burned a Baraka campaign bus. Union-backed ads accused Mr Jeffries of plotting with hedge fund types to “destroy our schools for their personal profit”.
Mr Baraka has a tough task ahead of him. Last year saw 111 murders, the most since 1990, and the city faces a $90m budget deficit. Still, Newark has a busy port and airport in its backyard. Christian Benedetto of HSB Advisors, a property broker, says that investors are interested in the city no matter who is mayor. Lisset, a Jeffries supporter, is not so sure. “Newark will go back 20 years,” she predicts.