Booker to Baraka: 5 stories that shaped Newark politics in 2014

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for
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on December 30, 2014

Newark mayor-elect Ras Baraka becomes animated as he delivers his victory speech to supporters at the Robert Treat Hotel.



NEWARK — From the alleged corruption at the Newark Watershed to the rough-and-tumble retail politics of the municipal election, Newark political junkies had their fill of stories to follow in 2014. We've compiled a list of five events whose impact on city politics will last long after New Year's eve.

1. Baraka wins mayoral race. It's obvious but, Ras Baraka's ascension into the mayor's office this spring is easily the most important event to happen in city politics in years. Week after week the contentious race was marked by angry street confrontations, mudslinging TV ads and let's not forget the torching of a campaign bus. As the race intensified, former mayoral candidates Darrin Sharif and Anibal Ramos dropped out. Their departure left Baraka, an activist-turned-politician with better name recognition, and Shavar Jeffries, a former assistant attorney general with strong Newark roots and a bigger financial war chest.

"The election of Ras Baraka...was a major change in the sense that he was able to overcome the strength of the county machine which was solidly behind Jeffries,” said Bob Curvin, author of “Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation."

How Baraka's election will impact next year's school board election and upcoming state legislature and gubernatorial races remains to be seen. But since he was elected in May, the mayor has already succeeded in getting five allies on the city council, and one on the county democratic committee.

2. The Watershed indictments. It's hard to believe it was almost a year ago when the state comptroller released a report alleging rampant corruption of the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation. Former employees and contractors were accused of siphoning off millions of city dollars in illegal payments, sweetheart deals, and risky stock ventures. Earlier this month, a federal jury brought down indictments against a former employee and contractor.

At the time, the comptroller report forced mayoral candidates to tell voters how they would address corruption in city politics. But the real political impact of the Watershed scandal is still unknown. As some experts have said the big question is just how far up the political ladder, federal authorities and the interim board of trustees will go to seek justice.

3. Newark gets a police monitor It was less than a month into Baraka's tenure as mayor, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that the city's police force would become the 13th municipal police department in the nation to operate under a federal watchdog.

Baraka praised the announcement as an opportunity to transform the department. But Newark officials are still waiting on the specifics of how it will be reformed. The path toward creating a civilian review board with the authority to subpoena Newark police officers accused of misconduct, for instance, could prompt a public battle between the city, activists and local union, experts have said.

4. The fight against school reform. If Newark mayor Ras Baraka's election was the biggest political event in the city, then the movement against the city school district's reforms comes at a close second. For months local activist groups have waged a fierce public battle against superintendent Cami Anderson, and One-Newark, a reorganization plan that involves expanding charter schools, relocating school communities and changing school leadership. The activists, along with Baraka's support, have at times propelled their movement against the reforms into the national spotlight.

The activists' protests have not achieved the reversal of Anderson's reforms that they asked for but they arguably helped to get Baraka elected in May giving anti school-reform groups some political capital.

5. The Booker effect. He didn't hold an office in Newark in 2014, but the former mayor and now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker was omnipresent throughout the city's politics. Once a vocal critic of Booker while serving on the city council, Baraka has toned down direct criticism of the former mayor since the mayoral campaign. But that hasn't stopped his allies on the city council from publicly taking shots at Booker's record as mayor and arguing that the new administration will fix his alleged mistakes.

But how Booker's legacy is received beyond Newark could impact the senator's political future. If he stays in the senate, the importance of his voting record far surpasses his achievements in Newark, but if Booker takes a stab at an executive office, his record in Newark will be significant, says Andra Gillespie, author of "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America."

That means the lens through which the public sees issues such as the Watershed debacle and the presence of a police monitor matters. "His opponents...will try to use anything that appears to be lackluster as an example of poor management," Gillespie said.

What do you think the most important Newark political stories were in 2014? Tell us in the comments.

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