Ras Baraka talks race, politics, and Newark's progress | Moran

Ras Baraka became mayor of Newark four years ago, and here's what has happened since.

Crime is way down, setting records, even as cops have pulled back on the number of arrests and frisks. Kids are doing much better in school, with test scores up and drop-outs down. Wall Street in January issued its first "positive" outlook for the city's finances in more than eight years. And private investors are pouring money into new building projects at a pace the city has never witnessed.

Those are the big items, but the list goes on.

Granted, all that started under Cory Booker. But Baraka has built on those successes more effectively than anyone expected. After a militant campaign in 2014 marked by street protests and bullhorns, he's turned into a civic peacemaker.

"The mayor made the transition from running for something to running something more quickly and more adeptly than almost any elected official I've ever seen," says Chris Cerf, the former school superintendent.

An example: During the campaign, Baraka was the arch-enemy of the charter school movement, saying their expansion should be frozen, while belittling the measurable gains of charter students. Once in office, though, he took a second look, talked to all sides, and made peace. In each of the last three school board elections, the two sides have joined hands to support a unity slate.

Nancy Cantor, the popular chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, has worked with Baraka to develop innovative policies on crime, affordable housing, and jobs for locals. His style, she says, is to bring all parties to the table, roll up the sleeves, and find pragmatic answers. And it's working, she says.

A few examples: On crime, he has formed civilian "street teams" that work with gangs after a shooting to defuse tensions, replicating a model that has worked well in other cities. To promote affordable housing, he is pushing to require developers to set aside 20 percent of units as affordable in return for zoning variances or subsidies.

"We work with him a lot," Cantor says. "He comes to us and says, 'Look I really want Newark to grow, but I want people here to grow with it. What can we do?'

"I've never seen a city where the leadership is so willing to sit at the table and ask, 'What can you bring?' I've seen him sit in room with people I know he can't stand. I'm always in awe."

If you want more of that sentiment, call just about anyone in Newark these days.

"He is collaborative to the max," says John Schreiber, who runs the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. "He's a practical progressive, and that's what I love about him. It's an exciting and fun and creating time in the life of this city."

Ok, it's time for the tradition caveat about good news in Newark. The city is still a dangerous place, its schools are nowhere near where they should be, and the locals here do not get a fair share of the wealth that is generated within the city's borders.

"We are not waving victory flags," Baraka said during an interview at city hall. "We're nowhere near where we should be. If you get robbed, you don't want to hear about no statistics."

But the trends are all good, and that's the only fair test for a mayor. His election next week, against Councilwoman Gayle Cheneyfield-Jenkins, is looking more like a coronation than a contest.

So, my question is this: Why doesn't anyone talk about Baraka as a candidate for higher office? Congressman Baraka? Maybe even the state's first African-American governor?

"I don't put myself out there like that," Baraka says. "I'd rather have someone else do it if they'd do a good job for us. I don't think about that a lot. I think about how to get this job done. It consumes you."

He's clearly proud of his record, and the changed tone in the city, a remarkable political evolution from combat to teamwork.

"We still have the same kind of divisiveness, people trying to blow up things, that's what we're used to," he said. "But we don't have to be the state's reality show. And we didn't get to the point where we had to mace anybody."

He smiled, but it was no joke. In 2012, one city council meeting got so raucous the audience rushed the stage, and police had to use mace to protect the council members. School committee meetings devolved into shouting matches over race, state control, and "plantation mentality." Things have calmed down a lot.

I asked Baraka for his thoughts on race in America, and the sad fact that Donald Trump still has the approval of 42 percent of voters.

"It's disheartening," he said. "America does not have the problems it has because of people of color. We are not the problem in America. The problem is inequality and racism. Those things need to be addressed and attacked."

I asked about the memorial to lynching that opened last week in Montgomery, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the history of racism in America - not just slavery and Jim Crow, but explicit policies to bar black home ownership and mandate segregation in public housing.

"America has to be honest with itself and pay attention to what happened," Baraka said. "People refuse to allow us to go there, so we have not had the healing we need, because we refuse to have the conversation.

"This whole fight over statues is not a fight over statues, but a fight over how our history is portrayed, how we are forced to salute and give homage to people who supported our own annihilation."

Newark should control its schools. But I worry.

Trump, he hopes, might spark new reflection. "He's the tip of the iceberg and there's a big base of ice under the water we need to deal with. This is a crossroads period. We go forward, or we go back."

Four years ago, I saw Baraka as a demagogue, and a potential disaster as mayor. Mark that as another mistake on my part. He has turned into one of the state's most effective politicians.

Gov. Baraka? It may be unlikely. But it's not crazy.

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