Two years into term, Newark mayor Baraka getting results | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on October 02, 2016

If Ras Baraka seems to be everywhere in Newark, it's because he is.

Bagging groceries at the new ShopRite for a hunger drive. Handing out free back-to-school supplies at Abyssinian Baptist Church.

At the St. Lucy's pulpit, promoting police brass. At the new Essex County Vo-Tech, swearing in a new police chief.

He swelters at public pool openings, swimming in perspiration in his business suit. He walks the streets in his version of the Occupy movement — to show his face, reach out his hand and make residents aware of city services.

He once read his poetry at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. He reads the riot act to Port Newark unions about not hiring minorities.

"He's always around," said John Schreiber, president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. "He is present in the city. He's a guy who is dedicated, heart and soul, to what's best and next for Newark."

Baraka is there when the cameras are rolling, and when they are not. Every park reopening, every groundbreaking, every ribbon-cutting. At all these places, as speeches are given and plaudits delivered, the 40th mayor of Newark looks at times shy, at times bemused, at times tired.

When he is on the streets of the city in which he was born and raised, his eyes dart around to the faces of the people there to greet him, as well as those who are just part of the urban landscape. He shakes the dirty hands along with the clean ones.

Sometimes, his eyes get fixed on some faraway point, as if he were daydreaming.

He is asked what he sees when his eyes wander off like that.

"I see all the things that are wrong," he said. "I see all the things we've got to fix."

For Ras Baraka, Newark is not a political stepping-stone.

He felt the lure of national attention as a teenager at Howard University in Washington when he helped lead the protest to remove Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater from the school's board of trustees. Thousands joined in. The big press — The New York Times, The Washington Post and TV — followed. So did the riot police. Atwater stepped down.

He formed his own student "racial enlightenment" organization. He was a youth leader for the Commission for Racial Justice, led by civil rights leader Ben Chavis, who worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

There was no question young Ras Baraka could find a place on the national stage, but he came home to Newark.

"I always planned on coming back," he said.

There was the family enterprise to attend to. As the son of the late Amiri Baraka — Newark's most influential black activist, writer and the voice of black consciousness — Ras Baraka wanted to start his own like-minded legacy.

"I was trying to be an activist, teacher, writer – affecting change in that way," said Baraka.

But he soon realized that "challenging power" might be better done from the inside than the outside.

He ran for mayor against two-term incumbent Sharpe James in 1994.

"I was 24, and I almost did it on a dare," Baraka said. "I was challenging power. Every time we rallied or marched on City Hall (as an activist), I thought, at some point, we needed to get inside."

So he ran for city council twice, in 1998 and 2002, losing in close run-offs. But James saw Baraka's political momentum growing, so he pulled him close and made him a deputy mayor in 2002.

Ras Baraka was inside. He came principal of Central High School, the South Ward councilman and then mayor.

"I'm the first Newark mayor in five decades, who was actually born here," Baraka said. "Ken Gibson (elected in 1970) and Sharpe (James) were both from the South."

And, of course, Cory Booker.

Baraka understands Newark can be rough on outsiders, be they developers, hockey team owners, police directors or mayors.

Newark is funny that way.

Baraka knows that, because he's from the city, he gets a longer honeymoon.

But Baraka, 46, also knows that nobody — not even Amiri Baraka's son — gets a pass for long. Newark is funny like that, too.

It's his job now to turn around the stubborn cultures of crime, street despair and government incompetence.

Last winter's blizzard left Newark roads unpassable for days — a disaster for an administration promising better services.

 In an August department head meeting, Baraka was exasperated that he still didn't have a count of workable plows or contracts with plow companies in place.  

"I mean, we know it's going to snow," he said. "So why can't we get this done? Now."

At the same meeting, he showed similar frustration with condemnation proceedings of derelict buildings, which hamstring redevelopment.

"I keep telling people, 'We're getting it done, we're getting it done,' " he said. "And two years later, now, we're not getting it done. So let's get it done." 

The biggest issue, of course, is crime. For the week ending Sept. 25, crime in the city is down 16 percent from this time last year, according to Newark police statistics.

There have been 72 homicides, down from 76 at this time last year. Auto thefts are down 23 percent. Burglaries are down 30 percent and robbery is down 20 percent.

A good start, but Baraka acknowledges "there is more work to be done."

The same is true about education and poverty levels. According to Newark Kids Count, an advocacy group that studies the health, education and welfare of Newark's children, high school graduation rates are close to 70 percent, as opposed to 63 percent in 2012. The number of children living in poverty or extreme poverty is dropping, but the percentages remain staggering — 58 percent of Newark children live below the poverty line.

These improvements aren't substantial enough for some activists, however.

You can find longtime activist Donna Jackson still on the City Hall steps each week, haranguing Baraka with the same passion she aimed at Booker over crime, education and lack of government responsiveness to residents.

Baraka knows change comes hard. And it might even be harder for him to force change because he's not an outsider.

"People here knew me as a child. They knew my parents," said Baraka, whose mother, Amini, still lives in the city.

"Some people still perceive me as young," he said. "And when I ask the community to be engaged in what we're trying to do and share the power, some see that as a sign of weakness."

But such engagement seems to be the growing strength of his first term.

His occupy movement brings representatives of city agencies into the streets, with brochures and information on everything from job counseling to health services. He is usually along.

He holds monthly leadership meetings, with kids from ages 10 to 18, in local restaurants before they are lost to the streets. He started the Newark Street Academy at the Marion Bolden Center, which offers GED courses and job training to high school dropouts.

He created a Street Team program that enlists people of influence in neighborhoods to defuse brewing tensions.

 "This has always been his thing, to cut down on the street violence," said Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose. "When it comes to public safety, he's second to none. He'll do whatever it takes to make the people safe, like when he (brokered) the gang truce (in 2004)."

He has opened nine "Centers of Hope," at which residents can find an array of enrichment programs — from the arts to healthier living.

Schreiber said NJPAC now brings programming and classes to these centers, spurred by Baraka.

"I think the arts center is much more engaged in the community now because of Ras' leadership," Schreiber said. "And he uses the arts center itself for how it was intended: to be a place of forums and gatherings to bring the community together."

Another institution Baraka has embraced is Rutgers University-Newark. Chancellor Nancy Cantor and Marcia Brown, the vice chancellor of external relations and governmental affairs, are on Baraka's short list of advisers, said Marjorie Harris, the mayor's press secretary.

"Rutgers is vital in what they bring to the table," said Harris, specifically citing the work of Rutgers criminology professor Todd Clear for the Safer Newark Council.

The council is just one example of how Baraka has brought many city factions together to solve problems.

Ron Beit, developer of Newark's Teachers Village and the planned Four Corners Millennial Project, is a member, as is Larry Hamm, founder of the People's Organization of Progress, one of Newark's historic activist groups.

 "He (Baraka) has the ability to bring dissenting voices together and find common ground," said Bashir Akinyele, a charter member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, which was co-founded by Baraka after a series of street killings in the summer of 2011.

Baraka said it's all about getting the community to invest in itself.

"Government is supposed to be responsible and held accountable," he said. "But the community has to be part of the solution. It can't just sit back and blame government. It has to be responsible and held accountable, too. We've got to get in the trenches with them."

Those front lines are especially important in law enforcement. His effort to improve police and community relations has gained national attention. After the Dallas police shootings in July, Baraka was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama to talk about Newark's innovative policies, which include meet-and-greets during quality-of-life sweeps, bringing clergy into the community on patrol and using social services instead of handcuffs on the mentally ill and the drug addicted.

When Baraka ran for office, his opponents and many people in the business community confused his activism for radicalism.

Perhaps his father's legacy contributed to that. But the things Ras Baraka values for his community — good education, livable-wage jobs, safe streets, ample recreation, grocery stores, Main Street-type small businesses – are as middle class as middle class can be.

"That's what he wants," said Earl "The Street Doctor" Best, who has worked with Newark kids for decades. "He wants people to have a good life.

"And, let me tell you, he takes it personally. We had a kid killed in a hit-and-run. Ras did the eulogy.

"(Another time) we went to the youth house, he sees this kid in there. He breaks down crying. 'That kid was my student.' He thought the kid was on the right track."

Baraka wants something else, too. He wants to add to another dimension to his father's legacy. Amiri Baraka brought attention to the problems. Ras Baraka wants to solve them.

"People saw my father as leftist or a radical. I have no issue with that. They were turbulent times," he said.

"Now we are trying to create stability," Baraka said. "We want to bring quality of life, quality of goods into the community."

It's a new narrative, but formed from old ideas and handed down from father to son.

"For me," Baraka said, "the question is, how do we write an ending where we actually win?"

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