As Newark mayor's race tightens, familiar tropes may not apply

By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger
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on February 19, 2014

Shavar Jeffries, left, is now essentially in a two-way race with South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka to be the next mayor of Newark.


NEWARK — He is a well-educated attorney running a reform campaign to bring New Jersey’s largest city into the 21st century.

His opponent is a fiery, charismatic city pol railing against the so-called "outsider."

Sound familiar?

No, it’s not 2002. This is not Cory Booker vs. Sharpe James. But for many city voters, it may feel that way.

"We will not let a political machine shove someone we don’t know and don’t trust down our throats," South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka said last week of his opponent, Shavar Jeffries. "We will not let them take over our city. ... We will not be bought."

Go back 12 years and you will find then-Mayor James saying the same thing about Booker.

"We’re going to send a message to the world: You can’t come to Newark and buy it," James told a crowd of supporters in 2002. "Newark is not for sale."

The problem for Baraka is, unlike Booker, Jeffries is a Newark native and his childhood may seem a lot more familiar to many Newarkers than Baraka’s. The problem for Jeffries is not enough people know it — yet.

Until last week, the 39-year-old Jeffries was running a distant third in the mayor’s race, with low name recognition. Then Councilmen Anibal Ramos and Darrin Sharif dropped out and overnight Jeffries, a former assistant state attorney general, became a contender in a race that promises to be among Newark’s hardest-fought political battles in more than a decade.

Ramos endorsed Jeffries. Joseph DiVincenzo, the powerful Essex County executive, is expected to support him, too.

Still, Baraka leads in most polls. Tuesday, he received a valuable endorsement from Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, which will likely garner him volunteers and significant fundraising from the mayor’s supporters. Baraka has enviable name recognition thanks in part to his father, the late poet Amiri Baraka, as well as a long history as a Newark activist and politician.


Baraka, 44, has spent the last five years building a loyal and active army of supporters. He has sought to define Jeffries as a tool of the bosses and a puppet of outside, moneyed interests while touting himself as the progressive candidate of the people.

"We have had a wave of conservatism in this country and people are pushing it back slowly like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill," Baraka said, referring to Greek mythology.

He cited last year’s New York City mayoral election as a sign progressivism is taking hold.

"From Bloomberg to de Blasio — that’s a giant leap," Baraka said in a recent interview. "This is a progressive era we are about to witness."

From the start, Baraka has cast his candidacy as a grassroots movement, fueled by the city’s streets and neighborhoods.

"We have to make people believe it’s not about my family, it’s about their family. My progress is inextricably tied to your progress," he said.

Jeffries bristles at the suggestion his Newark roots are any less valid than Baraka’s.

"I’m from a family that’s been in Newark 100 years," Jeffries said during an interview at his Central Ward campaign office. "I had a much different upbringing than anybody in this race. I surely didn’t have a father that the whole world knew. In fact, I did not know my father."

Jeffries said his mother was 19 when she had him and married another man when he was a child. Her husband quickly turned violent and mother and son were often on the run. Eventually, the man waited for his wife at her job, shot and killed her. Jeffries was 10 years old. About a year later, Jeffries’ biological father showed up, but soon disappeared.

"I came home one day and he was gone," Jeffries said.


Jeffries was taken in by his grandmother, a teacher, who wanted him to attend a Catholic school rather than George Washington Carver — a struggling public school in their South Ward neighborhood.

Jeffries won a scholarship to Seton Hall Prep through the Boys and Girls Club he would later lead. He went on to Duke University and Columbia Law School.

"Not only have I been here, I grew up in a context of struggle that is frankly the story of Newarkers," Jeffries said. "My opponent grew up in relative privilege."

Jeffries said returning to Newark was always the mission. As a civil rights attorney, Jeffries has represented residents in mortgage fraud cases, tenants’ rights cases, education cases, all pro bono.

"I worked with the Education Law Center for many years on many of the Abbott cases," Jeffries said, referring to the state’s poorest school districts. "We sued the state because it wasn’t providing enough resources to implement (individual education plans) for disabled kids."

In 2007, he landed a job as assistant state attorney general under Anne Milgram. Jeffries points to a three-year reduction in violent crime statewide, a doubling of the graduation rate at juvenile detention facilities, and recognition by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as a "model state" for alternative juvenile detention during his stint with the state.

In 2010, Jeffries won a seat on the Newark school advisory board, where he was made chairman. He was supported by power broker Stephen Adubato Sr., but won significant votes in the South Ward on his own. A year later, he publicly accused Adubato of manipulating school board votes and the two split.


Still, Jeffries ostensibly has the support of DiVincenzo as well as South Jersey power broker George Norcross.

For Newark watchers that’s a boon for Jeffries, but also a sign of Baraka’s strength.

"It suggests that there are a lot of people who view Baraka as a threat," said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who wrote the book "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America."

Baraka revels in his role as a disrupter.

"Since they know they can’t elect Ramos, they want someone else they can control or who will do their work. ... (Jeffries) is the pliable candidate that they want as mayor," Baraka said in a statement last week.

Still, Gillespie said painting Jeffries as an outsider may begin to wear thin. "This is somebody who was from this community. His personal life story at least in terms of his childhood will resonate with a lot of Newarkers," she said.

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