In city council runoff, Newark political balance in limbo

By Naomi Nix/The Star-Ledger
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on June 06, 2014

NEWARK — Newark’s mayoral election was settled last month, but the city’s political machinery is still churning.

City Council candidates in the West Ward, and especially in the Central Ward, are locked in races marked by online accusations and public confrontations.

But what’s really at stake in next Tuesday’s runoff election is whether Mayor-elect Ras Baraka will have enough votes on the nine-member city council to do what he thinks needs to be done to help the struggling city.

In one battle, the incumbent Central Ward councilman, Darrin Sharif, is fending off competition from former Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins, who is backed by Baraka.

And in the West Ward, the independent Patricia Bradford, a retired city employee, is running against Joe McCallum, who ran on Baraka’s ticket.

"I want the people on my team to win, obviously," Baraka said the day after his victory. "Some of the people that are running, I don’t see them as obstructionists either."

Central Ward voters will have their pick between two candidates who are well-known in Newark.

Chaneyfield-Jenkins touts her record on the City Council from 1995 to 2006, when she says she brought major retailers to the city and helped establish a special improvement district in downtown Newark.

If elected, she said she planned to find ways to reduce crime, create jobs, and bring arts and cultural opportunities to the city.

"I felt the city of Newark needed leadership that was experienced in government, that had the willingness and the desire to lay it all on the line," she said.

But Sharif has sought to portray Chaneyfield-Jenkins as a leader with a failed record in managing the city’s finances.

In addition, The Star-Ledger has reported that Chaneyfield-Jenkins and her husband owe more than $100,000 in federal and state tax liens, a matter that Chaneyfield-Jenkins has said is being negotiated with her accountant and attorney.

She has also been the subject of criticism for expenditures on meals and trips for which she billed the city when she was on the council.

Chaneyfield-Jenkins says the criticism is a distraction from real issues Newarkers care about. She said Sharif and other city leaders have not been able to establish long-lasting change in Newark.

But Sharif touts a half-billion dollars in economic development projects that he has helped bring to the ward through the end of the year, including housing and retail space. Recently, he held a pre-ribbon cutting to tout a community center, built with the help of more than $1 million in federal grants, which will open in September, and partnerships with higher education institutions.

"All of this stuff is really a report card of what we have done over the last four years," he said in a recent interview.

In the West Ward, the two candidates fighting are seeking to step into the spotlight after spending most of their time behind the scenes at City Hall.

McCallum, who is supported by Baraka, points to his work as senior aide to the current West Ward councilman, Ron Rice, including helping to establish the West Ward Development Corp. to raise money for community intiatives.

If elected, McCallum says he wants to improve public safety, attract more businesses and that, like Chaneyfield-Jenkins, he would like to see more arts and cultural activities taking place in the city.

"We want to attract companies to come to the West Ward," he said. "This is the place to be."

Bradford, was an aide to former Councilman Charles A. Bell, said she aimed to tackle the city’s $93 million budget deficit and keep a careful eye on the city’s expenditures, reduce crime and bring in more economic development.

"We have to ensure when we spend the money it is spent wisely," she said.

Only three city council candidates that Baraka backed in last month’s election won seats outright, and he’ll need five votes from the nine-member council to get any of his proposals passed.

"He’s got to get people elected so he can make the city council work for him," said Jonathan Wharton, a professor of history and political science at Stevens Institute of Technology.

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