Interview with Newark Mayoral Candidate Ras Baraka

Friday, 10 January 2014 21:23 Local Talk News Editor

NOTE: This interview was conducted just days before the passing of one-time Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka. Local Talk extends its condolences to the Baraka family.

This week, we are concluding our series of interviews with those who have announced their candidacy for the position of mayor in Newark. We have already published interviews with Shavar Jefferies, Darrin Sharif, and Anibal Ramos. For this edition, we are interviewing Ras Baraka.

Dhiren Shah: Welcome to this interview Mr. Baraka. What qualifies you to run for Mayor of Newark, the largest city in New Jersey?

Ras Baraka: What qualifies me? (Chuckles) I am an organizer and community activist for two decades. I am an educator in Newark. I know what the people of Newark need. I organized with their families, their children. I have been a deputy mayor, I have been a councilman-at-large, and I know how government works. I think this time Newark doesn't need a manager, doesn't need a police officer, doesn't need a lawyer. It needs a transformation leader. I am the transformation leader the city needs. The same work we have done at Central High School is the same thing we have to expand throughout the city.

DS: Do you support having two public or private jobs at the same time?

RB: Most Americans have two or three jobs. Double dipping means you have two elected jobs, with the same person getting paid twice. I am a public school employee. I applied for it and was hired. I was not elected there or appointed there. I filled out an application, interviewed, worked as a teacher for 10 years, became vice principal and became principal. Then, I ran for office as South Ward Councilman and was elected. The constituents knew that I was a high school principal at Central High School. They elected me anyway. When I become mayor, I will be taking a pay cut. I lose.

DS: According to news (flyer) you have been absent from Council Meetings more than 30 days including a budget hearing. What is your comment about that?

RB: Candidates put that information out incorrectly. The reality is, there are meetings, special meetings, pre-meetings. I was there at the majority of the meetings. If you check other councilmen, you will see a similar kind of pattern. My presence or absent is not outrageous, it's normal. I vote on the budget, I oppose. If you go to a pre-meeting and vote on it, it's the same thing. I voted on all of the budgets in one form or another.

DS: You have been the councilman for over three years representing the South Ward. The South Ward is bumping up with crime lately. What have you done to prevent crime?

RB: The whole city is bumping up with the crime. In the South Ward and the West Ward it's expected because of poverty and unemployment. The crime in Newark is not just bumping up in the South Ward. I do want to say that we opened up a mini-precinct in the South Ward. We got the county police to patrol Lyons Avenue and county roads, and we have a curfew for the stores at eleven o'clock, the only ward that has done that. If you talk to the police captain, it has helped them fight crime in the evening hours. Most of the crime happening now is really in the daylight hours or late at night. The police have less resources, and less officers in this area where most crime is taking place.

DS: Recently, there was a triple murder in Irvington and double murder in Newark's South Ward. What have you done to protect the border line?

RB: The urban center in Newark always has border control. You know what the councilman does. We make laws, we are legislators. I don't have police cars and I don't control the borders. The mayor of the city is responsible. That's why I am running for the mayor so we can solve this problem.

DS: As councilman, you can put pressure on the administration.

RB: Pressure don't solve the crime. Policemen do, the mayor of the city does. The Police Director has to have a crime plan. We need to get Ray Kelly from New York, I don't know. The Police Director is hired to come up with a plan. The councilperson advocates for the residents that they are doing their jobs. The ward councilman is not the mayor of the ward. The mayor of the city is responsible for all this crime.

DS: Outside of work in your ward, what have you done to support the whole city of Newark?

RB: My whole life I am working outside of the ward. I ran for councilman-at-large before I ran for ward councilman. I ran for mayor before I ran for councilman-at-large. As principal and teacher of Central High School, I educated families in the city. As an educator, you're not just helping people learn, you help people with housing, you help people with school, you help people with TRA, you advocate for your students and your students' families all over the city. As a councilman-at-large, I work with the organization for Riverbank Park in the East Ward. I've always been involved with citywide politics. I was a deputy mayor. I organized the first Hip-Hop convention. I organize. We built relationships all over the city.

DS: How would you help small businesses, which are the mom and pop stores that are the backbone of this country?

RB: By putting out small business assessment teams to help businesses, especially immigrant and minority businesses to expand and grow, and help them navigate city hall. We'll begin to use BCDC or change them to get help and expand to grow these businesses. Not only grow, but they can provide more jobs for the residents of our city.

DS: The city council has come under fire for its hefty budget. According to Darrin Sharif, his aides are the only ones really working hard behind the scenes, According to Ramos, he has only three staffers under him. What has your staff done to earn their salaries?

RB: My staff works every day to earn their salaries. They are working hard every single day. The council represents one percent of the city's budget. The argument people are having is more political than practical. Should we cut a councilman's car, should we fire another Newarker, should we lay off fire enforcement, code enforcement? We need to hire as many Newarkers as we can, but we have to raise the revenue to do so. If we are not able to raise the revenue, then we have to trim ourselves until we raise the revenue. Every year, the council cuts their budget like all parts of the city. We cut millions of dollars from the council budget throughout. At the end of the day, I don't know of any perks you are talking about. We don't have any extra perks.

DS: As principal of Central High School, what measures have you taken to fix the failing education system?

RB: I don't know if it's a failing education system. But the work we done at Central High School speaks for itself. When I came to Central High School, it was on the persistently dangerous school list. In less than two years, we are off the list. We had the lowest graduation rate in the city. Now we have highest rate of comprehensive high schools, outside of Science, University and Technology. We increase test scores in Math and English double digits, so much so the commissioner of education came and congratulated us for the gains we made.

DS: Central High School moved to new facility. Is there any improvement in education due to the new facility?

RB: Buildings don't educate people. What's going on in the building does. That's the whole argument, even with the charter schools, just because they put their name "charter" in front and somehow they think that affects the education of the kids.

DS: Do you support local control of the schools? How can you achieve that?

RB: Yes. The education law center when they took the state to court over QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum). Newark has already passed with QSAC Scores that can get our schools back and they lost that case. In California, they had a similar situation and they won. They used the argument that Newark used. The argument was that in Newark the education was so poor that they possibly cannot give the schools back to Newark. But the question becomes this; Newark has not been in charge of their schools for two decades. For almost two decades, the state has had control of the public schools. It's not Newarkers who failed the education system, but the state has failed to educate the students.

DS: Besides crime, education and businesses, what do you think is the biggest issue in Newark right now?

RB: Jobs and economic development. All those other things are symptoms. Crime, housing falling apart, what's going on in the streets is a symptom. Poverty and unemployment is the problem.

DS: What do you think Cory Booker did exceptionally well and did wrong during his tenure as mayor?

RB: He talked on the news. I would say that Cory shined a light on Newark. He opened up the curtain, set the stage, and the whole world is looking. Now, it's time for the show to begin. We have to move collectively to grow our city and make Newark the place to be. Cory is better at the job he is at now. By the grace of God, he will be a good Senator, and bring more money to the city of Newark.

DS: Everyone says they are for transparency of the government. How would you make it an effective practice?

RB: I think it's the whole idea of what we are doing. People can say that about me but not others, because I am consistent. The idea that the community needs to be involved is the premise of this campaign. When I become mayor, we become mayor. That's the premise of it. In Newark, people have to have a seat at the table, not just me. The people have to have a seat, and they do that through me.

DS: If you get elected as mayor, or even if not, where do you see Newark five years from now?

RB: You see that downtown is already moving forward. So the market forces are dictating. Newark is an international city. We have to begin branding it that way. Thirty million people are coming to Newark every year. They've got to stay and be a part of the economy of the city. Some may come and stay permanently. We have to make sure we build up our college community. So I see Newark as an international destination. We have the largest seaport in the state and fourth largest in the country. We already have international business in our city, more than most cities in America. Our job is to make it a reality.

Walter Elliott: The way development is being attracted and set in the city is by the way of tax abatement and PILOT. Are you planning to have someone look at the PILOT and tax abatements?

RB: The cities that are growing are not the cities that are attracting big box industries, or cities that attracted arenas. Look at Detroit. Detroit has all these sports teams and they went bankrupt. All these outside entities do not anticipate municipal economic growth. Cities like Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and Denver are experiencing growth within what they can do best. They took the universities and turned them into science and technology universities, with research and began expanding that way. Newark is definitely regaining ground. Newark has some of the best technological infrastructure under the ground (fiber optics) that are an attraction for some of the outside companies to come to Newark.

WE: Do you see an opportunity to review, change or reform minority women owned small businesses?

RB: I have sponsored legislation in three years, twice as much as what they have done in eight years. It's not only about hiring a certain percentage of Newarkers, but a certain percentage throughout the job. As long as the job is going on, in every field of the job they have to have a certain percentage from this community. All those ordinances are not being enforced, so you need a mayor to enforce it. Like, if Mr. Jeffries complains about the council, but the council cannot fix the problems, then he should run for council to fix the problem. But he knows the power of the city lies in the office of the mayor. That is why we are seeking to get the office of the mayor. The ward's problem is the city's problem.

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