Newark 2014: The Game beyond the Game

By Max Pizarro | March 17th, 2014


Mark Bonamo’s piece today posits the possibility of anti-establishment candidate Ras Baraka winning the Newark Mayor’s race, and underscores what would be Baraka’s – or anyone’s - challenge in governing the crime-ridden, financially caved-in city.

But, in the event that he wins, what would a Baraka political universe look like if he and the county and state powers – including powerful Executive Joe DiVincenzo and his allies in Trenton – fail to forge a mode of good governance?

Newark is in such disrepair, Baraka will have to work with the county and governor’s office just to keep from plunging Newark into deeper ruin, Bonamo reports.

Yet if his own political backers do not experience the changes Baraka promises fast enough and the mayor is unable to reverse a record year in violent crime, or – as is most frequently the case – the politics simply do not allow peace - Baraka as mayor would feel pressure to challenge the establishment.

2015 would be the starting point for Baraka to make a statement.

2016 would provide a second opportunity.

And 2017 could either be the completion of work undertaken in 2015 or a political hat trick.

In starts with the 2015 assembly cycle, when one year from now, Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-29) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor (D-29) could find themselves on the chopping block, either victims of a developing rivalry bigger than Newark or salvaged and left on the line in a high stakes political poker match.

An ally of U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.’s (D-10), Spencer rose to power under the auspices of the Payne/then-Mayor Cory Booker alliance.

How hard will Booker push to restore Spencer to the legislature?

How hard will Payne labor?

To date, the assemblywoman – chair of the Environmental Committee - has stayed out of the local fray, preferring to endorse neither Baraka nor Baraka’s fellow mayoral challenger Shavar Jeffries, a former state assistant attorney general.

Buttonholed by his Jeffries-backing uncle, Deputy Chief of Staff to DiVincenzo Bill Payne, Payne came right up against making his own public declaration of support for Jeffries but then demurred.

Questions persist about why the congressman opted out of the contest. If Payne stays out now, can he count on not having to worry about a challenge later, and was Spencer included in the protection clause?

Likely not (see below).

Then there’s the East Ward.

Part of Baraka’s campaign has included numerous forays into the East, where he has made a point to demonstrate his ease navigating in the Ferry Street business community.

An early standout at Baraka events is Americo Seabra, owner of the Seabra’s supermarket chain.

Would a Seabra family member emerge as the 2015 alternative to Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, whose family likewise has longstanding roots in the neighborhood’s food industry?

Pintor Marin’s political benefactor, East Ward Leader Joe Parlavecchio, is a visible backer of Jeffries.

Her local ally, East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, is on the Jeffries ticket.

If Baraka convinces the Democratic Party that he needs his own assembly people in Trenton as a matter of loyalty and patronage, would he be able to also persuade DiVincenzo that he needs senatorial courtesy?

Or would the county Dems grant him two assembly seats on the condition that he preserve Ruiz in 2017?

Would Baraka simply not have sufficient heft to challenge, basded on years of North and Central Ward organizing by DiVincenzo and his allies?

Or would the statewide political dynamic hastening toward 2017 and forcing a conflict negate everything short of a showdown?

Right now, everything in New Jersey politics points toward a post Chris Christie Democratic Primary for governor, possibly between Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.

The early ground game, in any event, strongly suggests Sweeney v. Fulop.

Right now, Sweeney and DiVincenzo are allied; and so are Baraka and Fulop.

If Baraka strengthens his political hand ahead of 2017, DiVincenzo could find himself in the unsteady position of having to back either Sweeney for governor or Ruiz for state senator.

He does have another option, however.

In the face of a locally empowered Baraka, the best scenario for Ruiz could be to forbear running for re-election and join Sweeney’s ticket as his candidate for lieutenant governor.

If she digs in, she could face some recognizable faces.

If she leaves to run for LG, those same politicians could challenge for her seat, possibly against a revamped Ramos, working under the Sweeney/Ruiz ticket to keep the senate seat in Joe D-safe hands.

Baraka’s options?

Routinely spotted at Baraka events is Hector Corchado, the former North Ward City Councilman defeated by Anibal Ramos in 2006.

He’s a possible challenger if the situation goes haywire.

Then there’s Mayor Luis Quintana, a 2007 loser to Ruiz in a three-way race that included then-Assemblyman Bill Payne (D-29).

In the right circumstances, Quintana may seek out a rematch.

Sandwiched between the legislative cycle is the 2016 congressional cycle, where - absent a peace settlement - Payne may have to pick between Baraka and DiVincenzo.

Baraka has one fascinating negotiating instrument in the person of Councilman John Sharpe James, his South Ward council candidate.

The son of former Mayor Sharpe James, the younger James surprised some political observers when he opted out of running again for his at-large seat in preference of the South Ward Council seat.

Insiders say he’s shoring up the South Ward.

The move enables the younger James to organize daily on the ground at the heart of the Payne empire, and at the very least needle Payne into cementing an alliance with Baraka ahead of 2017.

It’s an agonizing position for Payne, whose family has longstanding ties to DiVincenzo.

But the congressman in the past has been known to make a calculated break for what appears to be the stronger camp.   

In the 2006 runoff election, he threw himself behind the Booker cause when he saw the damage the mayor-elect did in his head-to-head with Ronald L. Rice

Of course, negate all of the above if Jeffires wins in two months, as his allies say he will.

Insiders also point to the submission once in office of notorious pre-Election Day hellraisers Brian P. Stack and - at least within the confines of his home county - Fulop, who allowed himself to be absorbed into the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) sooner than prolong and widen the war.

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