Newark Elections: Cory Booker backlash bolstered Ras Baraka (Mulshine)

By Paul Mulshine/The Star Ledger
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on May 14, 2014

In the old days, I used to have to travel to Cuba or Nicaragua to see this sort of thing. Now I can just walk a few blocks down Broad Street from The Star-Ledger’s office in Newark.

"Twelve miles from Wall Street, Newark hangs in the balance of a people’s democracy populated by the multinational workers’ unity raising Baraka’s banner on one side and imperialism’s NJ goon squad on the other."

That’s from an article in a newspaper called "Unity & Struggle" that was handed out freely at Ras Baraka’s victory party Tuesday evening. The rest of the paper was filled with Marxist harangues and political poetry by the incoming mayor’s late father, Amiri Baraka.

You didn’t see this sort of thing back when Cory Booker was mayor of Newark. But it was the backlash against the current U.S. senator that made Baraka’s victory over Shavar Jeffries possible.

That became evident as I chatted with Baraka supporters as they awaited the election results at the Robert Treat Hotel. Typical was a comment from Rosemarie Joiner-Hayward, who told me that she wanted a change from the Booker era.

"He was on Jay Leno," she said of Booker. "That’s where you saw him. He was on TV."

I heard similar remarks from Newark residents last year when Booker was running in that special election for the Senate seat he now holds. Booker first ran for mayor as a reformer. But once elected, he spent his time boosting his national image.

That wasn’t Jeffries’ fault. But Newark residents were wary of electing another reform-minded, Ivy League-educated lawyer, said one leading Baraka backer.

"The citizens of Newark for eight years had one of the most well-trained, articulate attorneys to be found in the country, Cory Booker," Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver said after Baraka was declared the winner. "Everyone knows that that was not the best outcome for the citizens."

The Essex County Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully against Booker in last year’s Senate primary, went on to blame Booker for the $93 million deficit the city now faces.

As for Baraka, "For 20 years he’s been pounding the pavement in Newark," Oliver said. "He is responsible for so many things."

Despite the radical rhetoric of his supporters, Baraka got his support in this race primarily through old-fashioned street politics, Oliver said. She recalled how, as a young man, the now-45-year-old Baraka organized citizens to attend council meetings with their mouths taped shut to protest a policy banning public comments. The council dropped the ban on speech, she said.

In another sign of the conventional nature of Baraka’s appeal, the room was packed with people wearing T-shirts from the Service Employees International Union, a key element in the Democratic Party. And up on the stage with the winner were a number of mainstream Democratic pols, such as state Sen. Richard Codey.

As Baraka made his acceptance speech, Codey stood next to him smiling like a cat who’d swallowed a whole pet store full of canaries. The battle lines in this election were way too complicated to explain in this short space, but Codey was on the other side from most of the statewide Democratic establishment.

After the speech, Codey lost no time in telling the assembled press that he would like Gov. Chris Christie to call off plans to send in state monitors to look at the city’s finances.

"I think it’s time to sit down and talk before we do any of that," Codey said. "Why be confrontational? You sit down with the guy who just got elected to be the next mayor of the city of Newark and you show him that kind of respect. "

Christie may not like that advice, but he may have to take it. The new mayor of the state’s biggest city is in a powerful position.

Also up on stage with the winner was Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. He’s said to be angling for the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. By backing Baraka, Fulop solidified support in Essex County to go with his control in Hudson.

So forget that nonsense about a people’s democracy. His supporters may talk like he’s Che Guevara of Cuba, but the smart money says Baraka will govern like Richard Daley of Chicago.

This is good, old-fashioned Democratic machine politics. And the machine now has a new boss.

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