Newark mayor's race: Warrant issued for suspect in Baraka bus burning

By Naomi Nix/The Star-Ledger
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on April 01, 2014

The campaign bus of Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka was vandalized in February


NEWARK — The competition between Newark mayoral candidates Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries over whose campaign is playing dirtier politics took a more serious turn today.

On the heels of an announcement from the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office that a Newark man was charged with setting a small fire on Baraka’s campaign bus, Baraka said it was time for more scrutiny of campaign tactics.

"This is extremely problematic for the way Newark is viewed and for elections moving forward," he said during a news conference this afternoon at his Central Avenue headquarters. "The Jeffries campaign called for federal monitors. We agree. We think they should be monitoring him."

Michael Benkowski, 43, of Newark, is facing third-degree arson, third-degree criminal mischief and third-degree burglary charges in the bus fire, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

On Feb. 16, the bus was parked in front of Baraka’s headquarters when Benkowski allegedly set it on fire and put sugar in it, the statement said. Benkowski remains at large, according to the prosecutor.

Using surveillance footage, investigators concluded a 2007 white Chevy Express van was involved in the incident, the statement said. On March 7, Shareef Nash, 35, was pulled over near Morris and Central avenues in Newark while driving that van, the statement said.

Nash, of South Orange, is a paid worker for the Jeffries campaign, said Jeffries’ spokeswoman, Lupe Todd. The van is registered to Prestige Professional Management, a company owned by Nash, Todd said. Nash has not been charged in the incident, but the prosecutor said the investigation is ongoing.

"Anyone involved in this arson must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Jeffries said in a statement after Baraka’s news conference. "This is unacceptable behavior for any supporter regardless of which candidate they back."

But Baraka accused Jeffries’ campaign of aggressive tactics.

"They have been the aggressors from the very beginning," he said at the press conference. "It puts a damper on what Newark politics is all about."

In recent days the two men have issued competing claims of campaign misdeeds. Jeffries said Baraka has used intimidation tactics on his campaign workers. Baraka accused some election officials of having a conflict of interest by supporting Jeffries.

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