Newark Mayoral Race Seen as Referendum on Booker

But for all the issues, the question at the heart of the many debates between the candidates is who is the real Newarker. It is the legacy of Mr. Booker, now Senator Booker, who elevated the city’s profile nationally but never shook accusations that he was only a visitor on his way to higher office, and who left unresolved the debates over education and gentrification.

To many, the nonpartisan election — after a campaign that has included screaming matches, arrests and accusations of vandalism — is both a referendum on his tenure and a defining moment for the future. (Luis A. Quintana, the interim mayor until June 30, is not running.)

Mr. Baraka, described by both sides as the front-runner, has long cast himself as the anti-Booker. In a majority black city that still ritually commemorates the riots of 1967, he has appealed to long-held suspicion of outsiders with slogans like “Believe in Newark” and “When I become mayor, we all become mayor.”

“I’ve never seen you involved,” he told Mr. Jeffries in a debate on Wednesday, and then warned, “Newarkers, we’ve seen this movie before.”

Mr. Jeffries noted that he was raising his family in the South Ward. “My kids are not in the suburbs,” he swiped at Mr. Baraka, whose children live with their mother in central New Jersey. “You don’t have more skin in the game than when you have your wife and your babies on Chancellor Avenue with our life on the line.”

Mr. Jeffries’s background is certainly not parallel to Mr. Booker’s; he grew up here, the senator in a well-to-do Bergen County suburb. But he is seen as the heir to his New Newark, where 20 percent of children go to charter schools, and a Whole Foods is rising in a long-abandoned department store building downtown. Mr. Jeffries has appealed to the city’s Hispanics, who make up 23 percent of the population, by stoking fears that the Baraka brand of black nationalism will divide the city.

“This is about what kind of politics prevails in Newark at this point,” said Clement A. Price, a professor at Rutgers and the city’s official historian, who has not taken sides in the contest. “Is it a political culture that wants to ‘take back Newark,’ return to a Newark Cory Booker usurped, or will the city move forward, in part as a result of the kind of paradigm we saw when Cory came to town?”

Street confrontations and an onslaught of ads and mailings between the campaigns have made the 2002 race between Mr. Booker and Mayor Sharpe James, chronicled in a documentary called “Street Fight,” seem civil by comparison. Last April, Mr. Baraka and Amiri Baraka Jr., his brother, abruptly arrived at Mr. Jeffries’s house, arguing with him to get out of the race. Amiri Jr. was videotaped in January screaming at volunteers putting up signs for Mr. Jeffries, warning them he would “destroy our community.” Last month, two campaign workers for Mr. Jeffries were arrested and accused of setting fire to Mr. Baraka’s campaign bus in February. And the office of Mr. Jeffries’s campaign manager was vandalized.

Independent groups have spent more than $3.5 million on a series of television ads, seeing this as a proxy war over education, between those who back charter schools, including Gov. Chris Christie, and unions that oppose them.

“They’re coming. From Wall Street. From Trenton. To sell us Shavar Jeffries,” warned one ad by a coalition of unions backing Mr. Baraka. “Chris Christie’s allies and the Wall Street hedge fund types have an agenda. Shut down Newark public schools. Shut out parents. And destroy our schools for their personal profit.”

“Newark is not for sale,” another ad declares — an echo of the argument made against Mr. Booker in 2002 by Mayor James, who went to federal prison and is now supporting Mr. Baraka. (His son is running on the same ticket for Municipal Council.)

Mr. Jeffries and the groups backing him, largely education reform groups that supported Mr. Booker, have hammered Mr. Baraka on crime, noting that murders in the South Ward, which he represents, have risen 70 percent since he joined the council in 2010. Anonymous mailings circulate news stories reporting that Mr. Baraka wrote letters seeking leniency for one of the city’s most notorious gang leaders. “Who is he fighting for?” one asked. “Are gang leaders our kids’ heroes?”

Last week, another pro-Jeffries group circulated a video showing Mr. Baraka talking to a crowd of gang members, urging them to question why Puerto Rican and white store owners would not hire blacks, and proclaiming himself “a conspiracy theorist.”

“We got to plan to remove them and then we got to seize power,” Mr. Baraka told them.

Mr. Jeffries hired the advertising firm that made New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mixed-race family famous to make an ad that underscored his family life (Mr. Baraka is not married). Mr. Jeffries’s wife and two daughters draw frequent comparisons among his admirers to Barack Obama’s.

And the campaigns have employed a parade of celebrities: Spike Lee, Cornel West and Lauryn Hill for Mr. Baraka (she sang “Happy Birthday” at a fund-raiser when he turned 44 in March; he had appeared on her breakthrough album). For Mr. Jeffries, 39, there have been Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney, and, this week, Eva Longoria, one of Mr. Booker’s celebrity surrogates, who appeals to Hispanic voters.

Mr. Baraka has benefited from name recognition. Amiri Baraka, who died in January, was a leader of Newark’s cultural and political life following the riots of 1967. Nina Simone sang lullabies to Ras Baraka when he was a child; Maya Angelou read him poems.

He and his father, who helped elect the city’s first black mayor, Kenneth A. Gibson, and then criticized him as too moderate, were among Mr. Booker’s most persistent critics. Asked at a public discussion last month with Mr. Price, the city’s historian, to choose his role models as mayor, Mr. Baraka did not mention Mr. Gibson, but instead, Chokwe Lumumba, the black radical who became mayor of Jackson, Miss., and Marion Barry of Washington.

He has argued that economic development, not more police officers, is the first step to reducing crime. He pledges to embrace Operation Ceasefire, which cities like Boston have used to try to counsel gang members to abandon violence, calling it “a very conservative idea not to engage” gang members in fighting crime.

Despite Mr. Baraka’s attempts to paint him as an outsider, Mr. Jeffries is very much a son of Newark, born to a 19-year-old single mother who was killed by her estranged husband. Mr. Jeffries, then 10, was sent to live with his grandmother.

After law school, he led the Boys and Girls Club, where he had spent much of his childhood, and served under Gov. Jon S. Corzine as an assistant attorney general, working on anti-crime strategies. He is an associate professor at Seton Hall Law School.

But while Mr. Jeffries has raised more money, Mr. Baraka has found louder support.

At a debate sponsored by the N.A.A.C.P. last month, Mr. Baraka arrived with poster-size photographs showing projects planned for the South Ward — and buses of supporters. Mr. Jeffries cautioned the crowd of about 350 not to be fooled by the pictures. “Drive through the South Ward and murders are up 70 percent,” he said. He was drowned out by boos.

He persisted, attacking Mr. Baraka for a lack of results. “The elders used to say, empty wagons make a lot of noise,” he said.

Mr. Baraka retorted: “Noise got us the Civil Rights Act! The Voting Rights Act!” The crowd thundered approval.

Mr. Baraka’s language has alarmed some business leaders: He told The Star-Ledger last year that the city’s businesses and its mostly black community had a “master-slave” relationship. Among Mr. Jeffries’s biggest supporters is Ray Chambers, the private-equity investor and philanthropist.

And polls done by the campaigns show that the race has grown closer in recent weeks, particularly as Mr. Jeffries’s allies have shown television ads pointing out that Mr. Baraka earned more than $200,000 between his jobs as a member of the Municipal Council and as the principal of Central High School.

On streets with vacant lots and gated storefronts, some voters say they resent Mr. Baraka’s attempts to portray Mr. Jeffries as an outsider, rather than a Newark success story.

“We have to teach our kids it’s all right to want to do better,” said Kimmie Smalls, 53, a retired toll collector who had come to Mr. Jeffries’s South Ward headquarters to volunteer last week. “With Shavar, my grandson sees he doesn’t have to be an athlete to succeed; he can be a lawyer. That’s a positive thing to me.”

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