Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on May 09, 2014

Elect Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor on Tuesday.


Ras Baraka, son of the late poet Amiri Baraka, is known as a radical, preaching on the street corner about revolution. But in truth, he represents the status quo in Newark, which for decades has been unable to shake itself loose from a failing school system and epidemic of violent crime.

Shavar Jeffries is the real reformer in this race, which voters will decide on Tuesday. As mayor, he’d have the best chance of prevailing over Newark’s highly contentious politics to actually get things done.

For two men rooted in the same district of the same city, they are starkly different candidates. Jeffries has less name recognition, but a remarkable personal story. Born to a teenage mother who was murdered when he was 10 years old and a father who abandoned him, he was raised by his grandmother in the city’s South Ward, and won scholarships to Duke University and Columbia Law School.

His later work as a civil rights attorney representing the poor and an assistant attorney general fighting crime has made him intimately familiar with the problems of Newark. It’s also given him the lawyerly skill to push for reform without being divisive.

Not so of Baraka, a high school principal and city councilman for the South Ward.

Raised by a well-known activist, he got his start as a protester at Howard University. He energizes his base with an old-school black nationalism that seems inspired by his father, but outdated. And while his rhetoric is radical, Baraka’s leadership isn’t. He’s plugged into the old politics of Newark, endorsed by former Mayor Sharpe James, who spent 18 months in federal prison.

In a city on the cusp of reform but marked by rivalries — between ethnicities, political factions, the central business district and troubled neighborhoods — Jeffries is the best person to straddle the fault lines. This includes the biggest rift of the day, over the future of Newark’s public schools.

Jeffries, who chaired the school advisory board, supports good schools for kids regardless of whether they’re charters or district-run. He is critical of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson when she deserves it, but hasn’t let his concern for her approach overwhelm his desire to see the most sensible reforms in her plan implemented. This includes letting proven educators at TEAM, the high-performing charter that Jeffries co-founded, take over grades in failing schools.

Baraka deserves credit for ending the culture of chaos at Central High School, where he served as principal. But he has a history of putting politics before what’s best for kids. He bows to the special interests of the teachers’ union and has called to block all reform in the district, which is irrational in a city where only 1 in 3 high school seniors can pass the standard graduation tests. He knows he benefits politically by fanning resentment against Anderson, but has no credible reform plan of his own.

The differences are equally striking on crime. Murders are up in the city and both candidates want to hire more cops, but neither has a financially viable plan to do so. What distinguishes them is their approach. Jeffries has experience in law enforcement against gangs and keeping ex-offenders out of jail. Baraka once wrote a letter on behalf of a convicted gang lord and tried to negotiate a truce between rival gangs. It didn’t work. Violent crime is up in his ward.

It’s also worth noting, as the state threatens to take over Newark’s finances due to mismanagement, that the council Baraka serves on contributed to this mess. When former Mayor Cory Booker shrunk the city’s workforce by 1,000, the council continued to pay itself the highest salaries in the state.

Unlike other council members, Baraka kept his full staff — which included his brother — his city car and free gas. He has collected a combined salary of $210,000 a year, and now says he’d consider a cut. But he could have done this already. Why should we believe he’ll put the city on the right path now?

Elect the real reformer for mayor: Shavar Jeffries.

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