The one challenger in Newark’s mayoral race battles apathy and a popular incumbent

Published: May. 08, 2022

Hard numbers, past performance, and close observers of Newark politics don’t give Sheila Montague much chance of unseating the city’s popular mayor, Ras Baraka, in Tuesday’s election.

Newark resident Dominick Tortorello, a more casual observer, didn’t even know she was running.

“I’m really not big into politics,” said Tortorello, 42, a utility worker at Montclair State University who had just finished a volunteer shift at the Red Door soup kitchen and food pantry when Montague greeted him as he and a friend walked past her on Halsey Street.

There are lot of people like Tortorello in Newark, who don’t pay much attention to politics and don’t vote. For the city’s last municipal election, in May 2018, the turnout was 19.7%, or just under one in five registered voters casting ballots. Among those who did go to the polls that year, 77% voted for Baraka in a landslide over then-Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, a better known candidate than Montague.

So Tuesday promises to be a challenge for Montague, a 49-year-old education consultant and mother of three whose electoral experience includes six unsuccessful school board races.

“I’m the candidate people like but never gets elected,” she said.

But whatever the outcome of this Tuesday’s race may be, Montague said her mayoral bid has already been a success.

“One thing I’ve already accomplished was making the ballot,” said Montague, an adjunct professor in the Humanities & Bilingual Studies Department at Essex County College.

Among the eight initial mayoral hopefuls who took out nominating petitions from the city clerk’s office, Montague was the only one besides the Baraka campaign to collect the minimum of 1,644 valid signatures required to be on the ballot.

Two other hopefuls, Debra Saiters and Donna Jackson, turned in signed petitions, but City Clerk Kenneth Louis found some signatures were invalid and declined to certify Saiters and Jackson’s candidacies. Montague said the same thing almost happened to her.

“They kicked out close to 400, and within 48 hours I came back with 500 petitions and made the ballot,” she said. “So, no matter what, I’m really, really happy about that.”

Montague lamented the lack of even a single mayoral debate hosted by local civic groups, civil rights organizations, reflecting what she believes is a reluctance even among independent institutions to challenge Baraka’s local hegemony. But she said her ability to gather signatures so quickly indicated voters want an alternative to the incumbent mayor, and each vote she garners is an achievement by degree.

“I hope to prove that democracy does exist,” said Montague, who has two daughters, ages 18 and 21, and a 30-year-old son. “A lot of people are accused of being apathetic in terms of the voting here in the City of Newark. But a lot of people don’t vote because they don’t think we have a true democracy. So I’d like to achieve that, to just reinstate hope in our electoral process.”

She also hopes to make history. With Kenneth Gibson in 1970, Newark became the first major city in the northeastern United States to elect a Black mayor. But Newark has never had a woman mayor, and Montague said the time was overdue, particularly for a Black woman.

“We’ve been making strides all over the nation having women do that, and I think in a place where we don’t have a lot of strong women leadership by young girls — and I’ve been a teacher all my life,” said Montague, who founded a non-profit organization known as Changing the Lens Together, which distributes clothing and other essentials to families that need them. “And I think this would be amazing, especially for my young ladies at home!"

In terms of governance, Montague said she would reign in the sale of city-owned properties, a practice highlighted by a recent Rutgers-Newark study that found corporate real estate investors have driven rents and depressed owner-occupancy. The study prompted Baraka to announce measures to combat the practice last week.

In her first 100 days, Montague said she would eliminate no-show jobs at city hall, as well as cleaning up city streets. She called praise for the city’s rapid replacement of 23,000 lead service lines “fake news,” and called for replacement of the water department’s leadership. And she would overhaul Newark’s fleet of police vehicles.

While Montague is running on her own, Baraka tops a Moving Newark Forard Slate that includes candidates for all 9 city council seats.

Baraka downplayed Montague’s candidacy, and suggested running a city was harder than campaigning to run it.

“She’s got a right to run. Everybody’s got a right to run,” he said. “I just think people ought to have plans. What they’re going to do, what they want to do. What’s going to happen as a result. I can list 5,000 things myself that I think’s wrong that need to be fixed now that I wish I could do today.”

“It’s one thing to be able to say all of that, and something else to actually have a strategy, a plan, and know how to work with people to make those things come to fruition,” he added. “That’s a whole different horse of another color.”

Regarding low turnout, Baraka said Newark was hardly alone, and that it was not necessarily a sign that people had given up on government.

“There’s two reasons for that,” he said “People are either disinterested, or they’re just comfortable with what’s going on.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-09 02:53:13 -0700