In Newark, Mayoral Candidates Are a Study in Contrast

By David Cruz

On a cold, dreary midweek morning in Newark, the two men running for mayor here held separate endorsement events that highlighted their differences and underscored the growing intensity of the race with just two weeks to go to election day.

Ras Baraka was in the largely Latino North Ward today, picking up endorsements from a number of Latino politicians — from Hudson County. The message being that Baraka is a crossover candidate who will unify a city that some say is racially cleaving.

“That’s a ghost story, really,” insisted Baraka. “I think there’s a lot of subterfuge that’s going on in this campaign and in this city to obfuscate the issues and I think that people with intelligence, that are reasonable, should not be pushing those kind of concepts.”

It’s clear though, that the black and Latino coalition that brought political change to this city in the early 1970s has evolved. Today, Latinos — about a third of the voting population here — are the target of both campaigns. Across town, former mayoral candidate Anibal Ramos, now running for city council on the Shavar Jeffries slate, said Baraka is late to the game on that front.

“It’s sad to see that Councilman Baraka had to import Latino leadership support for his press conference today,” said Ramos. “You know not one Latino elected official in the city of Newark has come out publicly for Mr. Baraka and his team.”

In the waning days of this campaign, Latinos may find themselves being courted, but there’s more to this race than where their vote will go. Jeffries has regularly tried to portray Baraka as angry and divisive, in his own way winking at racial stereotypes that serve his own political ends.

“Unfortunately, Councilman Baraka does have a history of pitting one group against another,” he said, “and our candidacy is about bringing our community together.”

Asked why, as some have observed, he doesn’t look like he’s always having a good time, Baraka responded, “Well, we’re not at a party, you know. It’s a campaign we’re running here.”

Baraka is no glad-hander, but he has surprised at times by articulating a vision that goes beyond the cliché of us versus them. On crime for instance, he says his opponent’s “more cops on the street” mantra misses the point.

“I think he believes that the only way we’re going to have economic development is if we eradicate crime,” he said today. “I think that’s an erroneous assumption. Ultimately economic development is a lever that can be used to diminish crime.”

Politicians are accustomed to dividing a city by blocs, often along racial and ethnic lines. Newark is no different, except that here, putting the city back together could prove to be more difficult than it was to pull it apart.