NEWARK — On election night in Newark last week, newly elected mayor Ras Baraka stood before a cheering crowd to declare victory in the bitterly contested race, with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and state Sen. Richard Codey by his side.
“Watch out, America,” Baraka called out to those gathered in the ballroom at the Robert Treat Hotel. “Here comes Newark!”
Baraka, the 45-year-old councilman and former high school principal who is now mayor-elect of the state’s largest city, emerges from the hard-fought campaign with more than a mandate and a month of sleep deprivation. It gave him political juice.
The son of the late poet Amiri Baraka and a controversial activist in his own right who was once arrested at a city council protest, Baraka bucked the powerful county Democratic organization that worked hard to defeat him. He was heavily outspent in the race by newcomer Shavar Jeffries, but still won by nearly 8 points.
Like him or not, observers say he comes out of the election as a major player now in state and county politics — with his own organization and his own power base that will make him a future force to be reckoned with in New Jersey.
“The mayor of Newark is always going to have a huge influence in statewide politics, whomever it is,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He’s a major player simply by having the title.”
What is still to be determined, he said, is how the incoming mayor will operate his politics on a statewide level.
“Is he going to demand a seat at the table for every big decision? Is he going to lay back and focus on the serious challenges of the city? Will he reward those who were with him and punish those against him, or do they all move along?” asked Dworkin. “That’s an open question.”
Among those who were not with him were Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who is running for re-election in the fall. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.), who is also seeking another term, also did not get behind Baraka’s candidacy.
Whether that failed bet will come back to haunt them, or the Essex County Democratic organization, has yet to play out. But Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said even those who did not support Baraka now must make him their friend.
“He has shown he can get the vote out,” he said. “That’s fundamental to politics in New Jersey and the big cities.”
That could be important for Democrats like Fulop and others contemplating a run for governor in 2017. Codey (D-Essex), who put his bet on Baraka and won, said the campaign for governor is already on the table and the road to the governor’s mansion goes through Newark.
“Let’s be honest. The mayor of Newark is a big political figure in the Democratic Party,” he said. “Anybody running for governor will be taking many trips down Broad Street (in Newark), I can assure you.”
Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones said talk of political fallout in the wake of the Baraka victory was overblown and premature.
“We just had a spirited election and races are always going to be spirited. When tensions are high, there should be a period of calming, and for the next several weeks calm and cool needs to endure,” he said. “It was a very decisive victory and we all have to congratulate him for running an effective grassroots race.”
As for the governor’s race, he laughed. “That’s light years away in politics. Anything can happen,” Jones said, noting the 2017 election was three years away. “That’s more than a generation in politics.”
A spokesman for Baraka said the mayor-elect has given no thought to the political implications of his win.
“He’s mayor of a city with a very big hole in its budget and he has to focus on Newark,” said Frank Baraff. “He’s obviously going to be talking to the governor and to Joe D and to Donald Payne. He’s going to be talking to everyone. Ras is not a vindictive person. He has got to govern the city and govern it well.”
Baraka, who campaigned hard on the issue of the much-detested state takeover of Newark’s school system, comes in with the city facing a major financial crisis. Newark has a $93 million deficit, with no obvious solution to closing the hole. State law requires the city adopt a balanced budget. In a recent offering statement, Newark officials acknowledged that they may not be able to adopt a budget without a state takeover.
The mayor-elect said he has already tried to reach out to the state to begin discussing the issue.
“We are talking about a kind of strategy — a long-term and a short-term strategy,” Baraka said last week following his election. “We know the state doesn’t want to have another burden of taking over the problems of Newark because the state has their own problems. To take on ours would be counter-intuitive.”
He said he wants to strip some of the city’s debt over a period of years and talked about legislative aid that would help raise money for the city over the long term.
Baraff said Baraka will soon set up a transition team. But for now, he said, the new mayor is planning to get some sleep.