Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a poet, yesterday easily defeated a Wall Street-backed promoter of school privatization to become the next mayor of Newark. Baraka’s victory repudiated the policies not just of his rival, Shavar Jeffries, but those of Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker, and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson who is trying to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools.
“We are the mayor!” declared Baraka, 45. A constant theme of his campaign was that, if he wins, all Newark residents become mayor. Jeffries, 39, a faculty member at Seton Hall Law School and a founding trustee of the TEAM Academy charter schools, conceded shortly afterward.
Baraka’s victory celebration at the downtown Robert Treat Hotel erupted into cheers shortly after 10 pm when it became obvious the son of the late poet and playwright Amiri Baraka had won with strong backing from his home South Ward—which he serves as a councilman—and the predominantly African-American Central and West Wards. His rival, also an African-American, was strongest in the predominantly white and Latino North and East Wards. Baraka won 54 percent of the vote.
Baraka, an often tough-talking champion of the poorest residents of the city, had been the front runner for most of the race. But, in the last few days, Wall Street financiers and hedge-fund managers—strong supporters of former Mayor Cory Booker—poured $3 million into the Jeffries campaign, including $300,000 in street money that went to young men and women in the city, many of whom apparently took the money and then urged voters to vote for Baraka.
He also won despite an extraordinarily harsh depiction of his campaign by the local newspaper, The Star-Ledger, that tried to paint Baraka as a follower of his father’s black nationalist views. The newspaper’s editorial board also had tried to describe him as soft on gangs in the city. The state’s largest newspaper is planning on leaving the city soon, after nearly a century in the state’s largest city. Its endorsement of Jeffries–based primarily on his support of Anderson’s school plans–proved irrelevant to the campaign and, possibly, hurt Jeffries. The newspaper clearly failed to appreciate the depth of anger in the city caused by Anderson’s “One Newark ” school reorganization plan, even dismissing parental concerns about the loss of their neighborhood schools as “nostalgia.”
“I have to admit, I was scared,” said Frank Baraff, one of Baraka’s campaign aides, who was aware of recent polls that showed Baraka trailing Jeffries by three points. He attributed Baraka’s victory to the widespread unpopularity of the “One Newark” plan, a state-imposed effort to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately-operated charter schools. He also said Jeffries, while popular among some rich white people outside Newark, was barely known inside the city.
Baraka has been consistently critical of the Christie/Anderson “One Newark” plan and his position had become increasingly popular among Newark residents who discovered their children might be transferred to schools across town. Jeffries, a close associate of Anderson, finally did repudiate the plan but it was too late in the race. In any event, the money pouring in from pro-charter school New York financiers gave the lie to Jeffries’ insistence that he did not support Anderson.
Robert Duffey, a leader of the state Working Families Alliance, a big Baraka supporter, said last night be believed the victory was “the beginning of a surge of resistance” against school privatizers who had gained ground in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.
“People from throughout the country were watching this race,” he said.
Another strong supporter, former New Jersey Gov. Dick Codey, was at the party for Baraka last night, but he was more cautious. Jefffries had been supported by South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross, also a promoter of school privatization.
“I hope it’s a trend,” said Codey, but he refused to comment on how the race might affect Norcross. “I don’t want to talk about Norcross right now,” he said—an odd thing given the YouTube videos Codey has made excoriating the political boss who has tried to marginalize the former governor’s contribution to the state.
The Baraka victory also was a repudiation of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo who backed Jeffries. DiVincenzo, who once entertained fantasies of becoming governor himself, proved to be weak in the race. He betrayed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono last year to back Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. With Baraka now a power in Newark, Joe D’s grip on the county is loosened.
The victory celebration turned into a joyful march on nearby City Hall when hundreds of Baraka supporters arrived there among the honking of horns and the cheers of motorists. Baraka supporters hugged and congratulated each other– but some conceded they knew hard work lie ahead.
“He is going to have a difficult job and we’re going to watch him every moment,” said Donna Jackson, an activist.