Newark, N.J., voters go to polls to choose successor to Cory Booker

Newark, N.J., voters go to polls to choose successor to Cory Booker
Newark, N.J., mayoral candidates Shavar Jeffries, left, and Ras Baraka, right, greet possible supporters leaving the city's annual senior citizen fashion show on Thursday. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The last time they voted for mayor, residents of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, chose the guy who was famous for saving a neighbor from a burning building, befriending Oprah Winfrey and convincing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to give millions of dollars to the city’s schools.

This time Cory Booker isn’t on the ballot, since he is now New Jersey’s junior U.S. senator. Instead, voters Tuesday were choosing between Ras Baraka, 44, a city councilman and son of a poet, and Shavar Jeffries, 39, the former state assistant attorney general. They may not be household names outside of Newark, but whoever wins this race will be able to exert significant power in New Jersey and nationally in the upcoming years, especially if the embattled Gov. Chris Christie makes a run for national office.

“Whomever is the head of this city has a tremendous amount of influence in the state’s politics,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “And since’s the state’s politicians now include potential presidential aspirants, this is a big deal.”

They may not be friends with Oprah, but both candidates have interesting back stories.
Baraka is the son of poet Amiri Baraka, who had spoken openly about black nationalism. Ras Baraka was the principal of the city’s Central High School and a city council member; he has ties with unions but also with Sharpe James, the former mayor who spent 18 months in federal prison.  
Jeffries was born to a teenage mother who was murdered when he was a child. He was raised by his grandmother, attended Columbia and Duke, worked as a lawyer and then helped organize a network of charter schools in the city.
The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, endorsed Jeffries on Sunday, calling him “the real reformer” in the race. Baraka, the newspaper said, “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.”
The race has been a contentious one, with no clear front-runner as voters headed to the polls Tuesday. Both campaigns were well-financed, with a barrage of television ads running in the weeks before the election.
The dialogue hasn’t exactly been civil. Campaign workers for Jeffries have been accused of setting a Baraka campaign bus on fire. Jeffries’ campaign says groups aligned with Baraka have released television ads that imply he’s a puppet of “scary white people.”
At issue is the fate of a city that once seemed to be on the rebound. As recently as 2012, when Booker’s national aspirations became clear, the crime rate was ticking down, affordable housing had doubled and companies such as Panasonic had relocated their headquarters to the city.
But homicides in Newark jumped last year with 111 killings, the highest number since 1990. Some in the city blamed layoffs in the police department, part of budget cuts that saw big reductions in officers. The state is now threatening to take over Newark’s finances because of mismanagement.
The schools, which famously received a $100-million donation from Mark Zuckerberg during Booker’s tenure, are struggling. The city's schools have been under state control for years, and students are fleeing to charter schools. Baraka is aligned with the teachers’ unions; Jeffries has said he believes charter schools should be able to teach students if the public school system is failing them.
It is perhaps worth noting that neither mayoral candidate has the social media presence that Booker had, which may prove as something of a relief to Newark residents who complained they saw more of Booker on Twitter and national media than they did of him in the city. Booker has more than a million Twitter followers now; Baraka has 2,471 and Jeffries 1,934.
At the end of the day, Dworkin said, Tuesday's vote isn’t going to be a referendum on Booker and what happened to the city under his leadership. Instead, voters will decide which candidate they think better lines up with what they want their city to be.

"This is going to be a referendum on different visions and leadership styles, and how people decide which candidate is best going to represent the city," he said.

Turnout has been high throughout the day, according to reports.

New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton, will also elect a new mayor Tuesday. Its former mayor, Tony Mack, was convicted on federal corruption charges. Six candidates are running to replace him.