After months of campaigning and a shifting race, Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries prepare for the final stretch in their quest to become the next mayor of Newark. One has helped shape the city from the city council while the other is hoping to be a similar presence as Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), the former mayor, as a reformer for the city after his own time serving the city. They have crafted contrasting visions for the city and are preparing to make their final pleas to voters. As voters head to the polls on Tuesday, it is worth stepping back and looking at both men.
Baraka has been fairly blunt about his believe that becoming mayor is his destiny.
I was born for this, man. This day, this space, this time and this condition are exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. Leadership is not born out of ambition. It's born out of time and condition.
Baraka is a product of Newark and the son of the late famed poet and activist Amiri Baraka.
As Baraka would add,
People always wanted to come talk to my dad, people knew him everywhere, and he would have these parties for his friends. But it's ridiculous to say that I grew up in a privileged household. Maya Angelou's money wasn't our money. I never was a gangster. When you're 16 years old, you're not thinking that some person is going to ruin your reputation when you're 50. Some of these people I knew from growing up in Newark, and some of them I met when I was an adult, trying to help them out of situations they were in. I went to University High School and Howard University. Some of my friends are doctors and lawyers. I've also got friends that are doing 20 years in prison. That's the dichotomy of living in Newark.
He would continue,
When I got to college, I became more politically aware. I started going to meetings and to protests, and all of the stuff that I learned growing up began to click. I said to myself this is where I'm supposed to be, doing this kind of stuff. I got hooked on it. I realized you can transform people's lives. But I also realized that to do that you can't be a passive participant. You have to be an active participant. I couldn't just show up to meetings that other people were having.
He has also kept in mind what might face him on Day 1 as mayor with the city's budget leading the way.
As Baraka would state,
We have to put together strategies for a quick exit for the state. We need short-term plans to help us get the budget under control, but I think our issues long-term are worse. This is why we talk so heavily about economic development and growing the city, because ultimately that's the only way that we turn Newark around. And we have to ask the state to be a part of our strategy to get out of the condition that we're in.
He would continue,
(Former Newark mayor and U.S. Senator) Cory Booker didn't get us past 1967 yet, because we're still suffering from the conditions that existed in the rebellion. We haven't reached the level of neighborhood development that we need yet. I think (former Newark mayors) Ken Gibson and Sharpe James had the right idea in terms of re-branding the city. It just never developed. Cory Booker became Newark's identity. We are now post-Cory Booker. This is now an opportunity for Newark to regain its identity.
Like Baraka, Jeffries has grown up in Newark. He did not have a famous father with famous friends but that has not stopped Jeffries from creating his own identity and he hopes to top Baraka.
His neighborhood and how he was brought up sits at the core of his reason for running.
It was a place of love. It was a place where going outside was our favorite thing to do. It was a place where anybody in the neighborhood could correct you and would correct you, if you weren't doing what you are supposed to do. It was a place where people would push you to be as great as God created us to be. A big reason why I'm running is that, while before my neighborhood was a place of development and affirmation, now, you may put your life in your hands just stepping outside. My number one objective is to end the epidemic of violence in our community.
His life struggles have served as an inspiration to him. As he would add,
I was collectively raised by the rest of my family and by my community. It really was a village (that included his maternal grandparents, his aunt, and time spent at the local Boys and Girls Club). I'm a reflection of all of those influences. They taught me about perseverance, struggle, that difficult times are inevitable. It's about how you respond to difficult times, and fulfill the promise that you have.
Jeffries would go on to graduate from Seton Hall Prep, Duke University and Columbia Law School. A corporate lawyer at one of Newark's largest downtown law firms, he also serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall Law School, where he helps to run a civil litigation clinic in the school's Center for Social Justice.
Like Baraka, Jeffries is very much aware of what would await him as mayor and he too has the city's estimated $93 million municipal budget deficit in mind when thinking about the issues.
As Jeffries would exclaim,
That's why you have to have a mayor who can collaborate and partner with people. If the state comes in or not, we're going to have to partner with them. We're going to need investments from the state in order to deal with this budget deficit. I'm very confident that I'll be able to lead in a way that will be more influential that my opponent. It's not just about raw power. We have strong relationships with a little bit of everybody. The mayor has to be an executive officer that manages the resources of the government and produces actual results that improve the people's quality of life.
As he would continue,
I'm the only one in this race who has won a citywide election (highlighting his decade and a half of experience). I don't view it as crazy, because I went through more than any of this when I was ten years old. It is what it is. It's not an easy process, but I'm used to doing hard things.
A key part of his campaign is not allowing for similar failed strategies to dominate. He has even gone as far to warn that if something does not change, Newark could follow a similarly doomed path that Detroit went down.
As Jeffries would utter,
There is a lot of conversation about what does a post-industrial city look like going into the twenty-first century, and how do we get there. The problem with Detroit is it didn't change, it didn't innovate. It kept doing the same thing - the same contracts, nepotism, politics and patronage that the city couldn't afford. Then it caught up with them, and the city crashed and fell. We have to decide if we are going to modernize and reform ourselves now, or are we going to just put our head down and keeping doing the same thing.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to his connection to the city and his own life struggles and where he is currently at and his hope to provide a similar path to success to many in the city.
I have undying love for the people, and undying love for what the people have done for me. My presence here really doesn't make sense disconnected from the grace of God and a group of people, starting with my family, but also a broader community of people. The opportunities the community gave me enabled me to be here. I'm committed to the people, and I want to serve them. The reality is this - the story of the average Newark kid is a story like mine.
A couple polls in the last couple months have showed a wide margin for Baraka over Jeffries. 20% or higher margins. The one thing to keep in mind is that the two polls come from favorable sources for Baraka. It is not a stretch to say that Baraka has led Jeffries during this race among support but things have tighten up as Election Day has neared as undecided voters have become to make their decision of which candidate they prefer as well as Jeffries' name recognition consistently increasing. As more voters have gotten to know Jeffries, it has helped him close the gap between him and Baraka.
Both men want to move the city and help it grow and overcome obstacles. However, Baraka's vision matches closer with many who fought back against the efforts of Booker in moving the city's economy forward, lower its crime rates, and improve the state of its public education among other issues. Baraka himself often butted heads with Booker during his time as mayor. While Jeffries reflects closer to Booker's approach with shaking things up if they are failed policies or approaches. Thus, voters are able to decide if they want someone different than Booker or similar to him in style. Baraka's fate and Jeffries' fate now sit in the hands of voters as they choose between two men with connections to city with ideas for moving it forward. They will be choosing either the councilman who might necessarily challenge the status quo or the reformer who will more inclined to call for a change of pace when necessary if it will ultimately benefit the city.