Meeting Jewish leaders, the two men competing to become Newark’s next mayor each pledged to crack down on crime, increase economic development, improve education, and attract more people to live and work in their city.
South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka and former Assistant State Attorney General Shavar Jeffries, the two Democratic front-runners in the Newark race, appeared in separate sessions before two dozen Jewish community leaders April 28 in a conference room at the Newark law firm of Sills Cummis & Gross.
The forum was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Although few members of the Jewish community live or vote in Newark, organizers said, the fate of the city is tied to that of its Essex County suburbs.
“I don’t think there is a single person in this room who can vote for you,” Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston told each candidate.
But, he added, “because of our history and our proximity, we as a Jewish community are very involved in Newark.” His synagogue was founded in the city.
Baraka, who spoke first, scored a point with his audience early on when he noted that one of Kulwin’s predecessors at B’nai Abraham was Rabbi Joachim Prinz — an outspoken opponent of Nazism in his native Germany and champion of civil rights in his adopted home in America.
Jeffries told his audience that “even if you don’t vote in Newark you are incredible stakeholders in our community.” He said he had studied Holocaust history at Duke University, and “I still have seared in my memory when I went through the museum for the murdered Jews” during a college trip to Berlin.
Both men have had close family members who were murder victims. Baraka’s sister Shani was shot to death in Piscataway in August 2003. Jeffries’s mother was murdered 35 years ago when he was 10.
But they differed in their approaches to crime fighting.
“When we talk about a crime strategy it is also an economic development strategy. It is also a job strategy. It is also a strategy around strong schools,” said Baraka, a member of Newark’s Municipal Council and a former principal of the city’s Central High School.
Baraka lamented that “we don’t have the revenues to hire more police officers. We are about 300 cops in the hole…. So we can’t look to that as the primary strategy to reduce crime.”
Comparing himself with his opponent, Baraka said, “Some people believe we have to eradicate crime altogether and then do economic development. I tend to believe that economic development is a lever to help us reduce crime, as are art and literacy and all kinds of other things.”
In contrast, Jeffries, an associate professor at the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School, said, “It is going to be very difficult to grow jobs and put folks to work at the level we need when you have 111 murders and you have gangs that have taken over neighborhoods and parents who are afraid to let their children play outside.”
He called for expanded drug treatment programs and pledged “zero tolerance for guns and gangs. If you have an illegal gun, you are going to go to prison, and you are going to go to prison for a mandatory term.”
Questioned about economic growth, Baraka said his city’s higher education community “was primed to put 60,000 college students on the streets of Newark to create a theater arts district, new housing for professors and students and their families, and develop a link between that college community and the footprint of downtown.”
He also called for “serious neighborhood development of housing and retail” that would “encourage people to stay here.”
Jeffries said, “We have to grow our economy and that begins with safety.”
He called for a crackdown on corruption, “manageable taxes, fees, and regulations for businesses.” He said, “We’re going to be very clear that if development comes to the city of Newark, we need qualified Newarkers to be hired.”
Both men said Newark’s public school system must be strengthened, even as parents are allowed to choose whether to send their children to charter schools.
Both were harshly critical of Cami Anderson, Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee as Newark’s schools’ superintendent. Anderson has been advocating the closing down of what she considers “failing schools,” including, possibly, Weequahic High School — a historic centerpiece of Newark’s once-thriving Jewish community.
“The reality is if you brought somebody in to save your company and they auctioned all the pieces off, you start to feel like you hired the wrong person,” said Baraka, son of the late Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet and activist.
He said Anderson is “an ideologue who had no pragmatic bone in her body. She did not engage the community at all,” he said.
“She had been abysmally ineffective in terms of engaging and collaborating with the community,” agreed Jeffries. “If you want to do big things in a democracy, you have to do them with people; you can’t do them by yourself.”
The CRC, the federation’s government relations arm, organized the meeting with the aim of building relationships with the candidates and to share with them the work of its agencies and its interests in Newark.
Newark voters will go to the polls on May 13.