NEWARK, NJ — Calvin West, Newark’s first African American councilman-at-large who spent his lifetime fighting for the rights of others, died Monday morning. He was 87.
A Newark native, West ran on a slate with Mayor Hugh Addonizio in 1966 and became the second African American to serve on the City Council, following the re-election of Central Ward Councilman Irvine Turner.
West fought to "rebuild our city and the hopes of our people, with wisdom, warmth, and compassion," said Mayor Ras Baraka. "He became a respected leader in both Newark’s history and our state."
During West's four years as a city councilman, he believed in uplifting the city’s youth from inside the political system.
“I decided, and my sister [Larrie West Stalks] decided,” West once said, “that the only way to justify what tomorrow was going to bring for the youth, was through the ballot box.”
West often found himself at odds with Newark’s younger civil rights and Black Power activists, as they believed he was part of a politically corrupt, bankrupt system.
He ran for a second term in 1970 on the ticket with Addonizio. He lost his City Council seat to Earl Harris, a 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention nominee.
West later served as longtime aide and chief advisor to Mayor Sharpe James, who was elected 1986 and served through 2006.
"Calvin wore Newark on both sleeves," James said. "He loved everyone he ever met. And no matter how many mountains he climbed, or how many awards he won, and with everything that he achieved as a political genius, he always said, 'I'm from Newark'."
West later became the Executive Director of the North Jersey Office of the Governor, working under the administrations of James McGreevey, Richard Codey and Jon Corzine.
"With respect to all of those governors, he gave trusted advice," said Junius Williams, official city historian of Newark and founder of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark. "They liked his style. He gave them the advice that they felt they had to have, and thus he survived behind the scenes for many more days."
The city historian noted that West was one of McGreevey's favorite, go-to-guys.
"Calvin was the person that you could go to if you wanted to get to McGreevey. Sharpe James was the mayor, and McGreevey was the governor," Williams said. "But Calvin was the person who advised Sharpe, and who also advised McGreevey."
McGreevey said West was like a second father to him.
"He gave me guidance, advice, and direction in dealing with the community, dealing with Newark, dealing with African-American leadership, dealing with political power brokers, and working with the average people in the streets who are just trying to make ends meet," McGreevey said. "He was as comfortable with princes as he was with paupers. He was old-school, exceptional, and the end of a generation."
West played a key role helping McGreevey secure the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2001. Though McGreevey was considered the frontrunner, in the summer of 2000, then U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli challenged McGreevey, hoping to knock him out of contention with key endorsements, including Mayor James in Newark.
"Sen. Torricelli was, and is, exceptionally well-spoken and articulate, and he had access to national money," McGreevey said. "And here I was, a somewhat over-earnest mayor of Woodbridge. Clearly, looking objectively, Torricelli had the resources, the resume, and the skill set to trounce me. But more than anyone, it was Calvin who kept Sharpe James and Essex County committed to me. If Essex had fallen, I would have been, at best, an asterisk in New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primary history. It was Calvin who made sure that didn't happen."
Torricelli acknowledged West's considerable influence in Newark.
"Nobody serves high public office in New Jersey without having some working relationship with Calvin," Torricelli said. "He made all the wheels turn in Newark for a long time."
West continued to play a role in gubernatorial politics through the last election. West, along with James and then Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, was an early supporter of Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017.
"If anyone truly wanted to know Newark, they had to know Calvin West," Murphy said. "For more than 60 years, he put his home city first and fought tirelessly for its people and neighborhoods. He garnered great respect across the state."
Murphy said West lent him advice when few others cared and handed down some tough love when he thought it necessary.
"He was a friend, and I will miss him. I know countless Newarkers will miss their friend, too," he said.
After Murphy was elected, Jenkins said she West and James had a toast and coined themselves the dream team.
Jenkins said West was a man of style and good taste, loved great food, friends and laughter. He was a wine connoisseur and all-around elegant gentleman. She noted many knew West as a stylish dresser, but she said "it wasn't the clothes who made the man, it was the man who made the clothes."
“He was a political guru, he was certainly a gentleman, a brilliant mind, a strategic tactician, and a man of the people,” Jenkins said. “His advice and wisdom made council people, mayors and governors.”
According to Jenkins, West always said "no one had a license on brains," though she said the former councilman was knowledgeable and willingly shared his opinions.
"The advice and knowledge West had and gave freely to help people get elected was invaluable and immeasurable," she said. "They just don’t make that kind of politician anymore."
Praise for West flowed from the New Jersey Senate on Monday morning as well.
“Calvin West was a trailblazer who dedicated his life to the causes that advanced the rights of others and improved the quality of life for the people of Newark and other urban communities in New Jersey," said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“When the history of Newark, Essex County and the state of New Jersey is told, we will hear about a trailblazing man who paved the way for a generation of leaders," Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz said. "Calvin West was a Democratic stalwart, a mentor to so many and a partner to anyone who needed the advice and counsel of an elder. Calvin was a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is person, and above all else, a lover of life.”
West also served as the personal aide and chief of staff to Orange Mayor Joel Shain and also as Chief Advisor to Orange Mayor Paul Monacelli as a member of the Orange Board of Education in the City of Orange Township.
Beginning in 1960, West participated in the presidential campaign efforts of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.
West's involvement with politics began in 1954 when he founded the Central Ward Young Democrats and led the group for seven years. He spent four years as the treasurer of the Essex County Young Democrats. He also worked as a correspondent for the Newark Evening News and the New Jersey Afro-American newspapers.
West was the vice chairman of the Newark Municipal Utilities Authority, a member of the Newark Senior Citizens Commission, and a member of the Newark Insurance Fund before running for city councilman.
In his early career, West was an auditor for the state Division of Local Government Services and the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and as director of the Carlton B. Norris Youth Association. West attended Bloomfield College and Cooper Union College and later served in the U.S. Army where he was honorably discharged.
West was predeceased by his wife, Audrey, who died in 2013.