Voting Block: In wake of Murphy victory, downtown Newark hopes for action, not hype

Dr. Molly Townsend, a postdoctoral researcher at NJIT in Newark, wants to ask Phil Murphy about "what his intentions are with my city" following his N.J. governor's race win. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Kai Campbell, owner of the Burger Walla restaurant on Halsey Street in downtown Newark, wonders if Phil Murphy can overcome New Jersey's infamous culture of political corruption. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Benjamin Weber, who helps run the Green Chicpea restaurant on Halsey Street, is hopeful that Governor-elect Phil Murphy's business background will help him lead New Jersey out of its financial slump. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Chike Uzoka, a men's clothier and unofficial mayor of Halsey Street in downtown Newark, needs to see Governor-elect Phil Murphy make progress toward fixing New Jersey's problems before he believes it. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Ana Ortega makes another strong cup of coffee at the La Cocina restaurant on New Street in downtown Newark as she wonders what will happen after Phil Murphy is sworn in as New Jersey's next governor. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

NEWARK, NJ--In downtown Newark, some might say that it was inevitable that Democrat Phil Murphy was going to win the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial election. Others might say that it is inevitable that the ongoing revival of the heart of New Jersey's largest city will continue to pulse powerfully. But for anybody who hangs out on Halsey Street, the live wire that connects the bright spots of new apartments, restaurants, and businesses lighting up downtown in recent years, it is inevitable that they will see the head hustler and prime political street seer of the neighborhood, Chike Uzoka, doing his thing. 

"I didn't vote for either one them. I voted for the Green Party candidate," said Uzoka, 34, a men's clothier by day and a commercial real estate agent by night, as he moved between the bar and table to table at Marcus B&P, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's new restaurant on Halsey Street, located inside of the newly-renovated Hahne & Co. building that was recently refurbished after years of lying fallow. "I voted for Barack Obama twice. But if you keep voting red or blue, nothing is going to change. If people see and hear some other options, then people might see that they have another way."

New Jersey voters choose to go another way by a wide margin a few weeks ago on Election Day, tapping Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Obama, over Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who served under outgoing Gov. Chris Christie for two four-year terms. 

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While Murphy's decisive 14-point victory seems like a mandate, the view from downtown Newark in the wake of his win was a mix of skepticism and optimism. This outlook can be seen through the prism of Murphy's planned policy initiatives, designed to deal with the plethora of problems now facing New Jersey. 

Murphy, for example, backs legalizing recreational marijuana in order to allow law enforcement to use their resources to target more serious crime, according to his website. Murphy has also repeatedly pointed to the potential revenue to the state through taxing legal marijuana as a way to help ameliorate New Jersey’s fiscal woes.

But Ana Ortega, a Newark resident who works downtown at the popular La Cocina restaurant on New Street, thought the Garden State governor-to-be's plan for legalizing marijuana should just go up in smoke. 

"There are a lot of people talking in the street, saying that we're going to get it illegally anyway. They would rather pay whatever they pay on the street than pay extra at a store," said Ortega, 31, who lives in the largely Latino North Ward of Newark along Bloomfield Avenue, despite predictions that taxing legal marijuana will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. "Drug dealers sell you nothing good, and people are still going to do what they do. But Phil Murphy is also actually selling me nothing good." 

Others ideas are being bandied about by Murphy to fiscally fix New Jersey, including a millionaire's tax meant to help replenish the state's underfunded pension plan for public workers, as well as to be used to repair and restore crumbling infrastructure statewide, among a host of other problems.  

Around the corner at the Green Chicpea restaurant on Halsey Street, Benjamin Weber paused from serving falafel to point to Murphy's business background as hopefully being the backdrop for New Jersey's economic comeback. 

"In Newark, the biggest city in New Jersey, we need to show that we can continue our success here to generate income for the state. However you find a way to create new sources of income, that's the most important thing to do to get us out of our slump," said Weber, 26, who helps run the restaurant with the rest of his family. "If Murphy facilitates growth in the right way and takes us in the right direction, I think things will pan out." 

There is hope in Newark's business community that New Jersey's bid to convince Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, to build its new second corporate headquarters in the city will result in the biggest business bonanza that the more-than 350-year-old city has ever seen. 

Murphy has expressed support for Amazon's hoped-for arrival in Newark. But Uzoka, the unofficial mayor of Halsey Street, cast a highly questioning eye on the idea. 

"Why would we would want a company that generates billions of dollars every couple of hours to get a 30-year tax free bill, and to get legal tax kickbacks to move a bunch of employees from a whole bunch of other places to here, and to create maybe about 100 or so janitorial and security guard jobs for Newarkers?" said Uzoka, noting some of the reported bait state and city officials are using to lure Amazon to Newark. "Why would we want that?" 

"If Murphy cares about the state and uses his financial knowledge from Wall Street, then he should be able to create and move funds in a way that would benefit New Jersey," Uzoka added. "It's going to take a while. But now he's got four years." 

Others on Halsey Street, however, wondered aloud if Murphy can truly make a difference due to New Jersey's colorful political landscape. 

"New Jersey's greatest commodity is corruption. It's something that we import, that we export, and that we trade in. We live in it, and we're addicted to it," said Kai Campbell, 36, the self-described "envisionary" who owns the Burger Walla restaurant. "It has become so commonplace that it is ingrained in our culture, and this is something that Phil Murphy will have to face." 

Murphy spoke during his campaign about the need for greater socioeconomic fairness in New Jersey. For the governor-elect, one significant component of correcting any perceived imbalance is a greater emphasis on social justice. This concept's practical implementation would include helping ex-prisoners' reentry into their communities after they serve their time.

Campbell, who was an economic development analyst in cities all across America before he opened his place, proposes training those who were incarcerated for drug offenses, including for the growth and sale of marijuana, to run, manage, and profit from stores that sell legal marijuana if Murphy's plan goes through. 

"Where are our taxes going to go? They should go back to them, too," Campbell said before preparing more tasty treats for his customers. "We'll see how the money is going to be spent. I've seen a lot of money misused. And again - what is always the real cost overrun in New Jersey? Corruption." 

Dr. Molly Townsend, a postdoctoral researcher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark, moved to Halsey Street last summer from California, knowing next to nothing about New Jersey's infamous political culture of corruption. But as a native of Alabama, Townsend used a phrase more likely to be used in the context of Southern culture when assessing the impact of Murphy's victory. 

"I would ask him about what his intentions are with my city. Politicians need to be real," said Townsend, 27. "In general, New Jersey needs a change. It's not going in a direction that's sustainable. Even if I don't agree with certain changes at the time, having any sort of change helps fight the problem. If it's a positive change that benefits New Jersey, that's great. And if it's a negative change, then it influences the next change, and down the line, things will get moving."

"We can't feel the change on Halsey Street unless the change is big enough to be felt," Townsend added. "You can't affect my neighborhood, and all of Newark, without creating more than a few ripples."  

Meanwhile, Chike Uzoka continues to be a key part of the hustle and flow on Halsey Street. He momentarily stepped away from his many friends at Marcus B&P, put down his cocktail, then figuratively looked Phil Murphy in the eye on the eve of him becoming governor. 

"I think he can do a good job. But they say faith without works is dead," Uzoka said. "I believe it can happen. But I just still need to see it happen." 


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