Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and his mayoral race challenger, Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, waged a war of words at a packed debate in the city's downtown on Thursday night, less than three weeks away from Election Day.
"I believed in Ras Baraka, and I'm disappointed," said Chaneyfield Jenkins, wearing her trademark black glasses and black-and-gold earrings as she led off the hour-long debate following a coin flip. "I thought we were going to have a united city, people who were working with each other, and with competent people. I believe that the people who were selected, a great many of them, unfortunately, are not doing the job that they need to do for the people of the city of Newark."
"That's completely ridiculous. If our folks are incompetent, we wouldn't have $4 billion of development happening. If there's incompetence, Amazon wouldn't want to come here," said Baraka, dressed in a blue suit with a sliver tie, referring to the potential construction of the retail giant's second headquarters in the city. "I think that we're doing a heck of a job."
The debate, sponsored by WBGO, Newark's own public radio station, drew an overflow crowd of more than 100 members of the public to Express Newark inside the recently renovated Hahne's & Co. building, an edifice that is a testament to the ongoing revitalization of the city's downtown.
A panel of journalists, as well as selected city residents, asked both candidates a series of questions touching upon an range of issues, including public safety, education and the city's economic development.
Baraka and Chaneyfield Jenkins have already clashed over what direction the changing city will take. One particular flashpoint centered upon an issue that will shape the state of the city's ongoing redevelopment: inclusionary zoning for future building projects. A recently passed ordinance compels the developers coming into New Jersey's largest city to set aside a percentage of new residential units as affordable housing.
Baraka and Chaneyfield Jenkins renewed their argument about inclusionary zoning under the debate's spotlight.
"If the councilwoman was concerned about people being pushed out, she shouldn't have voted against inclusionary zoning," said Baraka, underscoring concerns of the effects of the potential gentrification of Newark. "You don't understand it."
"You had four or five drafts, and I didn't understand which draft you were presenting to the council at that time. I never knew which one was the real one," Chaneyfield Jenkins said. " For people who live and work in the city of Newark, this is not affordable for them. Affordable for who?"
The candidates of a slate backed by Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and charter school advocates were voted in by a wide margin in the Newark school board election on Tuesday, the first ballot contest since the return of local control after more than two decades of state control.
The transition plan created by the state includes that the city hold a vote in November to decide whether to continue with an elected school board or allow the mayor to appoint the board's members.
"I don't think there is an advantage to having a mayor-appointed school board," Chaneyfield Jenkins said. "I think they should be voted in by the residents of the city. I think that the residents have to make sure that it is not hand-picked or that the machine runs if."
"I support an elected school board, and always have. I think that is the best form of government. The more democracy the better," Baraka said. "We created a unity slate. We won because we came together."
Chaneyfield Jenkins frequently alluded to legal concerns for the city, including a lawsuit filed by Willie Parker, a former city attorney for Newark. Parker filed a federal complaint against the city last year, claiming that he faced retaliation related to the negotiation of a multi-million dollar development deal.
Baraka brushed the issue of the lawsuits aside, asserting that there is no evidence that there are more lawsuits filed against this administration than any previous administration.
The question of recent sexual harassment accusations against city officials was also addressed. Chaneyfield Jenkins pushed the recent passage of an ordinance meant to combat sexual harassment, noting part of the legislation provided for a task force that will consider the recommendations of an independent attorney regarding any allegation.
"The process that is in place in Newark is in place in any other city in the state of New Jersey," Baraka said. "The councilwoman codified this process. We think it's good legislation."
Any tension between the two competing candidate camps was kept largely under control, with grumbling replacing the shouting often seen in Newark's fiery politics.
As the debate closed, each candidate made their final claim to the city's top political spot.
"The city of Newark is divided," Chaneyfield Jenkins said. "I'm a daughter of the city of Newark. We've let the sons of the city run it. So let one of the daughters of the city run it. I'm taking responsibility."
"When Sharpe James became the mayor, they gave him the opportunity to finish what he started. When Ken Gibson became the mayor, they gave him the opportunity to finish what he started. When Cory Booker became the mayor, they gave him the opportunity to finish what he started," Baraka said. "All we are asking is that you give Ras J. Baraka an opportunity to finish what I started."