Politics

N.J. Dems take stock in Newark on verge on Trump presidency

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Democrats from around New Jersey assembled in Newark at the start of 2017 for two reasons: to acclaim Phil Murphy's gubernatorial bid and to anticipate the effect of Donald Trump's inexorable accession to the White House.

Both of New Jersey's U.S. senators, joined by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, came to Murphy's Broad Street campaign headquarters on Monday to officially endorse the former Goldman Sachs executive, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, as he tries to restore Democratic control in the wake of Republican Gov. Chris Christie's eight-year reign in Trenton.

Yet when Democrats Cory Booker and Bob Menendez offered Murphy warm praise on a frigid morning in downtown Newark, their words were tempered by the cold steel of national political reality - with Trump at the top and with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, this is truly the Democrats' winter of discontent. 

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"We have a President-elect who has a very different economic agenda than we have here in Newark and in New Jersey," Booker, a former Newark mayor, said. "Now, more than ever, we need a governor that under hostile conditions can work in difficult times."

"Elections have consequences, and at the national level, things that we have fought for for decades are now at risk," Menendez said. "The governor of New Jersey is the most powerful governor in the nation by virtue of our constitution. But that power means nothing if it not used for its people." 

Many of the politicians and people of cities such as Newark fear that under Trump, power will be used against them, particularly concerning two major policy issues: immigration and criminal justice reform. 

Trump's proposed policies regarding immigration, including plans to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, has stirred concern in New Jersey's largest city, home to an estimated 25,000 undocumented immigrants. In 2015, the Newark city government launched a municipal identification program that issues ID cards that allow undocumented immigrants to access state, city, financial, and cultural services. Mayor Baraka announced after Trump's victory in November that city programs meant to help undocumented immigrants will remain in place, underscoring Newark's status as a sanctuary city. 

Criminal justice reform is another issue that concerns Newark and the rest of America, a country where more than two million Americans are behind bars and where 70 million people have a criminal record. 

In Washington, Booker has promoted several bipartisan measures designed to overhaul the criminal justice system, including finding alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders, permitting juveniles to have their records cleared of certain non-violent crimes and employment training to help those released from prison find jobs. In Newark, Baraka has established programs designed to assist former offenders find work, including encouraging re-entry through a city labor pool database. 

In a November 2015 appearance at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers-Newark, President Obama announced two federal executive actions designed to help overhaul the criminal justice system toward a greater emphasis on prisoner re-entry and rehabilitation through education and job skills initiatives. 

Conversely, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump advocated a return to more aggressive anti-crime techniques, including the extensive use of stop-and-frisk techniques, to be used in U.S. cities that he repeatedly suggested were uniformly overrun by violence.

Murphy, standing next to Booker minutes after receiving the endorsement of New Jersey's junior U.S. senator, noted that there is considerable room for criminal justice reform initiatives on the state level, including a stronger re-entry program.

"If you look at the gap in New Jersey between [incarcerated] people of color versus white, it's the largest in the United States, and it's even wider if you look at youth," Murphy said. "We can get a lot of this done in the state, but we need advocates in the federal government."

Following the senatorial endorsement event, Booker and Baraka presided over a meeting of members of the New Jersey Black Mayors Alliance for Social Justice to discuss their 2017 agenda and how policies proposed by Trump could impact New Jersey’s urban communities. The meeting was held at Booker's Gateway Center office in Newark, steps away from the afternoon Amtrak train Booker would take to Washington, D.C. where he will testify against fellow Sen. Jeff Sessions on Wednesday when the Alabama Republican, nominated by Trump to become U.S. Attorney General, comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"We have to take a stand locally, and join up with people nationally," Baraka said. "We have to push forward so that we don't go backward."

Booker, who already has a high national profile, has been pushed even more forward into the national spotlight as he has outlined ways that Democrats can resist Trump in the days ahead.

When asked if he was prepared to lead the national Democratic resistance to Trump and his proposed policies, Booker demurred, yet stood firm.

"I've got a Jersey chip on my shoulder," Booker said. "Nobody needs to tell anyone around this table about how to lead. I have a job to do, and we're all going to do the best we can to fight against anything that's going to hurt people in our communities, and to look for opportunities. We're going to find a way to advance the cause of our cities."

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