Newark's four living elected mayors sit shoulder to shoulder and find common ground

Newark's four living elected mayors: Ken Gibson, Sharpe James, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Ras Baraka, the current mayor. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

For nearly the last half-century, just four men have been elected to run Newark.

On Friday evening, they gathered in WBGO's radio studio in Newark to share stories about their terms in office.

What emerged during their hour-long discussion was that while the progress of the city depended on each mayor building on the achievements of their predecessors, they all faced similar problems that still challenge the city's foundation. 

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"I inherited a lot of problems, and frankly, most of these problems still exist. But the important thing is that we made national and international history," said Ken Gibson, the oldest of the four mayors present for an history-making live broadcast of WBGO's Newark Today show, hosted and moderated by NJTV reporter Michael Hill and streamed live by NJTV. 

The mayors assembled -- Gibson, Sharpe James, now-U.S. Senator Cory Booker and present Mayor Ras Baraka -- were at times rivals and at times allies over a combined 47 years in Newark politics. 

Gibson took over a Newark riven by the 1967 civil disturbances, which some call a riot and others a rebellion. He faced a hostile council which included colorful antagonists such as the North Ward's Anthony "Tough Tony" Imperiale. 

But he also prevailed on the federal government for special attention and grants, helping to slow down the city's free fall and sowing the seeds for a future comeback. 

"I had to hit the ground running, because it was no novelty being the second African-American mayor. Where are the jobs? Where's the housing?" said James, who was elected as Gibson's successor in 1986.  

"But projects that [Gibson] started [such as the Society Hill housing development], I was able to complete," James said "We created a renaissance and changed the landscape of Newark forever." 

Booker noted that James' strong support for the construction of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in the late 1990s served as the "ignition point" for Newark's booming downtown development, which includes the refurbishment of Military Park, the new Prudential Financial office tower, and the reopening of the historic Hahne & Co. building, which will include a Whole Foods supermarket. 

"When people could not or would not believe in Newark, [Gibson and James] did," said Booker, elected as James' successor in 2006. "They fueled the phoenix for the rise of this city." 

Baraka, elected in 2014, noted how Booker continued to spur Newark's growth, including presiding over census numbers that demonstrated population growth for the first time in decades. 

"When the Senator was the mayor, we were in one of the worst economic crises that this country has seen since the Great Depression.  He was bringing in a lot of people to the city and a lot of projects in a very difficult period," said Baraka, referencing the soon-to-be completed Triangle Park. "I'm just blessed to be able to take the ball and take it further down the field, and try to convert these things into touchdowns." 

But if Newark is really going to score major redevelopment points in the years ahead, call-in questions from listeners underscored the tests the city still has to pass. 

A man from Bergen County asked Mayor Baraka about crime and homelessness in the city, pointing out that visitors to the city are often greeted by the homeless when they arrive. 

"Well, it didn't stop me from going to Madison Square Garden," said Baraka, pointing out that a recent municipal report showed the level of crime in the city at the lowest point in decades. "All of those things people use to dampen the progress in the city of Newark. We won't allow that."

"You can't put a cop on every corner. Put a house there. Put development there. Bring people in," said James. "Put eyes and ears in the community." 

"It is more expensive for a mentally ill person to be on the streets than it is to put them in supportive housing, yet we don't fund supportive housing or mental health care," added Booker. "So these battles that we put on the shoulders of mayors for what we should be prioritizing and doing as a community, is what we should be talking about as a country."

A woman called in and questioned Booker about what could be the most divisive issue among Newarkers: the future of the city's public schools. She specifically asked if Booker if he made a mistake putting charter schools in Newark. 

"When the charter school movement started happening, my focus was that I wanted to make sure that they were good charter schools, and if they weren't going to be good, we were going to close them," said Booker, noting that he had no direct power to put charter schools in the city. 

"My focus is on our kids in Newark having quality schools and options, just as if you were a millionaire's child," Booker said. "Our kids are just as special. In Newark, the quality choices are improving." 

Baraka, a former public school principal, addressed the issue with a tone that was both concerned and conciliatory. 

"In an atmosphere of scarce resources, how public schools are funded through property taxes inherently is a problem. To rob Peter to pay Paul is going to be an issue," Baraka said. 

"A lot of these decisions are made outside of the purview of the people that they affect," Baraka said. "The closer that we are able to make the decisions locally, the more sound and the more pragmatic they'll be. Cooler heads have to prevail, and we have to figure out how to make it work." 

Baraka's reference to the incipient return of local control over the city's public schools, which have been under state control since 1995, sparked a cutting comment from James.  

"It's an embarrassment. It's not about education. It's not about our children. It's about who gets the contract, who gets the jobs, and who takes away the six-figure salary," James said. "Most of the arguments around education are not about children. They're about money." 

The money now pouring into Newark, especially the hundreds of millions of dollars funding downtown redevelopment, prompted a call from a man in Jersey City, asking if gentrification will also benefit the current population of Newark. 

"I don't think gentrification is happening in Newark first of all right now. I just don't see it. When we talk about gentrification, it's the displacement of one group of people for another. That's just simply not happening," Baraka said. "What's happening now is abandoned properties that weren't being used are now being developed. Buildings that were not thought of or imagined are coming up out of the ground. 

"We have about 300,000 residents. Newark at one point had about half a million people in the city," Baraka said. "We have room for hundreds of thousands of people." 

"When you look at the Studebaker lofts and Richardson lofts, these projects have 30, 40 even more [percent] affordable housing to make sure that Newarkers could have a shot at living there," Booker added. 

Toward the end of the program, Hill referred back to Baraka's fiery words during his 2014 inaugural speech: "We need a mayor that's radical."

After some shared laughter, the other mayors on the panel redefined radical in the context of running Newark. 

"If you fight for your city and for your people, you're a radical," James said. "And if you really fight hard, you become a target. That's the price you have to pay." 

"You can't lead the people if you don't love the people, and love is a radical thing. In the context of [President Donald Trump], demeaning and degrading people, condemning inner cities, that's not radical," Booker said. "You can say whatever you want about the four of us, but we are folk that love the city of Newark." 

Gibson is well-known for a quote made at the dawn of his mayoral reign: "Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.”

Now at the dawn of a civic surge of revival, Gibson set the frame for Newark's place in the sun. 

"[We were told] it was not our time, and we had to fight through that first," Gibson said. "But we were able to succeed, and we surprised a lot of people." 

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