North Ward comes through for Unity Slate in Newark's school board election

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. (far right,) and Council President Mildred Crump (second from left) with candidates Reginald Bledsoe, Josephine Garcia and Flohisha Johnson.

The North Ward came through big for the victorious Unity Slate in the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board election on Tuesday, delivering the majority of votes for the winning candidates.

In the North, Josephine Garcia, the highest vote-getter in the race, garnered 1,466 votes, or 41 percent of her total. Bledsoe earned 1,129, or 33 percent of his total vote count and Johnson scored 1,078 votes, or nearly 40 percent of her vote tally.

Garcia was the pick of North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., who engineered the Unity Slate in last year's election, when he also backed winning candidate Tave Padilla, and revived it this year.

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The North Ward's ability to deliver the majority of votes in the election positions Ramos as a difference-maker in Newark, particularly in Newark's 2018 mayoral election, in which Central Ward Councilman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins is believed to be considering a challenge to Mayor Ras J. Baraka.

With Ramos' support in the North, the race would be Baraka's to lose. However, if Ramos were to back another candidate, such as Chaneyfield Jenkins, the incumbent would face a battle similar to the one he fought in 2014, when the North Ward backed Shavar Jefferies.

Chaneyfield Jenkins, who supported fourth-place finisher Charles Love and fifth-place finisher, former acting Newark Schools Superintendent Deborah Terrell, dismissed the notion that the election was a harbinger of next year's mayoral race, saying that the low voter turnout in a school board election makes it difficult to draw any conclusions about a general election.

"This election was about the children of Newark and picking the best and most qualified candidates," Chaneyfield Jenkins said. "I am proud of the candidates that I backed. I have no regrets about supporting them. My hope is that those who were elected Tuesday will put our children first, ahead of politics."

Ramos, who ran for mayor in 2014, then dropped out and endorsed Jefferies, has emerged over the last two years as one of the heirs to the North Ward leader Stephen Adubato, who once wielded considerable influence over Newark politics by controlling a large block of votes in the North Ward.

Adubato, who founded The North Ward Center, has retired from politics, but his influence is still widely felt through his acolytes, who are in positions of power in Newark, Essex County and in the state. Both Padilla and Garcia are longtime district leaders in the North Ward whose children were educated in Adubato's charter school.

Ramos, who was picked by Adubato to challenge incumbent Hector Corchado in 2006, retains close ties with The North Ward Center. His right hand, Samuel Gonzalez, was elected two years ago chairman of the North Ward Democrats, a position held for a generation by Adubato's wife, Fran.

With the North Ward get-out-the-vote machinery in his hands, Ramos and his team have begun to exert influence over Newark politics, starting with the school board.

In Tuesday's election, Ramos pledged to deliver North Ward votes for the Unity Ticket and by and large, fulfilled his promise. Though he works behind the scenes, Gonzalez, the husband of state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, was credited with orchestrating the campaign effort that began when the Democratic committee signed off on Garcia as the candidate.

"In only his second year as chairman of the North Ward Democrats, Sam has shown that he has the capacity, knowledge and experience to orchestrate a well-run, disciplined campaign in the North Ward," Ramos said. "Much of the credit for our victory belongs to Sam."

Baraka, who also backed the Unity Slate, brought far less to the ticket out of his base in the South Ward. Bledsoe, a aide to Councilman-at-large Eddie Osborne who was Baraka's pick, was the top vote-getter in the South Ward with 703 votes. Garcia garnered only 605 and Johnson a mere 472 in the South.

In the mayoral election in 2014, Baraka delivered massive numbers out of the South Ward. But voters chose to stay home Tuesday. The turnout in the South was just 4.89 percent, well behind the North Ward, which turned out 6.36 percent of registered voters and the Central Ward, which turned out 6.37 percent.

Johnson also appears to be the victim of political subterfuge in the South Ward, where Bradford outpolled her by 46 votes and in the West Ward, where she only earned 14 more votes than Bradford. 

In parts of the city, especially the South, Central and West wards, an alternative Unity Team campaign was underway, with signs visible on election day urging voters to vote for the Unity Team of Garcia, Bledsoe and Bradford.

Amiri "Middy" Baraka, Jr., the mayor's brother and chief of staff, pointed to the contrasting signs as just more seen-before Newark election day intrigue. 

"We had a charter school person on our ticket that some people didn't agree with. So in certain areas of the city, they came up with their own alternatives," Baraka said, noting that he believed that certain Unity Slate opponents printed signs with alternate versions of the tickets in order to "create confusion and suppress the vote."

"I have an idea of who they are but I'd just rather keep it anonymous," Baraka said. 

Baraka added that the sign confusion and soggy weather contributed to holding down the vote in the South Ward in comparison to the North and Central Wards. But he added other internal decisions played a role in the results. 

"We didn't put people at every polling site because we depended solely on the mailers. We had a quarter of our operation out there. But I don't regret it because we won," Baraka said. "It's obvious that the people went with those who were associated with the mayor. But this election wasn't about the mayor, it was about the Unity Slate. The Unity Slate won in the South Ward and the Central Ward despite the confusion. I don't see people questioning that. And in [the May 2018 municipal elections], we're going to have 120 percent of our operation in the field, and the whole kitchen sink." 

Voting results for the top five candidates by ward

  Ballots Cast Turnout (%) Josephine Garcia Reginald Bledsoe Flohisha Johnson Charles Love Deborah Terrell Patricia J. Bradford
North Ward 1,951 6.36 1,466 1,129 1,078 202 187 109
South Ward 1,639 4.89 605 703 472 408 434 518
East Ward 652 4.02 287 208 189 86 89 60
West Ward 1,298 4.31 463 486 374 352 300 360
Central Ward 1,866 6.37 696 807 567 488 448 374
Grand Totals 7,509 5.37 3,566 3,382 2,717 1,558 1,486 1,447

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