Democratic leaders from Newark's five wards and Belleville tonight selected former school board member and Essex County sheriff's officer Shanique Speight to be the Assembly candidate for the 29th Legislative District, Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones Jr. said.
The Democratic leaders met with Speight; Tai Cooper, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's chief policy adviser; Safanya Searcy, a national labor organizer and veteran New Jersey Democratic strategist; and Pat Council, Newark's director of recreation, cultural affairs and senior services.
After meeting the four candidates, the leaders voted 4-2 for Speight, with Council, who is also the South Ward chairman, voting for himself and Speight, the Central Ward Chair, voting for herself. Sen. Ron Rice, the West Ward chair, voted for Council.
"It came down to Speight having a footprint in the Central Ward and she has been a part of the local party structure," Jones said. "This process was not a autocratic process, it was a democratic process. It was transparent. All of that had an impact."
"What this does for me is that is gives me a sense of what the future of the Demcratic Pary will be and the progress of the Democratic party in Newark and in Essex County," Jones said. "All the candidates had different levels of experience. That's the beauty of this process."
Speight will run in the seat currently held by Assemblywoman Blonnie Watson, a former Essex County freeholder who stepped into the seat vacated in 2016 by L. Grace Spencer after Spencer resigned to become a New Jersey Superior Court judge. Watson has decided not to run for a full two-year term.
The 29th District, which includes Belleville, is a Newark-dominated seat which comprises all of the city's East, North and Central Wards, as well as a few neighborhoods in both the South and West Wards.
The seat has traditionally been the choice of the mayor. Booker, for example, picked Spencer. Baraka apparently backed both Cooper and Council, though Council seemed willing to concede the opportunity to Cooper.
Council, who was originally considered the front runner for the seat, said "this is the crazy part of democracy, but we have to respect the democratic process."
Speight first won election to the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board in 2007 running on a ticket supported by the North Ward Democratic machine. She resigned from the board in 2012, when she was tapped for an appointment to an at-large seat on the Newark City Council to replace Donald Payne Jr., who was appointed to the seat in Congress vacated by his father.
But Speight's appointment caused a near riot in Council Chambers in City Hall and lead to a legal challenge that resulted in her appointment being overturned. The seat went unfilled until a special election in November 2013, when John Sharpe James, son of former Mayor Sharpe James, was elected.
Some longtime observers of Essex County politics look at Speight's dive into the 29th District candidate as being created by a wave of support from Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo in an attempt to ensure that Baraka does not generate too much county-wide power from his Newark base.
Speight is the operator of the Happy Hands Day Care Learning Center, which was shuttered just two days ago by the Baraka administration. TAPintoNewark broke the story earlier today.