Voting Block: In downtown Newark, the 2017 NJ governor's race looms large for the state's largest city

Chike Uzoka, 34 Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Ana Ortega, 31 Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Benjamin Weber, 26 Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

Chike Uzoka may not be running for governor of New Jersey. But when you watch him walk down his home stretch of Halsey Street, the main vein of downtown Newark's pulsating revival, you would think that he's the mayor of the state's largest city. 

With a natty gray hat perched just right and a megawatt smile, Uzoka high-fived his way down Halsey Street between Bleeker Street and New Street, calling out to neighbors who shouted out his name. His black T-shirt bore bright, white letters that told the truth about where New Jersey stands in the red-zone run-up to the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election: Stakes is high. 

TAPinto Newark is profiling Halsey Street in downtown Newark as part of its participation in a New Jersey collaborative reporting effort called Voting Block. The project’s mission is to encourage political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across the Garden State ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election. TAPinto Newark is one of more than two dozen news organizations that is following a group of neighbors, in our case on Halsey Street, this fall as the race develops.

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Reporting partners include 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic-news organizations across the state as well as WYNC, the National Public Radio (NPR) station in New York City; WHYY, the NPR station in Philadelphia; NJ Spotlight and The Record.

The digital audio link to the WNYC News radio broadcast that dovetails with this article can be found here.

There will be more articles, and radio broadcasts, coming from TAPinto Newark and WNYC News in the days running up to the November 7 gubernatorial election as we continue to work together.

Keep reading, and stay tuned.

"There's a lot going on in this city. You can't be the governor without putting Newark into your plans," said Uzoka, 34, a graduate of Newark's New Jersey Institute of Technology who works in commercial real estate. "It's going to affect everything." 

The eyes of national political observers are locked in this fall on New Jersey and Virginia, whose closely-watched gubernatorial contests are seen as referendums on the leadership of President Donald Trump.

But on Halsey Street, the chessboard of national politics gives way to the more granular landscape of one vibrant and changing neighborhood in Newark, a city of approximately 280,000 people in sight of Manhattan.

Newark is closely linked in to the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region by numerous public transportation options, including NJ Transit and PATH train service, as well as Port Newark and Newark International Airport. 

For Halsey Street resident Paul Reisen, the upcoming election is a chance for Newark and New Jersey's political atmosphere to clear up. 

"I see it as a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds," said Reisen, 36, a sales professional, in the living room of his renovated century-old brownstone, complete with an authentic, marble-mantled fireplace, with wide windows looking out on to Halsey Street below. "And I'm looking forward to expanding the sunshine." 

Christie, a Republican elected governor of the Democrat-dominated Garden State in 2009, was once seen as a bipartisan, albeit brash, politician whose tough-talking style fit Jersey like a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich. He seemed to be in sight of becoming the first governor to go from the Statehouse to the White House since Woodrow Wilson in 1912. 

However, Christie, flying high in the aftermath of his leadership during Hurricane Sandy, became a political Icarus the following year.

The 2013 Bridgegate lane closure traffic jam scandal at the George Washington Bridge, created by some of Christie's aides in order to compel the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee to endorse Christie for reelection, left him as a wounded bird. He was weighed down further by a futile bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. His approval rating is not in the poll doldrums, but in the dregs, with only about 20 percent of New Jersey voters now supporting him.

Christie often notes that he is a Newark native, where he spent his early years living near South Orange Avenue before his family, like many others during that period, picked up and headed west to the suburbs.

As Reisen cradled one child in his kitchen while his wife, Sydney, looked on, holding their other child, he specifically noted how he feels that education, public transportation, infrastructure and budgetary concerns, including the future of public worker pensions, have all suffered under the current governor's tenure.

"We're connected with this state, and we haven't been proud of its leadership in a long time," he said.

Chris Taillefer, 33, is a third-year student at Rutgers Law, located on Washington Street just a block over from Halsey. He happens to hail from Monmouth County, about an hour's drive away from Newark.

Monmouth County is the home county of both New Jersey gubernatorial candidates this year. Democrat Phil Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, is set to face off against Republican Kim Guadagno, who has served as Christie's lieutenant governor for eight years. Murphy hails from Middletown while Guadagno calls Monmouth Beach home.

Taillefer comes from Freehold, hometown of Bruce Springsteen, the singer-songwriter supreme of New Jersey. According to Taillefer, Guadagno might not be born to run New Jersey, burdened by her two-term tie with Christie. 

"As far as Kim Guadagno goes, I feel like she's not a Christie clone. I know she was his lieutenant governor, so I don't feel like she'll be exactly the same thing," said Taillefer, a former middle school and high school English teacher, as he stopped in with friends at McGovern's Tavern on New Street, steps away from both Rutgers' Newark campus and Halsey Street.

"But it kind of feels too much like the old administration and the old kind-of-way things for me to be comfortable voting for her, and for me to be comfortable and excited about what she might do," Taillefer said. 

Some New Jersey voters are not comfortable with Murphy because of his Wall Street background. One of the rhetorical sticks that Republicans try to beat Murphy with is that he is out of touch with most New Jerseyans as a result of his personal wealth. 

Uzoka remembered how former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat and another retired Goldman Sachs executive, was defeated by Christie. Corzine poured his own money into his campaign when he ran for governor in 2009. Murphy loaned his own campaign $10 million in the primary.

"I heard the dude's been buying it for a while. He's a Wall Street guy," Uzoka said. "I mean, how often does it turn out well when Wall Street guys go political, you know?"

Then again, Uzoka did like one idea proposed by Murphy if he wins: the legalization of marijuana. 

"Both medicinal and recreational needs to be OK in New Jersey," Uzoka said. "It's mad revenue that the state is just sitting on for no reason. Legalize it, regulate it, and tax the hell out of it. It gets more money for education." 

While some voters have their suspicions about powerful Wall Street executives jumping into New Jersey politics, others saw a seasoned businessman as potentially beneficial to small businesses on Halsey Street and the rest of downtown Newark. 

"Somebody who can provide and understands the value of small business and what it does for a community is where we focus," said Benjamin Weber, 26, who helps run the Green Chicpea restaurant with his family, as he sat outside at a cafe table while the steady stream pedestrians strode by. "So people whose values lie with us is more of what we look for in a candidate." 

Ana Ortega lives in the largely Latino North Ward of Newark, along Bloomfield Avenue. She works downtown at La Cocina on New Street. The line out the door during lunchtime speaks to the popularity of the cafeteria-style restaurant, where extremely strong Cuban coffee fuels the workers and students who flow through downtown daily. 

But as Ortega watches the redevelopment of downtown Newark bloom, she wonders if the rest of the city will get left behind in the weeds, including after the election of a new governor. 

"The only thing that they're trying to do to Newark is make it more welcoming to a different type of crowd. They don't protect the crowd that's already been here," said Ortega, 31, who momentarily stopped making a high-octane cafe con leche for another customer. "They're raising prices for people who live in this community, who have been in this community for generations. Who suffers from that is the people who live here. It's pushing them out, too, and pushing them to deeper poverty." 

Kai Campbell, who owns the neighboring Burger Walla restaurant on Halsey Street, was an economic development analyst in cities all across America before he opened his place. He believes that Newark won't thrive if the downtown's success doesn't spread throughout the city. 

"I think that we have a lot more to do. We need to recruit more people to live down here," said Campbell, 36. "Every part of this city needs to be better: the Ironbound, the North Ward, the Weequahic section, Clinton Hill, and Ivy Hill. It all needs to be better." 

Dr. Molly Townsend just moved to Halsey Street from California in July when she took a job as a researcher at NJIT. She is now trying to research a subject more challenging and less logical than science: New Jersey politics. 

"I'd like to see the constituency, whoever they may be, represented truthfully. There is a lot of lying in politics," said Townsend, 27, who admits that she hasn't heard of Murphy or Guadagno, but did hear about the Garden State's infamous tradition of political corruption.

"I'm new to the area, and I'm still trying to get immersed in local politics," Townsend said. "I would have to base all my initial biases by the candidates' party affiliations. But something I'd like to see in every politician is integrity. And that's something I would I like to see from the new governor." 

Marco Hall is colorful in more ways than one. A fashion designer who has his atelier on Halsey Street, Hall held a full-on catwalk fashion show during a recent street festival held on his block. A crimson carpet drew a bright line down the middle of the street as models sashayed down the impromptu runway, with each body twirl a kaleidoscopic burst of color captivating the cheering crowds. 

Ringed by spools of thread, an old sewing machine, and an armless dressmaking body form, Hall just hoped that New Jersey's next governor doesn't get caught up in the state's perverse political culture. 

"A lot of Newark natives like things the way it is, or the way it was, instead of embracing all the change around us," said Hall, 47. "I'm hoping that the best candidate wins, and that they come in with a plan to show Newark some love. We deserve it."

"What a new governor means for New Jersey is that maybe the bullshit that we've been going through will change," Hall added, laughing. "We need someone to unite us, to build, and to help us all grow. Bullshit means that you can't be out for yourself. You have to be out for the people. You've got to get it done." 

Down the block, Uzoka hustled down Halsey Street as the day evolved into night in downtown Newark. He was impatiently waiting on a friend so that they could go to a local house party together.

Uzoka, who is definitely going to vote on Nov. 7, said he has lost almost all his patience with politicians. 

"I want action. Like real action, like someone to actually do something. Because I think that they just sit up in the office in Trenton and just chill," Uzoka said. "Once in a while they may sign something that's going to change something. But I think for the most part, they don't do a lot. They've got to do something that's going to help people." 

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