No More 'Street Fight': Newark Mayor Won't Run Again

Newark Mayor Sharpe James has announced he will not seek a sixth term, ending a 20-year legacy in office. James' slender victory over rival Cory Booker in the 2002 mayoral race was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight. Madeleine Brand speaks to Street Fight director Marshall Curry about Sharpe and Newark's political future.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. One of the last big city mayors to come out of the civil rights era is stepping down. Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Sharpe James announced yesterday that he will not seek another term. He pulled out minutes before the ballots were to go to the printer. James is also a New Jersey state Senator and he said he was leaving the race because he's an opponent of dual office holding.

But the 70-year-old mayor was facing a tough race from Corey Booker, a young, well-financed road scholar who almost beat James in the last election. That election was the subject of the Academy-Award nominated documentary Street Fight. Marshall Curry made the film and he joins us now from Newark, where he's filming today. And, Marshal Curry, what have you learned today? The day after Sharpe James announced he's no longer a candidate.

Mr. MARSHALL CURRY (Director, Street Fight): Well, for a lot of people, it was a big surprise. You know, Sharpe's been in office for 36 years now and a lot of people, you know, thought he wouldn't step out without a fight. I know he's not a big fan of Corey Booker. They've had a lot of back and forth. And so even though he's been in office so long and has gotten sort of tired, I think, a lot of people thought that just his dislike of Corey would keep him in the race.

BRAND: Why do you think he pulled out?

Mr. CURRY: You know, it's hard to know. He's 70 years old. He's been mayor for 20 years. A lot of people said he's just tired and he'd like to, you know, spend more time at his beach house or with his family. Other people say that he saw the writing on the wall and he thought it was unlikely that he was going to win. You know, in the last election, every union in the city except for one was on the mayor's side. All of the city council people was on the mayor's side. The governor was on the mayor's side.

In this election, the governor sat it out, a number of city council people have switched over to Corey's side. A number of the unions, including the SCIU, which is an extremely powerful union in Newark, had switched sides. So, I think a lot of people thought that maybe he didn't want to lose. He's undefeated and he wanted to go out undefeated.

BRAND: I want to play a clip of tape from your film when James announced his candidacy last time. And it encapsulates who he is and who he wanted the city to believe he was.

(Soundbite of “Street Fight”)

Mayor SHARPE JAMES (Newark, New Jersey): Today, my (unintelligible) give something back. The City of Newark (unintelligible), living on Howard Street and South Branch Avenue, and one room with a potbellied stove, one pair of sneakers, one pair of pants; and today the poor boy from Howard Street is your mayor and seeking reelection.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRAND: Sharpe James was quite a character. He was immensely popular in Newark during his long, long tenure, but certainly not without flaws.

Mr. CURRY: Right. I mean, he is incredibly charismatic. He's funny, he is a big booster for the city, which has been a city which has been maligned a lot by the rest for the country. He was always somebody who stuck up for the city and he's got a really compelling story, no doubt about it.

BRAND: And do you think that this signals the end of the era of machine politics?

Mr. CURRY: Well, it is funny. I remember four years ago, the New York Times had a big front-page article where they said, you know, the title of the story was The Day of the Machine is Alive and Well in Newark. And that, I think, took a couple of forms. In Newark, if you worked for City Hall and you don't support the right guy, you can have your job cut out from under you, even if you're supposed to be supported by civil service laws. Or if you're a business owner and you put up a sign for the wrong guy, maybe code enforcement will come in and find a code violation at your building.

You know, there's a lot of, you know, the types of tactics that I think we associate with Tammany Hall or with, you know, the previous Daley Administration in Chicago. And Corey certainly has his critics, but I don't think anybody would accuse him of running the city that way. So I do think that most of the cities around the country have gotten rid of those old-style machines and certainly people that I've been talking to in Newark have said that they feel like, you know, those days are over for the city as well.

BRAND: Marshall Curry is a documentary filmmaker. He directed the movie Street Fight about the last Mayoral race in Newark between Corey Booker and Sharpe James. Marshall Curry, thank you for joining us.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you so much for having me.

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