Drastic Change Predicted in Newark Mayor's Office
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. For the last 20 years, the city of Newark, New Jersey has been run by the same man, Sharpe James. Well tomorrow voters there will choose a new leader, James pulled out of this year's mayoral race in March. Cory Booker, who was Sharpe's bitter rival from the election in 2002, is expected to win this year's vote in a landslide. Booker is a rising star in the Democratic Party. And if he wins he'll take over one of America's most troubled cities. NPR's Nancy Solomon reports.
NANCY SOLOMON: In the 2002 election, a campaign between two African Americans turned into a referendum on race. Mayor Sharpe James convinced voters Cory Booker wasn't black enough to run his hometown. But Booker didn't go away.
CORY BOOKER: Sharpe's weapon he used against me in the last campaign, which was just a demagoguery and racial rhetoric, began to diffuse as people saw me for who I am.
SOLOMON: He's 37, grew up in the Jersey suburbs, and is an Ivy League educated lawyer. After the defeat, Booker had several enticing possibilities including Jon Corzine's seat in the U.S. Senate. But he stayed focused on Newark, calling for more law and order, affordable housing, and less cronyism. He says Sharpe James brought in development but few jobs or contracts for local businesses in this majority African American city.
The murder rate is six times the national average, and Booker says the mayor and city council are among the highest paid in the country, yet most of Newark's 280,000 residents live in poverty.
BOOKER: There's no one magic, quick pill, but it's looking at your main priorities, which for us are economic empowerment, our safety and security, empowering young people and protecting our seniors. Coming at a very comprehensive approach that over a number of years you can see a dramatic change.
SOLOMON: Booker's closest challenger is Ronald Rice, the deputy mayor who's been part of the Sharpe James machine for 20 years. But Rice is hamstrung by that association. He can't separate himself from problems at City Hall, and he hasn't gotten any help from the charismatic mayor, either. So Rice is left to rehash the themes of 2002, that Booker is an outsider even though he's lived in Newark for 10 years.
RONALD RICE: I interact with communities. I live here. And so that's the difference, okay? I've live here 51 years. This is our city.
SOLOMON: Polls show Rice lagging behind Booker significantly. But Rice says that's not what he's hearing on the campaign trail.
RICE: What's happening? These are people that want this. You always say, who did you poll? At the end of it I may not be there, but don't tell me the people of my town don't care nothing about me.
SOLOMON: Rice started late so he's short on money and organization. Meanwhile, Booker has a slate of city council candidates, including Ron Rice's son, who are also expected to win.
BOOKER: This is really a regime change. I mean, I think you're seeing a very interesting transition in Newark's political history where you're seeing this generational shift.
SOLOMON: Walter Fields, the former political director for the New Jersey NAACP, says the fact that Booker stuck with Newark after his defeat won over skeptics.
WALTER FIELDS: He did a lot of hard work and it's paying off now in the way that you see people receiving him. The fact that you have polls now that show this incredible lead. No one would've guessed that. And I would surmise that even if the Mayor was in this race, Cory Booker would probably have a lead because I think people were just at the point they were ready for change.
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SOLOMON: At a gospel breakfast organized by the Booker campaign, many in the crowd say they voted for the mayor last time around, but now they want new blood. Loretta Anderson lives in a senior housing complex near City Hall.
LORETTA ANDERSON: Well, I would like to see him stop the crime and this, you know, stealing of cars and the gangs, 'cause I'm scared to go out after night, I'll be honest with you.
SOLOMON: Booker says crime is his top priority. There's no question he's an up and comer who can rake in campaign donations from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. But now he'll have to prove that he can take over a broken city and figure out how to fix it. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.
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