In Newark, Ras Baraka Looks Forward

Ras Baraka, son of a well-known poet, has big ideas, from upgrading the waterfront to rebuilding the city’s neighborhoods — all amid a budget crisis.

Posted: 05/20/2014 03:54 PM EDT

Ras Baraka will not be inaugurated as the mayor of Newark until July 1, but he sounds very much like a man ready to begin his new position.

“We are ready to move Newark out of this image of being this brick city characterized by poverty, unemployment and gang violence,” Baraka said, in an interview with BET.com. “We have great ideas about growing the city’s economy. We want to grow it but not change what’s already here.”

Baraka is a 45-year-old city councilman and former principal in Newark and son of the late Amiri Baraka, the celebrated poet and activist. His victory last week in a bitterly fought campaign to succeed Cory Booker, who is now in the United States Senate, has made him a major political force in New Jersey’s largest city.

For now, he seems to be bursting with ideas – and enthusiasm. “We have the third largest seaport and we want to be known for having a position as an international city,” he said. “We need to invest in our waterfront and develop it as a premier waterfront.”

But most importantly, he said, he wants to work to develop the neighborhoods of the city, many of which have suffered from blight.

“We want to see growth in our different neighborhoods and to put people in some of the abandoned properties that we have here,” he said. “We want to fix our schools without closing them down. We want to do things that other cities can copy.”

Accomplishing these goals will be challenging. The mayor-elect comes to office at a time when the city is facing a $93 million deficit. It is a highly emotional issue since state law requires that its cities adopt balanced budgets and officials are trying to determine how to avoid a state takeover. A good deal of the campaign focused on the unpopular state takeover of the Newark school system.

The race was also a hard fought one, pitting Baraka against Shavar Jeffries, a former assistant attorney general who worked as a civil rights lawyer. In the final weeks of the race, Baraka was outspent by Jeffries, who was portrayed by newspaper editorial boards as a reformer.

“What happened was that the county apparatus joined with millions of dollars from the voucher movement,” Baraka said, speaking of the Jeffries campaign. “They infused $4 million to $5 million in the campaign that was contentious and nasty at the end. But, by the grace of God, we were able to overcome.”

How does an incoming mayor smooth over contentious relationships moving forward?
“People ultimately want to see Newark move forward and that’s what’s going to happen,” Baraka said. “We’re going to reach out.”

Baraka said his father, who died in January of this year, would be proud of the mayoral victory.

“When he was in the hospital, he was passing out campaign literature, telling people that his son was running for mayor,” Baraka said. “I know my mother is proud. But I remember that it was the last thing on my father’s mind, that he make this happen. I think he would be overwhelmed."

Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan

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 (Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Brooklyn Academy of Music)

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