With the shadow of its charismatic former mayor still hanging over the city, voters in Newark are preparing to elect a new leader from among two candidates who share deep city roots but little else.
The May 13 election will decide whether Ras Baraka or Shavar Jeffries will take over the seat Cory Booker occupied from 2006 until October, when he won a special election to succeed U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in office.
One of the battles in the race has been over which candidate is more authentically "Newark." It's a familiar refrain in the city of 277,000 10 miles west of Manhattan, where some dismissed the suburban-bred Booker as an outsider despite his undeniable star power nationally.
Baraka is a Newark councilman and former principal of Newark's Central High School whose tough-love approach was highlighted in the documentary television series "Brick City." The 44-year-old father of three hails from one of Newark's most prominent families, as the son of activist-writer Amiri Baraka, who died in January. Baraka graduated from Howard University and got a master's degree in education from St. Peter's University.
Jeffries, 39, is a civil rights attorney and former New Jersey state assistant attorney general who teaches at Seton Hall University's School of Law. He grew up in Newark's impoverished South Ward and was raised by his grandmother after his mother was shot to death. As a young man, Jeffries got a scholarship from the Newark Boys & Girls Club to attend Seton Hall Preparatory School and went on to graduate from Duke University and Columbia Law School. The married father of two says he's running to give back to the city that gave him opportunities.
"When I was 10 years old, my mother was killed and my father abandoned me, and my life was turned around by the people of Newark and by the love and opportunity that they poured into me," Jeffries said. "I wouldn't even be able to be a lawyer without what the people of Newark did for me."
Baraka said at a recent candidate's forum that the election was not a referendum on Booker's tenure.
"This is the post-Booker era. This is Newark's opportunity to show up and show out," Baraka said. "I think the stage has been set, the lights are on, the people are in the theater; it's time for us to perform."
Both men have made school reform — namely, wrestling the state-controlled district back under local control — a key aspect of their platforms, as well as tackling the city's persistently high crime rate.
Each has been attempting to undermine the other's record in a barrage of ads that have hit the airwaves in the weeks leading up to the election, with Baraka accusing Jeffries of being a pawn of Gov. Chris Christie and monied interests and Jeffries accusing Baraka of a lackluster record and questionable financial practices as a city councilman.
Whoever takes over will be inheriting a city that faces what a state official who oversees compliance with state obligations called an "extraordinary level of fiscal distress."
A state compliance official wrote in a recent letter that the state could take over Newark if the city doesn't get its finances in order and come up with a plan to tackle a projected budget gap of at least $34 million in 2014.