Anatomy of a Comeback Trail: The Oscar James II Story
NEWARK – Pablo Fonseca didn’t want to lose the 2010 South Ward race.
Fonseca was the chief of staff for Mayor Cory Booker that year, and the campaign manager for Team Booker.
But everyone knew South Ward Councilman Oscar James II – scion of a deeply rooted Newark political family – faced a very tough opponent.
If James’ challenger won, he would use the base of the South Ward to run citywide, probably as early as 2014. James did his best, but lost to Ras Baraka, who did indeed trampoline off his South Ward victory to the mayoralty four years later.
The only councilperson in 2010 to lose reelection outright (Charles Bell would lose to Darrin Sharif in the Central Ward runoff) , James entered his political wilderness years, managing mayoral and county executive campaigns in other cities like Atlanta and Prince George’s County, Maryland, and becoming a successful real estate developer.
He took his own hard look at running for mayor, but finally decided against a return to local politics.
James wants back in, this time as a representative of the West Ward, base of cracked up Councilman Joe McCallum, where James bought a home in the Vailsburg section and focuses on raising his daughter.
The question is why.
“I’m not moved by money,” James told InsiderNJ over coffee on Tuesday morning. “I wish I was. My partners say, ‘What are you doing?’ My daughter’s eight years old. I literally moved to the West Ward to raise her, and consider her real life questions. I choose to live here.”
Insiders generally see a two-man race between rapper Dupre “DoItAll” Kelly – a member of Team Baraka; and attorney Chigozie Onyema.
“That’s inside baseball,” James said. “There are 37 districts in West Ward.”
The power players focus on the top ten of those districts, tearing apart those areas generally under the umbrella of state Senator Ronald L. Rice (R-28).
James said he intends to zero in on some of the politically neglected sections of the ward.
“Chigozie and I have the same resume but I’m more of a down home boy,” said the candidate. “With me in the race it changes the game, of course, it inconveniences those who want to see this is a two-person race, but the people of Upper Vailsburg don’t want a rapper. During his time in the industry [as a member of the Lords of the Underground], a trillion dollar industry, DoItAll went in as a rapper, and remained a rapper. He has not gone from rapper to music executive. He’s gone from rapper to rapper.
“I write poetry,” James added. “I write a blog. While he’s writing raps I’m writing blogs. People have to
decipher his lyrics, while I put in clear language what I’m fighting for. …Look, ‘Chief Rocka‘ is a great song. Don’t get me wrong, it is. We plan on playing it at our victory party. We’ll loop ‘Chief Rocka’ at the victory party.”
But the Lords of the Underground had international success, InsiderNJ pointed out.
“They were never relevant,” James objected. “It was a thing for suburban white kids, not Newark.”
The former South Ward councilman leaned across the table, adamant, impassioned.
“I walked the entire West Ward,” he said. “No one has better literature out there than mine.”
Yes, Baraka beat him in a Ward race, but he left a legacy, the former councilman said.
“I served from 2006 2010, and I left office without one scandal,” said James. “I was the youngest person ever elected in the city. We built the most modern precinct in the city, and went the longest time without a homicide under the leadership of a black woman female captain. I made people safer, created programs, and improvement districts, leaving Bergen, Lyons and the corridors cleaner. I renovated every park, and I’m going to deliver the same for the West Ward. I think right away I can come in with a plan to make the West Ward cleaner and safer. I can build block associations and work with [the people who occupy key positions] right away.
But now he’s a developer.
Do people really want a developer in office?
“The West Ward needs development,” James said. “The West Ward does not need wide sweeping develop, it needs infill development. I want to see some new design there, not the same cookie cutter stuff. But the biggest potential development is the Pabst Blue Ribbon site, which is good for box store development and state of the art recreation.”
James, like almost all the council candidates in the May 10th contest, incidentally, doesn’t have anything too terribly bad to say about the citywide leadership of his former South Ward rival, Baraka. But he does quibble. “He needs help,” he said of the mayor, in pursuit of his third term this cycle. “He’s [Baraka’s] stretched to capacity. I do question his ability to trust others and bring others into the fold … The mayor has to be forced to deal with talent.
“Newark does best when Oscar James and Ras Baraka work together,” he added. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There’s a respectful way to have dissent. The country was built on it.”
One person who had hoped to engage in civil debate this season was former Mayor Sharpe James, expunged from the ballot by the state attorney general because of his corruption conviction.
Does Oscar James II believe the former mayor should have been a candidate for at-large council, as he had hoped?
“I think it’s a situation where the chickens are coming home to roost,” said the West Ward candidate.
Mayor James ruled with an iron fist.
Now he’s getting punched back, and it hurts.
“Sharpe participated in intimidation and now the game is still being played. We haven’t broken the cycle,” said Oscar James II. “He understands that. That’s why he’s trying to challenge it. I was against it then, against it now and I will be against it in the future.”
On the policy front, the candidate said he would like to “tweak” Baraka’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, which is designed to stimulate affordable housing.
“We’ve hurt ourselves with the cap,” he said. “You have to lower the threshold on what is required.”
Right now, he said, the ordinance inadvertently punishes the wrong people. “How is the local minority guy going to do this?” he said.
In addition to reexamining the inclusionary zoning ordinance – and to be clear, he doesn’t want to scrap it, just revise it – James said he would like to see the city return to the shot spotter program implemented when he was in office to better identify where shootings occur.
He continually makes the case that he is the best equipped person to start the job on day one.
“Crime’s happening in the West Ward because there is a lack of focus on the West Ward,” he said.
Part of that stems from the fact that law enforcement had McCallum under the heat lamps for the last three years.
The COVID-19 didn’t help, either.
“As we came out of the pandemic, stolen vehicles occurred at an alarming rate, with young people racing like madmen through the streets, the proliferation of gangs during the time of COVID, the drop-off in education and increase in gang activity. all of this has happened without direct management [by a councilperson].”
Part of his platform includes stepped-up work with labor unions to employ young people he’s already working with, James said.
He shows no eagerness to combine forces with Sheila Montague, Baraka’s citywide challenger.
“She would have had to start running for mayor four years ago,” he said. “I thought about running. But anybody who is really going to run against this mayor, needed to put in the time and work. a person can’t just run. Not with the work he’s done, and the history. And he has a credible team in the field. Shavar [Jeffries, in 2014] had money. Late money doesn’t work in a mayoral campaign.”
Where does he fit Baraka into the continuum of Newark’s mayors?
He sees them all as interactive.
His grandmother worked in the administration of Hugh Addonizio, whom James regards as a civic-minded mayor who genuinely believed in diversity. Ken Gibson was the first black mayor, a smart man, in James’ judgment, who made some mistakes but showed the world the real power of an African American leader overseeing a budget. Sharpe James grew the city with the airport, NJPAC, Prudential, Gateway and other downtown development projects. His length of time in power created a dynasty and inevitably a reaction to it in the form of a progressive challenger. Cory Booker brought in new talent, and top people to manage the city as he polished the image of Newark nationally, James said, and Baraka…
“He managed what he inherited,” he said, which was the work product of all the mayors going back to Addonizio, James added.
Though citywide politics put James and Baraka on a collision course, and Baraka won in their ward
matchup 12 years ago, James said he loves the Barakas, and speaks with pride about when he was a student at Delbarton and he and his fellow students came upon the work of the late poet, the mayor’s father, Amiri Baraka, in the Norton Anthology.
James told his fellow students that he knew the poet, and offered to take him to talk to the class.
“My father brought him to Delbarton; he was so humble, and great,” James said of Amiri Baraka. “It made me so proud, because I was always in a position of defending Newark, and here, here was this poet from the Norton Anthology, from my hometown of Newark, come to life.”
People pit the sons against each other, partly the province of the timing of politics, the reality of rivalry in local campaigns and elections, partly the fights of fathers spilling into younger generations, and though James again finds himself on the other side of the barricade from Baraka, he promised, with a smile and the energy of one unleashed early into the arena who’s still around albeit in another ward, a candidacy of continuing vibrancy and substance, in the same city known as Newark.
- Amiri Baraka
- Bergen Street
- Charles Bell
- Chief Rocka
- Chigozie Onyema
- Cory Booker
- Darrin Sharif
- Doitall Kelly
- Huh Addonzio
- Joe McCallum
- Ken Gibson
- Lords of the Underground
- Oscar James II
- Pablo Fonseca
- Pabst Blue Ribbon
- Ras Baraka
- Ronald Rice
- Sharpe James
- Shavar Jeffries
- Shelia Montague
- South Ward
- West Ward
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