NEWARK – Ok, the South Ward looks competitive. That’s what can happen when someone retires, and in this case, South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James decided not to pursue a third term this year, choosing instead to back recreation director Pat Council, Mayor Ras Baraka’s choice for the seat.
Terrance Bankston has other plans.
The former Director of Constituent Affairs for the City of Newark and former Director of the Newark Youth One Stop Career Center, who now works full time as an environmental justice coordinator for Clean Water Action, is running an aggressive campaign for the South Ward seat as he tries to pry power out of the hands of the powerful – and popular – mayor.
“The South Ward needs a break from names linked to political legacies,” said the candidate, reflecting on the powers consolidated by the likes of the Barakas and the James’.
Bankston said he thinks his chief rival for the South Ward seat – and to be clear, there are a number of candidates in competition here – would serve as a vassal to the mayor, and the South Ward, home of many of Newark’s most stories political icons, requires better.
“We have to have a political beast in this seat,” Bankston told InsiderNJ.
He likes Baraka.
Most everyone either likes Baraka, or, given the power concentration in City Hall, dares not breathe a negative word about the incumbent. That said, “The mayor puts people on burgers who belong on fries,” said Bankston, who said when he served in city government, he performed the critical function of not just inspiring the people who worked for him, but empowering them. “The mayor’s biggest challenge is not having the right people in the right places,” he said.
Baraka’s hand-picked council reinforces the trend, in Bankston’s judgement.
“Pat is a soldier – not a leader,” Bankston said. “The South Ward needs a leader. We have the largest voter base in the city; we are a political jewel, where most of our elected officials have come from.”
He doesn’t want to occupy the seat to be obstructionist, he said.
“I think the folks in the south and west wards want the mayor checked – they don’t want him wrecked,” Bankston said. “The mayor needs help. He needs an effective partner at the council level and whether he’s had that is, frankly, debatable. Mayor Baraka hasn’t had the most active engaged member at the council level. Voters don’t look for the council to be surrogates of the mayor. They don’t want the mayor dictating to the councilperson. That just hasn’t produced good governance.”
Bankston questions Council’s maintenance of the recreation department, and also questions the administration’s overall South Ward attentiveness.
He said he sees the North Ward getting better treatment. During the pandemic, he said South Ward students lacked laptops and actually had to borrow from the North Ward. The county roads in the South don’t get the same attention as the county roads in the North, he said. “Chancellor and Lyons avenues – those are county roads, and they’re treated differently than county roads in the North Ward.”
Born and reared in Newark, Bankston graduated in 2000 from Arts High School, as a Television Communications Major. He attained a Bachelors of Arts degree in Political Science, with a concentration in Public Administration from Bloomfield College in 2004, and his Master’s Degree in Administrative Science from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2007.
“I’m the only one out there with a profile similar to the mayor, in the sense of having been born and reared in Newark,” said the candidate. “[Former] Mayor [Sharpe] James and [former Council President] Mildred Crump are not natives. I’m not saying they don’t love Newark any less, but I am Newark. I love the South Ward as much as the mayor does. If I go by the most recent forum. I’m the only policy-driven candidate in the South Ward race. The mayor’s candidate is not expected to have a policy – he’s expected to be a puppet.”
If elected, Bankston said he would use his government expertise to bring together key South Ward partners and professionals to build ward-based public service programs. He doesn’t want his residents to have to go out of the ward if he can link local, neighborhood-based groups already wired to the front lines of certain issues. He said he plans to field a constituent-service focused staff who are either “fired-up with enthusiasm, or fired with enthusiasm.”
A key policy point?
For one, he wants stepped-up on-site policing in the schools.
“What happened at Malcolm X Shabazz High School was unacceptable,” said Bankston. “Folks can’t roll up on our schools and no one is shooting back. I don’t want the wild wild west, but security can’t just be protecting our buildings but our babies. We can do something about gun violence. I want a mini-precinct inside the high school, with police mentoring and overseeing public safety and engaging people like normal human beings – a full-fledged community resource inside the school, with a clear message: if you come here messing with our babies, we’re going to check you. I will establish a partnership with our schools not driven by political machines but real conversations. My aides – inspired and empower — will be experts on community engagement and policy development.”
Bankston criticized Council for managing a recreation department he argues hasn’t gone far enough to serve the public. Under his leadership, he promised more intensive auditing, budget allocation targeting the children – not staff – and a totally reinvigorated recreation program with more programs.
“The mayor’s choice says he’s running on his record, but he’s camouflaging his record,” Bankston said. “I’m a former director of the city’s Youth One Stop Career Center, which went through a federal audit, where I saved resources. Pat Council is the mayor’s friend, tenant, and neighbor. Not that you can’t rent from him or live next door to him, or be his friend, but if he gave me a directorship, I would show up and show out every day for my friend. This is someone who as neighborhood services director went seven days without a plow while he was in Atlantic City dancing and his response in the aftermath was ‘I didn’t know a storm was coming.’ [East Ward Councilman Augusto] amador called for his resignation, pointing out to the mayor that ‘one of your directors has failed in his response.’ Ultimately, he received a demotion to recreation.”
Bankston referred to himself, by contrast, as a leader.
“I stand on the shoulders of leaders, like Donald Tucker,” he said referring to the late South Ward councilman. “Sharpe and Donald Tucker fought all the time, and when it was time to run for reelection, more times than not, Donald was not on Sharpe’s ticket. Donald was independent.”
For the record, Donald Tucker’s widow, Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-28), backs Council.
But Bankston insisted he would be more like Tucker, when it comes to issues like police deployment in the ward. “If I’m looking at the budget I will be looking at details, like how come, out of 800 cops in the city, the South Ward, which has the highest crime citywide, gets 50 cops as opposed to 100 cops? What I see now is that deployment is oftentimes a secret. There’s no opportunity for the South Ward Councilperson to weigh in, and the community is kind of blocked out.” Bankston says he wants to build his own relationships with key police department leaders in the south and hold the department accountable.
A veteran political player who ran for the South Ward seat in 2018 and lost to incumbent James 3,046 to 1,558, Bankston said he believes it’s his time.
He refuses to take the May 10th nonpartisan contest for granted.
But he said he feels poised.
“I know I have to execute, but I feel the difference with the voters,” he told InsiderNJ. “It’s been years since [The] Booker [Administration, in which he worked], and I was waiting for this time. This is the year. I’ve stayed in contact with voters. I have the vision. I am blessed with the vision. I don’t just look at my watch when I look at it, to see the time, but I look inside to see how it functions.”
He wants to bring some pep and pizazz and policy know-how to City Hall, and in the process reinvigorate not just the South Ward, but the mayor, too. “Cops on the police force are out there chasing young men and shooting at them; the Baraka I knew and grew up with would not tolerate that,” Bankton said. “I’m hearing talk about him running for governor, and we’ve been here before too, but the hand-off is Pat? Look, this is just more political theater, which is insulting to the process and to the people. I like this contest. There’s no Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins versus Mayor Baraka drama going on to cloud the political space.”
He said he thinks he can penetrate.
What did he think about former Mayor James – busted and jailed on on corruption charges – failing to get on the ballot as an at-large candidate on an attorney general’s reading of the law? “I didn’t pay too much attention to it,” he said. “I believe part of the energy around that story is that people are so disappointed in the mayor’s ticket, they’re waiting to see if an 86-year-old former mayor is possibly coming back.”
Asked about his political mentors, the South Ward candidate lists three people, all Newark South Ward-based leaders:
Sharpe James. “I’ve bene a student of his all my life; I admired him.”
Oscar James, Sr. “He’s somebody I respect. He may have something the way it used to be done, but he’s also open to mentoring young people.”
Ras Baraka. “I grew up watching him. I admire him, as someone who navigates his element. He’s that empowering young leader from Howard University who came back to his home town. I admire is tenacity. Now matter how many times the old guard punched him, he kept coming back, and I can relate to that.”
He doesn’t oppose the mayor just to do so, he insisted.
“I have to oppose the mayor,” said Bankston. “It’s part of the system of checks and balances. The mayor works for the city. I live here. People in the south don’t feel like they’re a priority. We have not had the energetic, hands-on councilperson we need.”
Bankston insists he will change the game.