In Battered West Ward, Onyema Wants to ‘Deepen Democracy’

NEWARK – The contest sits on the shoulder of South Orange Avenue in the form of big, vibrant billboards – many of them featuring Mayor Ras Baraka and his West Ward candidate DoItAll Kelly, but not the one significantly situated at the corner of Halstead Street above the campaign headquarters of Chigozie Onyema.

In this closely watched developing race, former general counsel for Mayor Baraka’s Newark Parking Authority, and former assistant commissioner for the state Department of Community Affairs with Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, Onyema wants the seat lately occupied by jammed up West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum.

Last week, McCallum pleaded guilty to corruption charges while 32BJ SEIU, a prominent labor organization, backed seven out of nine Team Baraka candidates, opting out of picking someone in the West Ward.

Onyema said 32BJ’s decision is significant. The organization is a key Baraka ally, and yet they stopped short of backing Baraka’s West Ward choice, Kelly.

“It reinforces everything we’ve seen at the doors in the West Ward, which is that people support Mayor Baraka, but when it comes down to the West Ward,  people are prepared to make a different choice,” said the candidate. “32BJ backed Ras Baraka in the 2014 race, and partnered with him on many issues, but, I think, they something special’s happening here. I think they have tremendous respect for the kind of campaign we’re running.”

A big field of contenders seeks the seat disgraced by McCallum, making Kelly – by virtue of his position on the Baraka Team – the favorite.

But Onyema’s working and organizing hard.

His efforts included early outdoor campaign conversations with voters, as he advocates for more creative ways to use Newark’s $150 million police budget to reduce the city’s violent crime index. The attorney said he wants to provide residents here with a more robust assessment of budget priorities.

“The city spends more in three months on police overtime than on the entire economic development budget,” he said.

He credits Mayor Baraka with creating a violence and crime prevention office, and for other positive measures, but wants to step up the city’s focus on affordable housing, job creation, and city services as a specific part of combating crime.

“A resident the other day described his area as the four corners of hell because of the shootings there, and when you look at it, you can tell that code enforcement has not been there in a while, public works is lacking,” Onyema said. “It underscores the point that communities experiencing the most violence have the least resources. as the councilman, I want to think about crime in a holistic way.”

Chigozie Onyema


32BJ SEIU also decided not to endorse a candidate in the East Ward, where Baraka’s choice, former Police Officer Louis Weber, left behind him a history at the PD that included numerous excessive force complaints. Baraka led marches in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and has been one of the state’s most vocal advocates – and New Jersey’s top elected official voice – of police reform.

“It was surprising to me,” Onyema said of Baraka’s selection of Weber for his ticket. “I didn’t know much about Louis Weber. But it’s surprising, given the history of [Team Baraka’s] language around criminal justice reforms. These are contradictions the mayor and Luis Weber have to resolve.”

32BJ’s decision there, as in his own ward, reflect “challenges in both of those spots,” said the candidate.

Baraka’s overall effort, though, reflects not too distant a city policy priority from Onyema, including the mayor’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires builders – regardless of the kind of project they seek – to dedicate a percentage toward affordable housing or a city affordable housing fund.

How would Onyema ensure that those dollars go into the West?

“I think you advocate for it,” said the candidate. “Citywide, we’re 16,000 affordable housing units short; about 4,500 of those units are in the West Ward.

“We’re going to fight like heck for it,” he added.

As the campaign season intensifies heading toward the May election, Onyema said he has knocked on 10,000 doors in the west.

“We have to deepen democracy here,” he said. “We try to host different meetings. We receive messaging back about how to refine our policy positions. Speed calming measures is one thing we’ve heard about from residents. All the corridors could benefit from sprucing up, and part of what we’re doing is working to bring businesses together to ask people, ‘Where would you like to see resources targeted?'”

McCallum’s guilty plea last week underscored missed opportunities in the ward, argued Onyema, who said he prays for the councilman and his family, but determinedly wants better for the west. “I think there is a lot of catch up to do,” he said. “The people here through the passage of years haven’t seen enough from McCallum,  ‘No-show Joe,’ as some people call him, and some of that is true. It’s reflective of how our ward looks. We don’t have a grocery store, and in some respects we’re a food desert. ShopRite is close, but not close enough.”

On a walk through the West, including Onyema’s own Ivy Hill neighborhood, his friend, Al-Tariq Ibn Shabazz of Irvington, lauded the candidate’s strengths. “He has good positions in terms of housing and a living wage, but the difference with him is he’s motivated to do the research to get the job done. He takes this seriously.”

In the broadest sense, Onyema said he knows what he’s up against.

“Wealth and power concentrated in too few hands,” he said. “We’ve got to democratize, not only the broader world, but our own world, and keep developing those progressive measures – city land trusts and cooperatives – that include people in the process; and to get there people need to be participating. [Political] machines benefit a handful of people, and it’s incumbent on us in this campaign to organize people.”

He turned on Sanford Avenue below the offices of state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), who backs Team Baraka, but has a history of political independence.

“People like that – like Senator Rice – he was prepared to stand up to Mayor Sharpe James [when he served on the Newark City Council as the West Ward Councilman, and we offer that more than any other candidate in this race,” Onyema said. “I’m looking forward to partnering with Senator Rice when we win this thing, and you win this thing by talking to people.”

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