NEWARK – Jim Morrison once said the west is the best, but they don’t subscribe to that point of view around here, where “The East Ward community is the crown jewel of the city, and the city is the crown jewel of the state,” said Anthony Campos, Newark’s former police chief and former police director, who wants to occupy the East Ward Council seat that Augusto Amador will vacate at the end of his 2022 term.
This four-man May 10th race here in the East arguably represents the most competitive ward contest in the city this year, in part because Amador sat on the throne for 25 years, and in part because insiders perceive Mayor Ras Baraka to be less strong here than in the South, West and Central. Baraka backs Louis Weber for the seat, a move that either speaks to the mayor trying to transfer his popularity even into the East for a win; or to a strategy of keeping the ward sufficiently scrambled to impair the genuine rise of another iconic figure like Amador; or maybe because Weber as the city’s sitting ABC director neutralizes, without even having to say anything, a chunk of the restaurant owners on the endorsement front. Whatever the case, the sources in this politically charged ward see Campos as a very tough out, confirmed by the fact that the retired chief nearly beat Amador in 2018 before succumbing by a few votes in an ugly runoff.
With the councilman gone, Campos wants to build on his momentum of four years ago to get through Mike Silva, who enjoys the backing of Amador. Three of the four contenders in this race are former cops (Weber, Campos, and Silva). A fourth is businessman Jonathan Seabra.
Unsurprisingly, with a real race in full swing, the taverns and eateries around here in the Ironbound are overflowing with politics. Somewhere, someone among the four is partying with prospective voters crowded into a bar, each respective event made even more animated by the fact that this is (kind of) a post-COVID environment, which gives the whole concentrated campaign cycle over here in the East the atmosphere of a post-war bash.
Campos looked confident earlier today as he dashed from event to event, and in the local coffee bar where he met with InsiderNJ, from table to table, as if loving the opportunity to talk to people. Every day feels like St. Paddy’s Day around here, with Sangria and espresso supplanting the beer.
“It’s an election,” Campos confirmed. “Everyone’s going to identify the same issues. You talk to people on the streets, they know what’s wrong out there; and they’ll tell you, it’s not what are you going to do – it’s what have you done?”
It didn’t take two minutes for him to get right to the quick of that point, because Campos sees himself with an edge, not because of his 2018 overtime performance against Amador, but because of his experience. “I’m the only candidate who knows the streets – but I also know administration, management and budget,” said Newark’s former chief and police director, the only one of the three cops in this race to have breached that professional sphere.
Of course, he also started as a beat cop.
“I like to see myself as well versed in problem solving and bringing people together to find a resolution to something,” Campos said, who trots out his opposition to two industrial plants slated for the East Ward, one of them temporarily halted by Governor Phil Murphy; and his commitment to fairer treatment for Ironbound property owners in the coming property revaluation. “The city has the highest rate of childhood asthma, and too often when it comes to projects like the power plants, the attitude is, ‘just put them in the Ironbound.’ This campaign is about getting respect in the East Ward. At the end of the day, the East Ward pays the highest share of taxes in the city but we don’t always get our fair share of city services. Policy is just one part of it it comes down to a respect and love and the ability to make the area better.”
He would do a lot differently, mostly in the area of making sure the East Ward community is included all decisions impacting the East Ward.
The City Council passed an ordinance increasing allowable building height in the Ironbound, otherwise known as the MX-3 ordinance, which allows development projects of up to 12 stories. “I am a fan of smart development,” said Campos. “I have an issue though with unbridled arbitrary development without the input of the community.” He doesn’t oppose the ordinance necessarily, but opposes its application without adequate and wide-ranging community involvement.
In a Tuesday afternoon conversation, he treaded carefully around Amador and Baraka. The larger-than-life political players both back other candidates: Baraka, Weber; and Amador, Silva. Campos the former city employer wanted to be clear that he can work with both Baraka and Amador, if need be.
“I was his chief of police,” he said of the mayor, noting good continuing lines of communication between them.
It’s not like he’s going to go in there and start indiscriminately raising hell, he implied.
As for Amador, “I ran against Amador,” he conceded. “But although my timelines [for accomplishing projects] are different than his, that does not detract from the fact that I respect him tremendously. I do believe the community was not always brought on board before decisions were made. We have to do a much better job in that area. As an elected official, your sole purpose is to represent the masses. Part and parcel of that is including them well in advance for them to prepare and provide their input.”
In addition, he griped, “stuff was promised that never occurred,” including a refurbished Hayes Park East, where city officials stood with hard hats and shovels in 2009, Campos said, only to have yielded a nonworking space 13 years later.
“It’s 2022 and it’s a dire embarrassment,” he said. “How can that not have gotten done? The administration was sitting there holding a shovel, and sports and recreation are something we totally lack now. The entire area was going to be done. They did start on a structure and now it’s just an eyesore and embarrassment.” That was the Cory Booker era, to be clear, but Baraka evidently never doubled back on it with the energy to finish it, and Amador was the common denominator, or so it seemed Campos implied.
“Reevaluation wasn’t fair for the East Ward,” he added again. “There should be a lot more talk about it. The people have to have some income. I know once I take office the role I play will be to mobilize the people for the revaluation and bring in outside counsel, if need be. At the end of the day, I will do everything within my power to get our share.”
Baraka’s inclusionary zoning ordinance?
“That didn’t receive input from the entire East Ward,” Campos said. “It’s management 101. If I want to implement something, I’m going to include you in the process to obtain your buy in, especially if you’re a stakeholder. That didn’t happen across the board. It’s still in flux. It’s important to protect the character, the integrity, and culture of this community, and for those who have put their hearts into this community, who braved the storm, we must be able to assure them they will never wind up in a position where they can no longer live there.”
The Amador-connected endorsements have poured in early and pretty often for Campos’ rival Silva, including the support of Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), who also chairs the East Ward Democratic Committee.
“I was surprised,” Campos said with a grin. “I thought that endorsement was going to occur earlier.
“Look, there certainly weren’t any surprises there,” he added.
There is a candidate with the mayor, he noted; and a candidate with the outgoing councilman.
“I’m with the people,” Campos insisted. “I’m only beholden to the people of the East Ward. No one is ever going to say ‘don’t do that, I need you to do this – you owe me.’ I will work with everyone as long as they are working with the best interests of the people at heart. The moment they don’t have the people’s best interests at heart, we’re going to part ways.”
That 2018 runoff was lurid, a whispering, roiling miasma of negativity and character assassination.
“It did get ugly,” Campos admitted. “But I remained positive throughout that entire campaign. I haven’t changed. As long as I’m being positive, I don’t have to get caught up in the name calling and trickery. If you don’t have thick skin, don’t get into this game. It’s not about you, or your ego. A lot of things I’ve seen undertaken because people were offended, and they stuck it to someone else. They won the battle and the community lost war.”
Campos says he’s different.
In any event, if it isn’t exactly ugly early, it’s definitely competitive, the East Ward way, which is to say: there’s plenty to eat and drink, and plenty of cops – three of them, to be exact – among the bars and restaurants, on the doors and in the streets, and one of them continually makes the point that no one else has quite his level of veteran experience.